Ann Finlayson 

October 2019

I’ve recently found myself in meetings of like-minded sustainability folk where I’ve had to explain, for what seems like the millionth time, what education for sustainability (ESD) is. I’m then challenged to explain the plethora of different approaches and delivery mechanisms that exist in the UK, and the fractured and confused face to the world this conveys. 
So, thinking further about all this, isn’t it time we attempted to bring together the hundreds of organisations and individuals with commons cause, who are doing work around ESD or global citizenship within a common narrative? Where do we all fit in the jigsaw of approaches that could comfortably sit under the banner of ESD?

Firstly, given that we should all now be working towards contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, we should embrace UNESCO’s definition of ESD:

“Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) empowers people to change the way they think and work towards a sustainable future.

UNESCO aims to improve access to quality education on sustainable development at all levels and in all social contexts, to transform society by reorienting education and help people develop knowledge, skills, values and behaviours needed for sustainable development. It is about including sustainable development issues, such as climate change and biodiversity into teaching and learning. Individuals are encouraged to be responsible actors who resolve challenges, respect cultural diversity and contribute to creating a more sustainable world.”

Secondly, ESD is crucial to all the other SDGs – not just SDG 4 and in particular 4.7. But if we don’t engage in transformative pedagogies and approaches we may well spend the next decade watching a lot of money and time being spent on ‘awareness raising’ or information/communication campaigns. We know these do not lead to action, nor do they give a sense of empowerment to develop the skills and attitudes to live and work sustainably. Worse still, they do not engage people to imaginatively and creatively build this alternative future. 

So we need to engage in the other SDGs and encourage others to apply the transformational approaches we have tried and tested in the UK over the last 30 years. But what are these?

At SEEd, this is our list from evidence and practice, and those that we train people in. It’s very similar to the UNESCO list and has much in common with Global Citizenship. We have been calling these approaches Learning for Sustainability (LfS) for some time, while ESD feels like the education system this fits into.

They are:

  • Participation and collaboration
  • Holistic/systems approaches e.g. whole school approaches, interconnectedness
  • Intergenerational/community approaches
  • Social learning
  • Action learning or action research
  • Learning to learn (metacognition) and thinking about the process and less about the product
  • Becoming literate about change (in both the human and natural world)
  • Futures thinking
  • Socially critical thinking (challenging assumptions and current ways of doing things)

Well this all got me rethinking my first attempt at the jigsaw/education diagram that I shared a while back. Making sense of the ‘adjectival educations’ seems crucial, as there are hundreds and people keep inventing new ones. Creating these new ‘products’ does not help us understand the world and its systems and what we need to do. My first attempt considered that some adjectival educations are about information, some are about current problems and some are about perceived problems in the future. This led to the new system diagram or jigsaw below. Can you place yourself on the jigsaw?

Fig 1:

You need to think about the purpose of your educational programme or organisation and the approaches you tend to use. Sometimes you may use a theme to encourage an approach – so just check the list of transformative approaches again. Where would you put yourself if you seem to cover more than one category? I would go back and look at your learning objectives, your KPIs or SMART outcomes. Can they give you a sense of your one overarchingpurpose?

How does this link with ESD supporting all the SDGs and are all approaches equal to the task of transforming our societies?

Fundamentally, we don’t just need transformative approaches, but we also need to think about whatwe are working on. We need to explore, educationally, the systems we are currently in (human and natural) and consider how these might be restored or reconfigured for a more sustainable future. Take a look at Fig 2 and consider where you might fit in now.

Fig 2:

This is a first draft and obviously some educations cover more than one SDG. EE and Ecological Systems would also cover SDG 14 and 15 on land and water ecosystems, not just climate.

So we would love to hear your views on this and also where you would place yourself. Which system and SDGs does your education work most link to? Write to us and tell us – we would love to hear from you.

After all, if we cannot explain our own system or jigsaw, we will always seems to appear a disparate group of ideas and approaches, rather than a collective force working towards a sustainable future. We need to help others see the work we do, how it fits together and why this is the approach they need for this next decade.