United Nations Decade for Education and Sustainable Development

Bernard Combes

Bernard Combes

By Bernard Combes, Information Officer, UNESCO, Secretariat for the DESD

In December 2002, the United Nations General Assembly, through Resolution 57/254, declared a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD, 2005-2014). It also entrusted UNESCO with a dual responsibility – as leader and global coordinator of the DESD and as a key implementer. The Decade aims to integrate the values inherent in sustainable development into all aspects of learning in order to encourage changes in behavior conducive to a more sustainable and just society for all.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) should be seen as a comprehensive package for quality education and learning within which key issues such as poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods, climate change, gender equality, corporate social responsibility and protection of indigenous cultures, to name a few, are addressed in the perspective of sustainability. ESD seeks to develop the knowledge, skills, perspectives, and values that will empower people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating and enjoying a sustainable future.

ESD embraces a wide range of learning experiences and programs. It is not limited to particular topics or even curriculum content in general but offers a larger vision of what are the purposes and objectives of education, what is the relevance of education, what is the environment within which learning takes place, what kinds of values and principles are imparted and what types of skills, competences, behaviors and attitudes are generated.

One example of a successful program is the Swiss International Teachers’ Program (SITP), which was launched in 2000. Educators from around the world manage a fictitious country using simulation software. The training targets elementary and secondary teachers from Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Switzerland, and the U.S. They study ecology, economics, and social and political issues. The program is a four week experience based at Florida Gulf Coast University’s College of Education. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001524/152452eo.pdf#page=10 or go to http://www.unesco.org/en/esd/esd-e-module/action-stories/zoom-on-teacher-training/

Learning for a Sustainable World: a Review

The year 2009 marks the midpoint of the DESD. Developments since the beginning of the Decade in 2005 have shown that the DESD is an important instrument for advocacy and for mobilizing the international community towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the quality of Education for All (EFA).

© Bernard Combes

© Bernard Combes

The 2009 DESD M&E report, Learning for a Sustainable World: Review of Contexts and Structures for Education for Sustainable Development, reviews the progress achieved and challenges encountered during the first five years in establishing provisions, strategies, mechanisms, and contexts that support the development and implementation of ESD. Some of the key findings include:

Meanings of ESD: Regional, national, and local differences influence the meaning of ESD. The importance of interconnections between the economic, environmental, social, and cultural dimensions of development are the common thread that should run through all education and learning for sustainable development. For example, in Botswana, ESD is education that places emphasis on equipping learners and the public with skills that will sustain them in the future. It involves the acquisition of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values in such a way that learners will be able to use their environment productively and in a sustainable manner so as to improve the quality of their life and to become productive members of their society. Here is the History and Context of ESD in Southern Africa report.

ESD National Coordination Bodies: Some 79 countries report the presence of a national ESD coordination body. However, more insight and thought need to be given to the processes that lead to the creation of such a body and the role that it is supposed to play.

ESD in National Policy Documents: There is a notable presence of ESD in a wide range of national policy documents. In most cases, ESD is present in national environmental and sustainable development policies, and it is integrated into national educational policies and curricula at the primary and secondary levels of education. For example, the Australian policy “Statements of Learning for Civics and Citizenship,” seeks to provide students with opportunities to learn about Civics and Citizenship through three essential learning areas, (1) Government and Law (2) Citizenship and Democracy, and (3) Historical Perspectives. ESD is underpinned through each of the three essential learning areas of the Civics and Citizenship Statements of Learning. The two aspects through which students are provided learning opportunities specify that all students have the capacity to:
• Clarify and critically examine values and principles that underpin Australia’s democracy, and the ways in which these contribute to a fair and just society and a sustainable future, and
• Develop an understanding of the ways in which citizens and governments contribute to environmental sustainability in local to global contexts and a commitment to adopting values, behavior and lifestyles required for a sustainable future.

© UNESCO/Niamh Burke

© UNESCO/Niamh Burke

ESD in Formal Education: Inserting sustainability issues into existing curricula, adopting new approaches to learning such as interdisciplinary teaching and learning, and redesigning curricula are some of the ways in which countries have integrated ESD in formal education settings, especially at the primary and secondary levels. Georgia is an example of a country that offers ESD professional development. From 2005 onwards the School Project for Application of Energy Resources (SPARE) conducted several trainings for 133 teachers in 100 schools from different regions of the country. SPARE attracts youth energy efficiency activities and promotes sustainable energy. The basic idea of SPARE is to transform a global concern into practical school activities. The International Committee of the Red Cross organizes seminars for authors, working on school textbooks, to highlight international humanitarian law.

ESD research, development and dissemination: ESD-related research and development is an area that needs more attention in most parts of the world. The limited amount of ESD-related research that takes place is centered on formal education. With the sharp rise in ESD practice today, governments should support the development of ESD quality assessment schemes. As an example, the Environment and School Initiatives (ENSI) was set up in 1986 by the Centre of Educational Research Innovation of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). ENSI is an international network which has supported educational developments, environmental understanding, and active approaches to teaching and learning, through research and the exchange of experiences internationally.

ESD Networking at the International Level: In all regions, examples of regional cooperation suggest a remarkable increase in international ESD networking. Common groups or organizations involved in ESD-related networks include universities, national and local governments, the private sector and NGOs. The IUCN – Commission on Education for Sustainable Development is an example of this positive networking.

© UNESCO/Michel Ravassard

© UNESCO/Michel Ravassard

Ways Forward

The report also identified some areas of action for the remaining half of the Decade, including:

Promoting Awareness of ESD: Limited awareness and knowledge of ESD is a major hurdle in creating a wide societal and governmental support-base for ESD. ESD needs to be communicated in a simple yet creative manner to help people understand it. To do this, the engagement and involvement of the media needs to be strengthened.

Reorienting curricula, teaching and learning: Strengthening and promoting skills and capacities such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and understanding complexities need innovative methodologies. Schools of education, curriculum development centers and educational research institutes should be encouraged to research and develop new forms of teaching and learning. And at the same time, educational policies that allow for these new forms of teaching and learning should be promoted and strengthened.

Developing capacity for ESD: ESD-related professional development should focus on building capacities of a wider range of audiences that could include teachers, facilitators, managers and business leaders, among others. This could enhance new ESD-inspired forms of learning in schools, universities, neighborhoods and workplaces.

Establishing ESD synergy with other ‘educations’: The call for greater articulation and synergy between environmental education (EE) and ESD should be extended to other ‘educations’ as well, such as peace education, gender education, inclusive education and health education, among others.

Looking Ahead

In this context and in follow-up to the UNESCO World Conference on ESD held in Bonn, Germany (March 31-April 2, 2009), UNESCO is developing a strategy for the second half of the Decade. This strategy will focus on four key areas of strategic action during the next five years:

© UNESCO/Sake Rijkema

© UNESCO/Sake Rijkema

1. Enhancing synergies with different education and development initiatives (EFA, the MDGs, the United Nations Literacy Decade [UNLD], etc.) and strengthening ESD partnerships;
2. Developing and strengthening capacities for ESD;
3. Building, sharing and applying ESD-related knowledge; and
4. Advocating for ESD, and increasing awareness and understanding of sustainability.

In the current context of financial and economic crisis, global warming and other global challenges faced by the international community, the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development provides a framework for partnership and collaboration, bringing together a great diversity of interests and concerns addressing the root causes of the issues at stake, i.e. the values, beliefs and practices underpinning unsustainable behaviours. ESD has indeed come to be seen as a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology, and the equitable development of all communities.