Mere acquaintance with the problem is not sufficient. Education policies and systems must transform to ensure adequacy in offering knowledge, skills, values and attitudes
Envisioning the ideology of development that leads to the comprehensive progress of a nation is not an easy task. When newly independent nations went ahead with borrowed plans and programmes of development, not all of them led to real development. Developmental strategies were invariably launched with high expectations — that they would prepare the ground for the weak, deprived and ignored to lead a dignified human life, one that is free from poverty, hunger and ill-health. Scientific and technological advances of the 20th century paved the way for such a transformation. Human beings acquired knowledge, skills and technical know-how, sufficient enough to let every human being lead a “humane” life.
Unfortunately, human greed, tendencies to accumulate and exploit natural resources and inadequacies inherent in the various plans and programmes have led to a situation where the very existence of mankind is under threat. Thankfully, the global community is seized of the concerns and has taken several initiatives to retrieve the situation. It was in 2015 that the UN General Assembly set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by the global community by 2030. It is also referred to as the ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. The UNESCO’s publication of 2018, titled, ‘Issues and Trends in Education for Sustainable Development’, while talking about Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), summarises it comprehensively: “In short, sustainable development must be integrated into education, which must be integrated into sustainable development. ESD is the holistic and transformational education and concerns learning content and outcomes, pedagogy and the learning environment.” In essence, ESD is wholesome education that empowers and equips the learner to comprehend and put to practice a “balanced and integrated approach to economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.” It is implicit that education policies and systems must transform themselves to ensure adequacy in offering knowledge, skills, values and attitudes. These efforts need to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all.”
Of the 17 SDGs identified, education appears at SG-4. The 10 targets included under SDG-4 clearly reveal the pivotal role of education in inclusive growth and development. Education has to now prepare and equip people to address issues like poverty, hunger, ill-health, environment, climate change, gender equality, management of water and sanitation and energy issues among others as listed among the 17 SDGs. It has to do this in full consciousness that even those who leave schooling after a couple of years are prepared sufficiently to contribute effectively in the achievement of SDGs. This can be achieved tangibly by putting focus on the four pillars of education as articulated in the Delors Report of 1996. “Learning to know” is the key. One must also now be familiar with the instruments of learning, which themselves may be undergoing changes and transformation. It has to be life-long learning and, therefore, ESD includes learning to learn. “Learning to do” encourages accepting and performing one’s own obligations, skillfully, to save, nurture and nourish the environment. Young people need to gain formal and informal experiences, alternating with study and work. “Learning to live together” was never that significant and critical as of today as in times of ever-growing mobility of human beings and coming together of people of diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural backgrounds. ESD must provide opportunities to understand other people, skills of managing conflicts and respect for pluralism, mutual respect and peace. “Learning to be” is essential for personality development, ability to act with “greater autonomy, discretion and personal responsibility.” Here again, these four pillars provide the base for ESD and, simultaneously, ESD can do much more in achieving the fifth pillar of education: “Learning to transform oneself and society to empower people with the values and abilities to assume responsibility for creating and enjoying a sustainable future.” For the last two decades, discussions normally have centred on the four pillars. The fifth probably makes it far more comprehensive.
The first UN Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE), that focussed on international environmental issues, was held in Stockholm, Sweden from January 5 to 16, 1972. In the background was a proposal made by Sweden in 1968 that the UN organise an international conference to study environmental issues and prioritise consensus that requires international action and cooperation. Its final declaration indicated growing interest — or concern — on the finite nature of Earth’s resources and the need for global cooperation to safeguard these as it was the responsibility of human beings to maintain the sensitive bond between man and nature. This conference led to the creation of UNEP in December 1972. The task assigned was to promote sustainability and safeguard the natural environment. The final declaration includes the importance of environmental education. The declaration had a great global impact. People began to realise and personally experience how rivers were getting polluted, deforestation was creating serious concerns, wildlife species were rapidly getting extinguished, air pollution was getting uncontrollable and much more. Several national and global initiatives followed the Stockholm conference. The second global environmental conference was held in Rio de Janeiro from June 3 to14 in 1992. Change was visible; it was “UN Conference on Environment and Development” UNCED.
The Brundtland Commission report of 1987, titled, ‘Our Common Future’, is normally considered the reference point in most initial deliberations on matters related to sustainable development. The report put it: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Looks so very simple as it ought to emerge from traditional wisdom. There are four dimensions of sustainable development, which, too, can be easily comprehended: Society, environment, culture and economy. And these are not independent but intensely interdependent. It is also now well accepted that “many crises facing the planet are interlocking crises that are elements of a single crisis of the whole” and of vital need for active participation, human activity and endeavour in all sectors. All these endeavours link seamlessly to the 17 SDGs. Challenges of poverty, hunger and health deserve obvious priority in global efforts. Initiatives in these three sectors require a concrete base of elementary education that was realised and resolved in March 1990 in Jomtien. The first four SDGs say it all.
Target 4.7 of the SDG-4 expects the following by 2030: “Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” This practically defines the canvas before curriculum developers and authors of textbooks. ESD now needs a new generation of curricular models, textbooks, other textual materials, pedagogical initiatives and practices. It requires an attitudinal transformation and a pragmatic value system that appeals to the young and the old alike and equips them in competence, commitment and performance in contributing to the cause of sustainability.
Globally, numerous initiatives are in progress. They are often encouraged by UN agencies, including UNESCO. The Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, established in 2012 in New Delhi as a UNESCO Grade 1 institute, is conducting several studies and initiatives on embedding ESD in textbooks. Peace and global citizenship will also be included. The institute brought together a global community of authors and practitioners “who focus on value-based and purpose-driven education.” Along with eminent curriculum development experts, it prepared a curricular framework that “looks at sustainable development as integral to all subjects.” The outcome: ‘Textbooks for Sustainable Development A Guide to Embedding’ came out in 2017. It states: “This publication is designed as a guide for stakeholders in textbook development — education ministers, national curriculum authorities, textbook writers and publishers — to help them produce a new generation of textbooks.” In ESD, mere acquaintance with the problem is not sufficient. Let the students and teachers find solutions, locate solutions and “live” solutions. The challenge before the teacher or teacher educator is to “engage students intellectually and emotionally in sustainable development”; let them realise that the issue under consideration really “matters to them.” Mere intellectual awareness, and that too for just passing an examination, can no more be the objective of education and certainly not of the ESD.
To achieve an attitudinal transformation is a tough task in every instance. It applies to ESD as well. There is a way out if there is an emotional connect with the people and planet. The UNESCO-MGIEP is working on two hypotheses: First, a whole brain approach is necessary to produce an emotionally and intellectually resilient intellect. Second, the education system needs to adopt the whole brain approach. Early findings indicate that schools adopting the whole brain approach show promising results in producing emotionally resilient students. With the right and appropriate use of internet, better avenues to communicate with friends, greater opportunities to co-create curriculum with the teacher could relate learning to life and more importantly, make it interesting, likeable and useful. A new climate of collaborating, not competing, can indeed lead to a peaceful and harmonious world.
(The writer is the Indian Representative on the Executive Board of UNESCO)