Quality education is the goal for education within the Sustainable Development Goals (SGD 4). ESD and other sustainability-linked educations are in SDG4.7

In case you wonder what the goal is for SDG4.7, here in the UK the Office of National Statistics says it will measure how ‘mainstreamed’ ESD is. The link for all the SDGs and their proposed measure is here:


You will notice that unsurprisingly ESD is ‘in development’. I don’t think we can entirely blame the government for that or the ONS. We are a difficult sector with many agendas, lots of rhetoric and hype because we are competitive for resources and attention and quite young compared to other disciplines. Over the 20 years I have been engaged in ESD and the 10 years with SEEd, I would have to say we still do not have a strong narrative for ESD. People still glaze over when you talk about it! Partly because it can sound like ‘motherhood and apple pie’, and what is different or needed is not explained.

So, it is my belief that this SDG 4 could help us get our thinking straight and could help us develop a better narrative that engages others .

So here goes.

This blog is based on a keynote I gave to Anglia Ruskin University trainee teachers and their teachers earlier this year.

Lets start with the question “What is Quality Education?” as this is where 4.7 starts. I struggle with this question because the context of it is not defined. Mostly people describe what is seen as good currently. Is it what Ofsted measures, or SATS measures or GCSE measures? Is it the OECD PISA scores?

Since much of education for sustainability in this country is driven by charities or community interest companies or individuals outside of the formal education system, each has their own take on what is quality or good. We have seen an amazing upsurge of interest in outdoor learning especially under the guise of Forest Schools. But can we honestly say that all outdoor learning is quality education? No we can’t, in the same way we cannot say all global learning, or learning for sustainability, or climate education, or energy education or peace education is always good.

The good news is that there is a lot of research and evidence out there about ‘effective education’. Professor John Hattie of Melbourne University has reviewed millions of results in his book called Visible Learning. His results show that:

Teachers are far more likely to have a large and positive impact if they:

  • Are passionate about helping their students learn
  • Forge strong relationships with their students
  • Are clear about what they want their students to learn
  • Adopt evidence-based teaching strategies
  • Monitor their impact on students’ learning, and adjust their approaches accordingly
  • Actively seek to improve their own teaching
  • Are viewed by the students as being credible (Hattie 2016 Update)


According to John Hattie, high-impact, evidence-based teaching strategies include:

  • Direct Instruction
  • Note Taking & Other Study Skills
  • Spaced Practice
  • Feedback
  • Teaching Metacognitive Skills
  • Teaching Problem Solving Skills
  • Reciprocal Teaching
  • Mastery Learning
  • Concept Mapping
  • Worked Examples


Teaching strategies that had little or no impact included:

  • Giving students control over their learning
  • Problem-based learning
  • Teaching test-taking
  • Catering to learning styles
  • Inquiry-based teaching


These lists fly in the face of what we encourage as teaching methods for ESD! Why? Again we need to ask the question “Teaching strategies for what?” What types of research were reviewed? What was the purpose of the individual research projects?


So we come to asking the question “What is the purpose of education?” Surprisingly there was quite a bit of agreement amongst the students and educators at ARU – mostly about preparation for the future and reaching your full potential. I liked the addition of learning to learn for lifelong learning as well. Which would put into question the last set of bullets above as, after our formal education years, these will be the ways we naturally learn in life.


I think if you asked the population at large they would say the purpose of education was for employment. But maybe some of those jobs don’t exist yet (as some of the current ones didn’t when I was at school). So it is hard to exactly predict the skills and knowledge required. Many in the business world actually are placing much more emphasis on generic skills and soft skills. This includes the Google and the World Economic Forum (see the SEEd Facebook page). At heart what employers want are creative, flexible, resilient employees who are able to work well in teams, communicate well, problem solve and deal with change. This sounds much more like the resilience skills young people will need for this as yet unknown future.


So the next question we need to ask ourselves is “Who is or was in charge of the designing of our formal education system?” Yes, the list will include politicians, parents, teachers, (students?) and business. But many people missed off universities until you ask why we teach in subjects rather than another way?


But lets all assume that everyone agrees about preparing for the future – we are already seeing the variations on the visions of that future. However a child entering reception class this September will complete school at the end of the SDGs timeline. All we can really say is they will experience change and probably at a faster rate than we have been exposed to ourselves.


I often ask people to think about a time when they learned something deeply or change their mind about something (akin to an ‘aha’ moment). Then I ask them where they were, who they were with, what triggered the learning and what happened next. The answers almost always show that rarely are people in classrooms, they are even more rarely on their own and often a crisis or massive life changing event has or was happening. I must have done this survey with well over 1500 people so far!


Educationalists often call this cognitive dissonance – and it is one of the most powerful tools an ESD sector, that exists outside the formal sector, has in its toolbox. It can happen with the critical enquiry questions you ask or the different settings or learning experiences that students can be exposed to.  We know it is motivational as the NUS/HEA surveys continue to show.


Combining this approach with formal education is the key. So mainstreaming ESD should not just be left to the classroom. It should be a partnership between the informal and formal, society and schools, communities and teachers. It is not about narrowing down the curriculum or expanding it. Instead it is about contextualising all learning – placing it in the present with an eye to that uncertain future.


It is after all not a subject but a way of thinking about the world and our role in it. It is about:

  • understanding change and interconnectedness,
  • thinking in systems, thinking critically,
  • working creatively and collaboratively and
  • learning to learn.


None of these are as easily measured or have a strong an evidence base – as yet! We need to think how we can measure the impact of these approaches. It also means the role of these other learning experiences needs to be understood – and not just sold as covering parts of the curriculum the teacher hasn’t yet got to.

There is much conversation currently about competencies in ESD or Global learning.


If you are interested in any of this new and exciting work do join EASEL – SEEd’s new evidence alliance where we will collaborate in developing our narrative about the ESD contribution to quality education.


So now what do you believe? Is quality education the same as learning for sustainability?