» Looking into the future of Education for Sustainable Development
10.04.2017 - Education Sector

Looking into the future of Education for Sustainable Development

© German Commission for UNESCO

How can Education for Sustainable Development(ESD) learning experiences help transform societies? How can we create the learning environments and experiences that lead to empathy, passion and sustainable behaviour?

To find answers to these questions, UNESCO gathered international experts and local stakeholders on 27 and 28 March in Gelsenkirchen, a town in a former coal mining area of Germany, for a second symposium, in a series of five, on the future of ESD.  The symposia are designed to generate new ideas and to ensure ESD’s relevance and continuity beyond the Global Action Programme (2015-2019). 

The two-day event encouraged freethinking, dialogue and sharing stories, narratives and perspectives between local actors and outside specialists from different disciplines. They discussed the conditions and pedagogies that can nurture effectively the soft skills, values and attitudes empowering citizens to support the paradigm shift for a sustainable society.     

The 25 participants from 16 countries (including Australia, Brazil, Bhutan, Canada, Finland, India, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea, Madagascar, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Senegal, the UK and the USA) represented fields ranging from neuroscience and information technology to sociology, teacher training, media and youth, all sharing a focus on sustainability.

Field visits to learning sites 

Among the highlights of the symposium agenda were field visits to three different local learning sites. The first, the Weiterbilungskolleg (WEL), is an institution of second chance learning that actively implements project-based learning as a part of its whole-school approach to ESD. The WEL is currently taking part in the 2016-2020 campaign “Schule der Zukunft” (School of the Future) to scale up ESD through local networks and activities. Being a second-chance school, with students already living their adult life outside of the school, the WEL actively embraces social sustainability issues such as racism and diversity in its learning, in a town where 40% of its population has a background of migration. The adult learners are encouraged to reflect on sustainability not only in their learning but also in their everyday lives and jobs. When asked how the learning changed their daily reality, students at WEL replied that they ‘learned to appreciate life’ and ‘became more open, understanding and curious about why people are the way they are’.

The second visit was to the non-formal education centre Ziegenmichelhof, which will introduce two flagship ESD programmes addressing soft skills and values for sustainable development. The centre grew out of the official 2013/2014 German Project for the ESD Decade. Set in an old farm surrounded by a garden, the Wellness and Cosmetics for Girls programme allows girls to address issues of health, natural resources and sustainable life style. The Harmony with Horses programme focuses on empathy through learning to take responsibility for another being (a horse) and transfers the learning to social and global dimensions. The owner Michael Lorenz emphasized, “We have to live what we preach to children.”

The Biomass Park Hugo, the third place visited, was built on the site of the former Hugo 2/5/8 mine in Gelsenkirchen-Boer. It is a sustainable renewable energy park and a lifelong learning space for ESD. The previously closed-off area was returned to the people and became a huge “project-based learning” site. Local stakeholders organize idea workshops jointly with the citizens, addressing the challenges of revitalizing the area through critical thinking, collective decision-making and problem solving. With the leadership of local organizations, the citizens become the change agents and the park a living learning environment for sustainable development. To describe the collective energy people have shared to create one of the most sustainable cities in Germany, Werner Rybarski, Head of Agenda 21-Office, City of Gelsenkirchen, explained “The German word for homeland, roots, is ‘heimat.’ Home is a vision, ‘where we want to go’, as well as where we come from. It is important to know where you want to go as well as where you are from.” The collective learning becomes the basis of a common vision and shared action for a sustainable city. 

Establishing learning spaces

These impressive learning sites have at least one characteristic in common. All of them focus on participation and lived democracy as condition for creating sustainable society, with an atmosphere of hope and trust in a region severely challenged by poverty and unemployment. Together, the sites demonstrate how high-quality learning spaces can be designed.

Leslee Udwin, CEO of Think Equal, and Arjen Wals, Professor of Transformative Learning for Socio-Ecological Sustainability at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Gothenburg University in Sweden, both commented on the fact that the people of the region had experienced loss – the closing of the mines. They seem as a result to be particularly mindful of the meaning of loss, and ready to consider their assets and value them.

Through intense in-depth discussion on what to teach, how to teach and what education system changes are needed, the participants of the symposium identified ownership, relevance and peer-learning as the key drivers in transforming people into change agents for sustainable development.

Walter Hirche, International Advisor to the National Platform for ESD in Germany and Chair of the Education Committee, German Commission for UNESCO, emphasized the changing role of teachers: “Teachers are learners themselves. They should learn to cooperate and use the expertise of people outside of the school in networks.”

The participants of the meeting reaffirmed the importance of ESD to address the changing challenges of sustainability. As demonstrated by the best practices in Gelsenkirchen, education as a form of civic intervention to teach values and attitudes for sustainable community can encourage curiosity and ownership that lead to resilience and action. Irmeli Halinen, former Head of Curriculum Development at the Finnish National Agency for Education, said: “The fundamental change needed is for all elements of education to be able to work together as a whole to socialize a human being.”

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