Empowering teachers key to sustainable future
The world’s learners are not equipped to face the challenges of an unsustainable future. While education has long been heralded as a crucial catalyst for sustainable development, the potential of education to drive impactful environmental, economic, and societal change has yet to be met.
Target 7 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Quality Education (SDG 4.7) calls for “all learners to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development,” including areas like climate and environmental education, global citizenship education, and human rights education.
At the United Nations Transforming Education Summit in September 2022, 114 countries submitted National Statements of Commitment to advance and transform education.
Seventy-nine of those country commitments refer to education for sustainable development or associated themes, such as global citizenship education and 21st-century skills. Many education systems have also introduced innovative policies to bring these topics into the classroom.
Belize announced at the summit that it was integrating a dedicated socio-emotional learning program into its early childhood curriculum. Greece introduced its compulsory Skills Lab module in 2021, teaching students across the country the hard and soft skills they need to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Meanwhile, climate change, environmentalism, and sustainability themes have been part of the Costa Rican primary and secondary school curriculum for at least a decade. And at the sub-national level, in 2020, America’s New Jersey became the first state in the country to set standards for interdisciplinary climate change education in its K-12 public schools.
But commitments do not always result in action, and policies do not always translate into impact. Despite the inspiring examples set by Greece, Costa Rica, and others, most systems struggle to make meaningful progress toward transformative education for sustainable development.
The roadblocks are universal, including curricula largely based on passive instead of experiential learning and mechanical and top-down approaches that ignore the imperative to adapt to special needs and circumstances. Teachers who lack adequate training in sustainable development to be able to effectively impart their corresponding knowledge, skills, and values is another hurdle.
One example of these roadblocks comes from Malaysia, where researchers from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) conducted a pilot study to assess the extent to which education for sustainable development has become mainstream in the national education system. The study revealed that, while major policy documents like the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 show priorities consistent with the principles of education for sustainable development—active learning, critical thinking, leadership, ethics, multiculturalism, and future readiness—implementation is short on the ground.
Similarly, primary school curricula and textbooks for science, English, and Malay language include references to themes of environmental protection and social inclusion, but these themes are not explicitly linked with students’ lived realities or the greater societal need for sustainable development. The absence of teacher training in sustainable development stands in the way of delivering education for sustainable development competencies, such as integrated problem-solving, critical thinking, systems thinking, self-awareness, and collaboration.
These challenges are not unique to Malaysia. Around the world, teachers are overburdened with large class sizes, limited resources, insufficient training, outdated structures, and excessive demands on their time. This is happening as students are demanding education that teaches them about climate change, social justice, and the skills they need to thrive in an increasingly complex world.
Comprehensive systems change—encompassing policy reform, curriculum revision, content development, and teacher training—is necessary to truly deliver holistic education for sustainable development. These changes are not easy and they take time, but they are already happening. Belize, Greece, Costa Rica, New Jersey, and other pioneers offer examples that can be adapted.
The call for education transformation is loud and clear. Every society desires education that allows all its youth to realize their fullest potential and to become active participants and change-makers in an economically secure, ecologically stable, and socially just future.
Education systems now need to catch up. The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network
Karen Chand is director of Education Studies at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Her research was undertaken with financial support from the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation. Shannon Kobran is the regional team lead for Asia at SDSN’s SDG Academy. They are based at Sunway University, Malaysia. Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.