Education is the primary agent of transformation towards sustainable development, increasing people’s capacities to transform their visions for society into reality. Education not only provides scientific and technical skills, but it also provides the motivation and social support for pursuing and applying them. For this reason, society must be deeply concerned that much of current education falls far short of what is required. When we say this, it reflects the very necessities across the cultures that allow everyone to become responsible for quality enhancement.
Improving the quality and revelation of education and reorienting its goals to recognize the importance of sustainable development must be among society’s highest priorities. It is not that we talk only about the environment but also about every component of life.
We, therefore, need to clarify the concept of education for sustainable development. It was a major challenge for educators during the last decade. The meanings of sustainable development in educational setups, the appropriate balance of peace, human rights, citizenship, social equity, ecological and development themes in already overloaded curricula, and ways of integrating the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts into what had up-to-now been seen and practiced as a branch of science education.
Some argued that educating for sustainable development ran the risk of programming. In contrast, others wondered whether asking schools to take the lead in the transition to sustainable development was asking too much of teachers.
These debates were compounded by the desire of many, predominantly environmental, NGOs to contribute to educational planning without the requisite understanding of how education systems work, how educational change and innovation takes place, and relevant curriculum development, professional development, and instructive values. Not realizing that effective educational change takes time, others were critical of governments not acting more quickly.
Consequently, many international, regional, and national initiatives have contributed to an expanded and refined understanding of education’s meaning for sustainable development. For example, Education International, the major umbrella group of teachers’ unions and associations globally, has issued a declaration and action plan to promote sustainable development through education.
A common agenda in all of these is the need for an integrated approach through which all communities, government entities, collaborate in developing a shared understanding of and commitment to policies, strategies, and programs of education for sustainable development.
Actively promoting the integration of education into sustainable development in the local community.
Many individual governments have also established committees, panels, advisory councils, and curriculum development projects to discuss education for sustainable development, develop policy and appropriate support structures, programs, and resources, and fund local initiatives.
Indeed, the roots of education for sustainable development are firmly planted in such groups’ environmental education efforts. Along with global education, development education, peace education, citizenship education, human rights education, and multicultural and anti-racist education have all been significant; environmental education has been particularly significant. In its brief thirty-year history, contemporary environmental education has steadily striven towards goals and outcomes similar and comparable to those inherent in the concept of sustainability.
A New Vision for Education
These many initiatives illustrate that the international community now strongly believes that we need to foster – through education – the values, behavior, and lifestyles required for a sustainable future. Education for sustainable development has come to be seen as a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology, and social well-being of all communities. Building the capacity for such future-oriented thinking is a key task of education.
This represents a new vision of education, a vision that helps learners better understand the world in which they live, addressing the complexity and inter-contentedness of problems such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, population growth, gender inequality, health, conflict and the violation of human rights that threaten our future. This vision of education emphasizes a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to developing the knowledge and skills needed for a sustainable future and changes in values, behavior, and lifestyles. This requires us to reorient education systems, policies, and practices to empower everyone, young and old, to make decisions and act in culturally appropriate and locally relevant ways to redress the problems that threaten our common future. We, therefore, need to think globally and act locally. In this way, people of all ages can become empowered to develop and evaluate alternative visions of a sustainable future and fulfill them by working creatively with others.
Seeking sustainable development through education requires educators to:
• Place an ethic for living sustainable, based upon social justice principles, democracy, peace, and ecological integrity, at the center of society’s concerns.
• Encourage a meeting of disciplines, a linking of knowledge and expertise, to create more integrated and contextual understandings.
• Encourage lifelong learning, starting at the beginning of life and stuck in life – one based on a passion for a radical transformation of society’s moral character.
• Develop to the maximum the potential of all human beings throughout their lives to achieve self-fulfillment and full self-expression with the collective achievement of a viable future.
• Value aesthetics, the creative use of the imagination, an openness to risk and flexibility, and a willingness to explore new options.
• Encourage new alliances between the State and civil society in promoting citizens’ liberation and the practice of democratic principles.
• Mobilize society in an intensive effort to eliminate poverty and all forms of violence and injustice.
• Encourage a commitment to the values for peace in such a way as to promote the creation of new lifestyles and living patterns
• Identify and pursue new human projects in the context of local sustainability within an earthly realization and a personal and communal awareness of global responsibility.
• Create realistic hope in which the possibility of change and the real desire for change are accompanied by rigorous, active participation in change, at the appropriate time, in favor of a sustainable future for all.
These responsibilities emphasize the key role of educators as ambassadors of change. There are over 60 million teachers in the world – and each one is a key ambassador for bringing about the changes in lifestyles and systems that we need. But, education is not confined to the classrooms of formal education. As an approach to social learning, education for sustainable development also encompasses the wide range of learning activities in basic and post-basic education, technical and vocational training and tertiary education, and both non-formal and informal learning by both young people and adults within their families and workplaces and in the wider community. This means that we all have important roles to play as both ‘learners’ and ‘teachers’ in advancing sustainable development.
Deciding how education should contribute to sustainable development is a major task. In coming to decisions about what education approaches will be locally relevant and culturally appropriate, countries, educational institutions, and their communities may take heed of the following key lessons learned from discussion and debate about education and sustainable development over the past decade.
• Education for sustainable development must explore the economic, political, and social implications of sustainability by encouraging learners to reflect critically on their own areas of the world, identify non-viable elements in their own lives, and explore the tensions among conflicting aims. Development strategies suited to various cultures’ particular circumstances in the pursuit of shared development goals will be crucial. Educational approaches must take into account the experiences of indigenous cultures and minorities, acknowledging and facilitating their original and significant contributions to sustainable development.
• The movement towards sustainable development depends more on the development of our moral sensitivities than on the growth of our scientific understanding – important as that is. Education for sustainable development cannot be concerned only with disciplines that improve our understanding of nature, despite their undoubted value. Success in the struggle for sustainable development requires an approach to education that strengthens our engagement in support of other values – especially justice and fairness – and the awareness that we share a common destiny with others.
• Ethical values are the principal factor in social consistency and, at the same time, the most effective agent of change and transformation. Ultimately, sustainability will depend on changes in behavior and lifestyles, changes that will need to be motivated by a shift in values and rooted in the cultural and moral precepts upon which behavior is based. Without a change of this kind, even the most enlightened legislation, the cleanest technology, the most sophisticated research will not succeed in steering society towards the long-term goal of sustainability.
• Changes in lifestyle will need to be accompanied by the development of ethical awareness, whereby the inhabitants of rich countries discover within their cultures the source of new and active solidarity, which will make it possible to eradicate the widespread poverty that now besets 80% of the world’s population as well as the environmental degradation and other problems linked to it.
• Ethical values are shaped through education, in the broadest sense of the term. Education is also essential in enabling people to use their ethical values to make informed and ethical choices. Fundamental social changes, such as those required to move towards sustainability, come about either because people sense an ethical imperative to change or because leaders have the political will to lead in that direction and sense that they will follow them.