School for the future
What is Education for Sustainable Development? It is education that banks on the future. It is designed to enable us to face the major challenges of today: preserving the environment, respecting biodiversity, protecting human rights.
Just over two decades ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development made an appeal for a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In a nutshell, this captures the essence of sustainability – a long-term vision that speaks to our sense of responsibility for the present and future.
This vision underpins the eight Millennium Development Goals endorsed by the majority of the world’s countries in 2000. They aim to alleviate extreme poverty and hunger, improve child and maternal health, combat HIV and AIDS, achieve universal primary education, and promote gender equality and environmental sustainability. Education is imperative for reaching these goals, a conviction that underlies the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) launched in 2005.
ESD sets new directions for learning. First, it requires an interdisciplinary approach that integrates the social, environmental, economic and cultural dimensions of development and generates awareness of our interdependence - with others, with the world around us, and with nature. It enables us to address such issues as environmental protection, biodiversity and human rights. Second, ESD imparts skills such as critical thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. In this regard, teachers have an influential role to play in encouraging more dialogue, team work and initiative. Third and most fundamentally, ESD promotes values such as peace, equality and respect for others and for the wider natural and social environment. ESD is about empowering learners with the knowledge, skills and values to become real agents of change.
Rethinking education’s goals
The recent UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development held in Bonn, Germany (31 March to 2 April) showed that many countries have designed innovative ESD policy frameworks. The Decade has encouraged countries to rethink the purposes of education, curriculum content and pedagogical practice in ways that are complementary to the drive to achieve Education for All.
The DESD is generating a myriad of initiatives and projects that are putting ESD into practice in schools and extra-curricular settings. But progress remains uneven and much more needs to be done to increase public awareness about ESD. Now we have to work together to ensure that ESD becomes a guiding principle for improving the relevance and quality of education, through appropriate engagement with policy-makers, teacher training institutions, universities and other key partners. Finally, we must take every opportunity to stress the centrality of education for sustainable development.
A response to the global crisis
The financial and economic crisis makes this injunction more timely than ever. We will not succeed in reducing poverty and building more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable societies without empowering individuals at all ages with the knowledge, skills and values to make responsible and informed choices. Quality education that promotes awareness, openness, solidarity and responsibility must be part of any response to today’s global crisis.
As this issue of the UNESCO Courier illustrates, much can be done when students, teachers, schools and communities mobilize to address social and environmental challenges. But leaders and policy-makers must create the conditions for education at all levels to be geared towards building more just and sustainable societies.
Nicholas Burnett, Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO