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Why Education for Sustainable Development – and why now?

  • 21 January 2021
  • By Kate Mori

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Kate Mori, Quality and Standards Specialist at the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Kate is working on the update of Education for Sustainable Development Guidance. You can find Kate on Twitter @katemori1.

The Education for Sustainable Development Guidance is being updated by an expert advisory group, chaired by Professors James Longhurst (University of the West of England) and Simon Kemp (University of Southampton). It is a joint publication with Advance HE.

Professor Keri Facer highlights in Beyond business as usual: Higher education in the era of climate change (HEPI Debate Paper 24, December 2020), that:

as a country and as a planet, we are facing profound ecological, social and economic crises.

Higher education has a role to play in helping solve these interconnected challenges, but it requires an urgent interdisciplinary response involving course developers, educators and – most importantly – students. There is evidence that students expect sustainable development to be incorporated into their institutional practices and curricula. In the 2020 National Union of Students (NUS) Skills Survey, 91% of respondents agreed their place of study should actively incorporate sustainable development – up from 88% in 2019; while 83% would like to see sustainable development actively incorporated and promoted across all courses – up from 80% in 2019.

We all have our part to play in ensuring a sustainable future and many educators are keen to design sustainable development into their curricula but may struggle to know where and how to start. This is where our guidance on education for sustainable development can help.

Originally published in 2014, the guidance has undergone a major review to accommodate developments within the sustainability landscape, particularly the introduction of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 and the connections between them. Although education for sustainable development is not specifically focused on climate change, as is the focus of Facer’s paper, the latest guidance does address some elements of her call to action.

Before I highlight how the education for sustainable development guidance maps to and reinforces Facer’s four levels of climate challenge and call for action, it may be worth offering a short introduction to what education for sustainable development is and how it can help educators.

Education for Sustainable Development

Education for sustainable development is education for sustainable development and not merely about sustainable development. It is an educational change agenda grounded in transformative learning and critical pedagogy, as well as sustainable development principles. It can be understood as a lens that permits us to look critically at how the world is and to envision how it might be. Education for sustainable development supports learners across all academic disciplines in developing the subject relevant competencies to create and pursue visions of a better world, one that recognises the interdependence of environmental integrity, social justice and economic prosperity. While sustainable development promotes a balance between these ‘three pillars’ of environment, society and economy, there is a recognition that environmental resources are finite, they cannot always be exchanged for financial capital and that they are the foundation for our society and economy.

QAA / Advance HE Education for Sustainable Development Guidance

The latest Guidance is primarily aimed at staff involved in curriculum design and course management and delivery, to support them in designing education for sustainable development into their courses. However, it is also likely to be of value to senior management teams, to those with responsibility for quality assurance and enhancement and to staff involved in directing teaching and learning. Such individuals have an important role in empowering staff to engage with the ideas presented in the guidance.

Education for sustainable development requires transdisciplinary approaches, motivating students to go beyond how their discipline intersects with others, to discover the knowledge that emerges between established fields, providing space for alternative perspectives, innovative ideas and solutions to emerge. The guidance offers educators a framework, toolkit and list of supporting resources to help design sustainable development into their curricula.

The four levels of climate challenge

 Keri Facer highlights how profound change is required to address the climate crisis, that moves beyond ‘greenwashing’ the campus with superficial references to ecofriendly activities. She introduces four levels of climate challenge, describing them as a lens through which to address and take action to solve the climate issues we face. Many of the issues Facer discusses within her paper align to the Education for Sustainable Development Guidance, which could be practically utilised to enable some of the points raised in her paper. These include, but are not limited to:

Keri Facer (2020), ‘The different factors shaping the climate crisis’ from ‘Beyond Business as Usual: Higher education in the era of climate change‘ (HEPI Debate Paper 24)

Working at the structural level: The education for sustainable development guidance highlights the importance of civic engagement. Through engagement with the needs and priorities of the communities around them, providers can play an important role in local economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing of the places in which they are located. This potential contribution is highlighted by the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission report. Higher education activities such as teaching, research and knowledge exchange, purchasing policies, engagement with local employers, enterprise and the voluntary sector, can all positively contribute to social, environmental and economic progression and regeneration. Project-based learning, using authentic examples from local employers or communities, can enhance student understanding of their locality and deepen ties between higher education providers and their locales.

Dissertations and work-based learning within the formal curriculum, and volunteering beyond this, can provide students with opportunities to develop agency while enriching their educational experience. The guidance concurs with  Facer’s position that universities are powerful anchor organisations that can make a significant contribution to the creation of ecological and economic sustainability in local communities.

Working at the worldview level:  Facer’s paper highlights that universities need to address the interdisciplinary complexity of climate change. She comments that the climate crisis is a ‘scientific, economic and political problem’, but beyond that, a problem of how knowledge is ‘organised, valued and shared’. The interdisciplinary (and transdisciplinary) nature of sustainable development is recognised as a core aspect of designing education for sustainable development into curricula and discussed in section two of the guidance.

Working at the level of the foundational narrative: Within this level, Facer discusses refocusing the educational mission of the institution to support students to develop the emotional, intellectual and practical capacities to live well with each other and with the planet in the era of climate change. This, it could be argued, is the cornerstone of sustainable development and underpins what it means to be human today. There is strong alignment here with educational competencies and as highlighted earlier, how education for sustainable development is education for sustainable development not just about it.

The Education for Sustainable Development Guidance discusses specific competencies in relation to sustainable development (including systems thinking, futures thinking, collaborative competency) and offers a table of the key characteristics of learning outcomes aligned to these competencies. Examples of teaching practices applicable to developing key competencies for sustainable development are also offered.

Education for Sustainable Development: The Next Steps

Ensuring that education for sustainable development becomes ‘business as usual’ works best when a whole institution approach is adopted, that is fully supported by senior leadership teams. Policymakers can also help create an enabling environment that positions sustainable development as one of the most important contemporary issues we are likely to face.

The Education for Sustainable Development Guidance will be published on 8 March and QAA and Advance HE will be inviting members to a virtual launch event. The draft guidance is currently out for consultation and we would very much welcome your comments and thoughts. The consultation closes on Friday 22nd January at 5pm and the link to the draft guidance and consultation can be found here

If you have any questions about the guidance please do not hesitate to contact me.

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