Using the SDGs as a catalyst for re-designing higher education in the Anthropocene

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Last week (June 13-14, 2017) the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Agriculture hosted an the 2017 ICA-Edu Colloquium “Delivering graduates to meet the challenges of sustainable development goals (SDGs): embedding the development of ethical and sustainable values ​​in the curriculum.” The colloquium was organized in cooperation with ICA (the Association for European Life Science Universities) which is the umbrella network of 54 life science universities in Europe. ICA’s goal is to improve higher education and research in agronomy and related sciences.

I was one of the keynote speakers along with Prof. David A. Knauft (University of Georgia) and  Prof. Georg Gratzer (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna – BOKU). Unfortunately I could not be physically present and I had to resort to using the ‘green room’ in the Social Sciences building of Wageningen University (a studio that is used for recording, among other things, short video’s for MOOCS). The 34 minute talk with the title ‘Using the SDGs as a catalyst for re-designing higher education in the Anthropocene’ can be viewed here: Keynote Zagreb ICA Conference

Envisioning Futures for Environmental and Sustainability Education – now available

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Last month the fifth book in the Wageningen Academic Publishers Series on Education in the context of Sustainable Development, that started almost 10 years ago with Social learning towards a Sustainable World, appeared. Envisioning Futures for Environmental and Sustainability Education invited educational practitioners and theorists to speculate on – and craft visions for – the future of environmental and sustainability education. The book, I co-edited with Peter Blaze Corcoran and Joe Weakland, explores what educational methods and practices might exist on the horizon, waiting for discovery and implementation. A global array of authors imagines alternative futures for the field and attempts to rethink environmental and sustainability education institutionally, intellectually, and pedagogically. These thought leaders chart how emerging modes of critical speculation might function as a means to remap and redesign the future of environmental and sustainability education today.

Previous volumes within this United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development series have responded to the complexity of environmental education in our contemporary moment with concepts such as social learning, intergenerational learning, and transformative leadership for sustainable futures. ‘Envisioning Futures for Environmental and Sustainability Education’ builds on this earlier work – as well as the work of others. It seeks to foster modes of intellectual engagement with ecological futures in the Anthropocene; to develop resilient, adaptable pedagogies as a hedge against future ecological uncertainties; and to spark discussion concerning how futures thinking can generate theoretical and applied innovations within the field.

The future of environmental education is an urgent question in the larger context of the Anthropocene, the geological epoch in which human activities have become the dominant driver in the ongoing evolution of Earth’s biosphere. Our contemporary ecological moment is characterized by complexity, uncertainty, and ‘accelerating change’ (Wals and Corcoran 2012). While the global impact of anthropogenic climate change is undeniable, the pace of temperature and sea level rise depends on ecological feedback loops that are not fully understood – and which may be increasing the rate of biosphere destabilization (Hansen et al.2015). From a social perspective, the Anthropocene is an age of what humanities scholar Rob Nixon (2011) terms ‘slow violence,’ or ecological violence and environmental injustice that occurs on spatial and temporal scales that are hard to understand or represent, most often against the world’s poorest peoples. In light of such developments, educators need strategies for anticipatory engagement with changing socio-ecological realities – both in the present and future – in order to be effective within their various embodied contexts. This volume explores how environmental educators can engage in imaginative mapping concerning large scale global processes, as well as create useful, situated knowledge for dissemination within their respective socio-ecological contexts.

Keywords: sustainability education, environmental education, education, sustainable development, social learning, transformative leadership, intergenerational learning

The opening chapter is available here: introchapterenvisioningfutures for free as an open access publication or at the publisher’s website where the book can be purchased: http://www.wageningenacademic.com/doi/abs/10.3920/978-90-8686-846-9

 

Interview UNESCO Master Class over Toekomstbestendig onderwijs in een duurzamere wereld – nu terug te zien

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Vorige keer kondigde ik het vijfde gesprek dat Anouschka Laheij hield met UNESCO Chairs in het kader van de Masterclass over duurzame ontwikkeling aan. Dit keer mocht ik zelf opdraven om te praten over hoe moeilijk duurzaamheid ons wordt gemaakt en hoe makkelijk het wordt gemaakt om onduurzaam te zijn, maar ook over de aantrekkelijke onduidelijkheid van een schijnbaar vaag begrip als duurzame ontwikkeling en over hoe je onderwijs en leeromgevingen anders kunt inrichten zodat jongeren leren omgaan met complexiteit, onzekerheid en ambiguïteit. En niet alleen ‘leren omgaan met’ maar ook leren veranderen en leren de wereld te veranderen.

Het hele interview

In het gesprek van 1 uur komen een veelheid vragen aan bod zoals:  Wat voor type onderwijs, wat voor soort leerprocessen en leeromgevingen zijn nu bij uitstek geschikt om te breken met onduurzame waarden, routines, leefstijlen en systemen? Hoe kun je gedrag en mogelijkheden om duurzaam te handelen creëren die kunnen leiden tot een transitie naar een duurzamere wereld? Een wereld waarin alle Duurzame Ontwikkelingsdoelen (SDG’s) in samenhang een plek krijgen. Zie ook mijn eerder blog post hierover in het kader van het verschijnen van het Global Education Monitor Report 2016.

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On-line Masters Course on Education in the Context of Sustainable Development at Gothenburg University

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New Course: Education for sustainable development – an introduction

With global challenges such as climate change, mass extinction of species, rising inequity and a growing world population, the prospects for a quality life for all, forever seem rather bleak. Central in this new course is the question: What is the role and responsibility of education in not only responding to sustainability problems but also in preventing them and in creating more sustainable futures? But also what might such education look like? The course will take advantage of some of the materials and lessons learnt from the recently finished Global Environmental Education Course Gothenburg University supported – along with Wageningen University & Research and other universities and the US EPA- which was lead by Cornell University in association with the NAAEE’s EECapacity Program.

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In this 15 credit Master’s course you will critically and actively explore central concepts and perspectives in the field of education for sustainable development. The course content will be related to the participants’ own backgrounds, specific interests and prior experiences. Master students / students who have completes their Bachelors with different study backgrounds (e.g. environmental sciences, social sciences, economics, arts and humanities) can enrol in this course as long as you have an interest in both sustainable development and education and meet the basic English proficiency requirement of Gothenburg University.

The course is offered  online at half time starting November 1 and finishing March 22, 2017). The main course language is English. There are four blocks: 1) Understanding Sustainable Development, 2) Understanding Education in relation to SD, 3) Understanding learning environments, processes and outcomes conducive to SD and 4) Education in relation to your own SD-challenge (personal project). Each block is divided up in course weeks, each with short introductory videos, background literature, discussion questions and online discussion. Periodically there will be assignments that will be used in providing feedback and assessing the quality of your contributions. The new Global Education Monitor Report on Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All will be one of the texts used in the course.

For the pilot course we are admitting a maximum of 50 students. You will need to formally register for the course through Gothenburg University via this link to the GU course web-page.

More information about course content contact me at: Arjen.wals@gu.se

More information about course logistics and registration can be found via the link to the course’s webpage (hyperlink).

Note: eligible students from European Union can participate without paying tuition to Gothenburg University. Students from outside the European Union will have to pay a tuition fee. It is assumed that participants have a bachelor degree or equivalent and have a proficient mastery of the English language (evidence of this may need to be provided).

Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

In a recent interview for EurActive.com  Environmental Education Professor and a dear colleague and critical friend of mine already for many years, Lucy Sauvé from Quebec, sees in the GEM 2016 report more evidence that there is no substantial change in the ‘language’ of the latest UN Report on education and sustainable development. She cherry picks some statements from the report to illustrate this. I agree, there are some or even many cherries to pick with a neo-liberal flavour. But I can also pick cherries with a different flavour – a flavour that was completely or mostly absent in the UN ESD world.

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I have both worked with the UNESCO DESD and the Global Education Monitor Team which operates separate from the DESD – even though it is located on the same floor in the UNESCO headquarters as the ESD-team – indeed as a critical friend in the sense that I am sympathetic to any attempt that can re-orient education towards planet and people, but that I am also cautious of co-optation of such efforts by that same neo-liberal agenda. So when I read about People-Planet-Profit (as the GEM team used initially) then I must ask ‘who or what got the P for Profit in there?’ Why not just People and Planet? If you need to have something more explicitly related to economy in there then let us at least use the P of Prosperity. When I read that education for all is import for all, because it will lead to economic development which is prerequisite for ecological and environmental sustainability then this logic must be questioned: is education there to serve the economy first and foremost? Is all education by definition good or can it be highly problematic? Etc. When the ‘world of business’ jumps on the sustainable development, sustainability and ‘green’ bandwagon, then we must look critically at what the underlying motives are and what their efforts really entail. A car company promoting its hydride car using ‘sustainable excitement’ as its slogan, while at the same time manipulating its emission tests, needs to be questioned. Critical thinking is essential and asking disruptive questions is a part of that. When we read about sustainable development we must also ask ‘must we always develop?’ Or can sustainability represent an alternative TO development? When we read UN DESD documents or the GEM2016 report we must also ask are there any references to ethics? the non-human world? Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world? Etc.

Of course it is always easier to critique then to transform. Being near or within UNESCO circles I feel can have more impact in changing the dominant discourse than staying outside of it by raising the above questions from within in dialogue. Sure the UN is an enormous bureaucracy that doesn’t change overnight, but change does happen. Working with the GEM Team for about 5 months has given me some insights in how such a comprehensive report is written: framing of the key issues, commissioning papers to mostly external experts, carefully selecting, re-organising and editing texts, distilling key messages as GEM reports are message-oriented, creating a coherent grand document, several rounds of ‘fact-checking’ and copy-editing. The initial framing and the choice of experts who are to write about the key issues has a huge influence on the tone and direction of the narrative. When I came in, half a year before the report had to be finalized, the framing had been done and could not be changed much really (the thematic section, that I was involved in, is framed around 6 Ps: Planet, Prosperity, People, Places, Participation and Partnerships, whereas the second part of the report, the monitoring part, is framed around SDG 4 (Education) and 17 (Partnerships). Where I could still have some influence was the tone and direction of the narrative, tweaking it towards a more critical perspective on the role of education and the current economy – with regards to gender, equity, indigenousness and participation the people from the GEM team working on those sections already had a rather critical perspective.

I should point out that initially I was surprised that the framing and selecting of experts was done without any consultation of the UNESCO ESD section. I asked the GEM Team why there was no or little interaction between the two sections. The response was that the Team wanted to write a more evidence-based report not using an potentially rosy ESD lens but using a sober education lens to get a more accurate picture of the role of education in creating more sustainable futures for all. I also checked with the ESD section if this annoyed them but they were not. In fact they welcomed such an ‘independent’ attempt and hope it would lead to new insights and bring in new and more people into the conversation.

Now back to the initial question of this post: Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

If you are looking for confirmation of replication and affirmation of this agenda you will find it – as Lucy did, however, if you look for a shift in the common discourse, you will also find it. Below I have done some cherry-picking of my own by selecting some key messages that I think represent a counter narrative and a potential shift away from business as usual. Here are my cherries from the GEM2016 report, and believe me, some of them are quite radical and signify a departure form standard UN rhetoric:

  • Current models of economic growth cause environmental destruction
  • For education to be transformative in support of the new sustainable development agenda, ‘education as usual’ will not suffice.
  • Education cannot fight inequality on its own. Labour markets and governments must not excessively penalize lower income individuals. Cross sectoral cooperation can reduce barriers to gender equality.
  • A whole-school approach is needed to build green skills and awareness. Campaigns, companies, as well as community and religious leaders must advocate for sustainability practices. Non-formal education and research and development should also help solve global environmental challenges.
  • Expand education on global citizenship, peace, inclusion and resilience to conflict. Emphasize participatory teaching and learning especially in civic education. Invest in qualified teachers for refugees and displaced people, and teach children in their mother language. Incorporate education into the peacebuilding agenda.
  • Distribute public resources equitably in urban areas, involving the community in education planning.
  • Mobilize domestic resources, stop corporate tax evasion and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies to generate government revenue for fundamental needs such as education and health.
  • Include education in all discussions on urban development. Improve and fund urban planning programmes and curricula to include cross-sector engagement and develop locally-relevant solutions.
  • Promote the value of indigenous livelihoods, traditional knowledge and community-managed or -owned land through actions such as land conservation and locally relevant research.
  • Engage community elders in curricular development and school governance, produce appropriate learning materials and prepare teachers to teach in mother languages.
  • Incentivize universities to produce graduates and researchers who address large-scale systemic challenges through creative thinking and problem-solving.
  • Promote cooperation across all sectors to reduce policy-related obstacles to full economic participation by women or minority groups, as well as discrimination and prejudice that also act as barriers.
  • Support multistakeholder governance for the sustainable management of natural resources and of public and semi-public rural, urban and peri-urban spaces.

But there’s more – the GEM2016 has a somewhat different take on Sustainable Development than previous UN reports recognizing that there are different perspectives, including ones that critique the notion of continuous development (the quote below comes form page 4 of the report):

‘The different perspectives of sustainable development include viewing it as a model to improve current systems (endorsed by those focusing on viable economic growth), a call for major reforms (supported by those who advocate for a green economy and technological innovation) and an imperative for a larger transformation in power structures and embedded values of society (supported by transition movements). Some ecologists, such as deep ecologists, believe present-day human development focuses too much on people and ignores the plant, animal and spiritual parts of this world (Leonard and Barry, 2009). They believe humans must learn to be less self-interested and place the needs of other species alongside their own. Transformation advocates say societies should go back to ways of living that are locally sustainable – consuming and wasting less, limiting needs to locally available resources, treating nature with respect, and abandoning polluting technology that has become an integral part of modern society. Culture advocates believe sustainable living can happen only if communities truly embrace it as part of daily culture (Hawkes, 2001) so that it affects decisions about what to eat, how to commute to work and how to spend leisure time.

The South American buen vivir movement rejects development as materialistic and selfish, implying that living sustainably means finding alternatives to development (Gudynas, 2011). The buen vivir belief system comes directly from traditional values of indigenous people, and posits that collective needs are more important than those of the individual. In Ecuador, this concept is called sumak kawsay, the Quechua term for fullness of life in a community. It involves learning to live within boundaries, finding ways to reduce use or to do more with less, and exploring non-material values. Ecuador and the Plurinational State of Bolivia have incorporated buen vivir into their constitutions.

Most definitions of sustainable development challenge the status quo, believing human development lacks meaning without a healthy planet. This view requires people, communities and nations to reconsider basic values of daily living and change the way they think. Understanding one’s own values, the values of one’s community and society, and those of others around the world is a central part of educating for a sustainable future. This means education systems need to continuously evolve and change in order to identify what practices work best within a given context and how they need to change over time. Indeed, for many of its advocates in education, sustainable development is best understood as a journey, rather than a destination.’

So in short – yes it is easy to critique this report as an extension of hegemonic globalizing thinking and  as another attempt to hijack any efforts to change the dominant discourse, but I think that is too easy and not very generative. Rather I would look for the elements that represent a potential shift and a transition towards alternatives and help amplify them by highlighting and sharing them. Some of the texts above would have been unthinkable in mainstream UN-speak only 10 years ago. The glass is half full, not half empty this time.

Arjen Wals, September 14th, 2016

GEM2016 – Education for People and Planet: creating sustainable futures for all – now available (open access)

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On September 6th the new Global Education Monitor report was launched – and it comes highly recommended as a comprehensive report that can help re-orient education towards sustainability and helping education become more responsive, relevant and responsible in light of today’s global challenges. It was a pleasure for me to help the GEM2016 team in preparing this report – especially in the Introduction and the first two chapters. The full report can be downloaded at: http://gem-report-2016.unesco.org/en/home/ or by clicking gem2016educationforpeopleandplanet. The report – over 550 pages – will appear in multiple languages in due time and is also available in a summary form. It can be an useful text in higher education when read critically and properly discussed.

Below is a short introduction to the report from the GEM2016 website.

At the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, member states adopted a new global development agenda, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At its heart are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 4 on education. The SDGs establish development priorities to 2030 and succeed both the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All (EFA) goals, whose deadlines expired in 2015.

Education will not deliver its full potential to catapult the world forward unless participation rates dramatically improve, learning becomes a lifelong pursuit and education systems fully embrace sustainable development

The Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report), which builds on the experience of the previous EFA Global Monitoring Report series, received a new mandate to assess the progress of education under the 2030 Agenda. The 2016 GEM Report, the first of the new 15-year series, explores the complex relationship between education and other facets of sustainable development, along with the monitoring implications for SDG 4. It shows that education will not deliver its full potential to catapult the world forward unless school participation rates dramatically improve, learning becomes a lifelong pursuit and education systems fully embrace sustainable development.

The thematic part of the report highlights evidence, practices and policies that demonstrate how education can serve as a catalyst for the overall sustainable development agenda. It presents compelling arguments for the types of education that are vital for achieving the goals of poverty reduction, hunger eradication, improved health, gender equality and empowerment, sustainable agriculture, resilient cities and more equal, inclusive and just societies.

The monitoring part tackles the many challenges concerning how to assess progress on SDG 4, including concrete recommendations for policy change. Each of the seven education targets and three means of implementation in SDG 4 are examined in turn. In addition, education finance and education systems are analysed, as is the extent to which education can be monitored in the other SDG goals. Building blocks and potential synergies for a more effective and efficient global education monitoring agenda over the next 15 years are identified at the national, regional and international levels.

 

Education for people and planet: Creating sustainable futures for all – GEM-2016 soon to be launched

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Starting in 2016 a new series of UNESCO reports, the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Reports, will monitor the state of education in the new framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new series replaces the earlier Global Monitoring Report (GMR) series. I was brought on board the GEM 2016 Team last December to provide input on the thematic part of the report – especially to provide feedback on the relationship between education and achieving sustainability.

The report has been titled: ‘Education for people and planet: Creating sustainable futures for all’. It is a very comprehensive and well-researched report that seeks to be geographically balanced in its analysis and examples. There are two parts: a thematic part and a monitoring part. My role was mainly limited to providing feedback to the thematic part which covers 5 ‘Ps’s: Planet, Prosperity, People, Place and Partnerships. The thematic Part 1 of the Report focuses on examining the complex interrelationships and links between education and key development sectors. It determines which education strategies, policies and programmes are most effectively linked to the economic, social, environmental and political priorities of the new sustainable development agenda.  Part 2 establishes a much needed a monitoring framework for education post-2015, and examine key financing and governance challenges for the post-2015 era.

You can read the concept note that underpins the report here. 

The GEM 2016 report will appear in multiple languages.

Sign up to receive the report in your inbox as soon as it’s released.