UNESCO Education for Sustainable Development for 2030

by Guest Author UNESCO Spotlight on

Conference blog by Nat Marshall, Youth Representative for The Living Coast Biosphere region

“UNESCO Education for Sustainable Development for 2030” was an online conference that took place 17-19th May 2021, hosted in Berlin. Over 2000 participants attended from countries across the globe.

The conference was primarily for national leaders and decision makers in environmental education. However, UNESCO supported youth representatives from the Man and the Biosphere program around the world to attend. Nat Marshall was fortunate enough to gain a place at the conference representing the Living Coast and has written this blog of his experience:

Day 1

The conference began with an opening ceremony which managed to sum up why Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is such a big deal. Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay said that the environment should be at the heart of school curricula, however this is not yet the case, evidenced by a report designed to gather knowledge of ESD progress in fifty countries. “Learn for Our Planet – Global Review” discovered that the depth of inclusion of environmental themes in curricula is low. More than half of curricula studied made no mention of climate change, whilst over a third of teacher training included nothing on the environment. The environment in all its forms remains on the margins of educational systems, and what is needed is to combine top-down technological innovation with bottom up indigenous knowledge and grassroots work, as discussed by the first keynote speaker: Laurent Fabius, the architect of the Paris Climate Accord.

Particular areas discussed which I found relevant included in Angela Merkel’s speech the idea that education for sustainable development shouldn’t be a privilege, but accessible for everyone, contributing to each Sustainable Development Goal. Laurent Fabius also raised that the fight against climate change begins at school, and that education does not end by adulthood but continues lifelong. He said that teachers should be agents of change for social transformation, thus need to be trained in ESD. As well as this, the way governments chart courses for the future as humanity beats the pandemic shall shape the decade and must incorporate ESD. 2021 is a very important year, with three conferences taking place (COP26 UN Annual Climate Change Conference Glasgow, UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 Kunming and International Union for Conservation of Nature Marseille) which will make concrete commitments focused on sustainable development.

The second event was plenary: “Creating the change we need in times of crisis.” This focused on engaging with education officials across the world, discussing how ESD can address the main challenges in environment and education. The issue that came up most frequently was the ‘learning crisis’ induced by COVID, as close to 2 billion students were removed from education. It is impossible to achieve Education for Sustainable Development without access to education and the technology required. Other key issues included climate misinformation, the affect of climate change on the agriculture industry (especially in low-income countries) and the need to decarbonise industry.

During the “Education for Sustainable Development Goals Marketplace” I attended a session on Nature Based Education, which asked us when and how we fell in love with nature, and discussed how when we connect to nature and learn to love it, it changes everything we do. Ways mentioned to help young people fall in love with nature include animal workshops allowing kids to learn through experience: something that will stay with them far longer than a regular lesson. I can confirm this, as my fascination with nature started when a nature group brought in an indigo snake to my primary school, which captivated me as I was able to touch it. To help children discover plant life, stories of grow-your-own school sessions were told, where the children got to enjoy eating the produce at the end. The next question was how to keep this attachment to nature going through their whole lives. Key points here were repeated exposure to nature with people they care about.

Day 2

The Zoom session “Responding to Global Emissions through ESD: Climate Change” raised the question of what education for sustainable development should be. A word cloud was constructed of audience answers, to find that the key things ESD should be are: inclusive, relevant, urgent, action oriented, empowering and justice-based. A host of panellists discussed what must be done for ESD to help global emissions response, with main takeaways being that not everybody learns in the same way, and climate change does not affect everybody in the same way. Education for Sustainable Development regarding climate change should accommodate this, and teachers should be taught and supported in delivering this education. Lifelong education was discussed in Day 1, and one way to do this is to involve the parents and families of schoolchildren in climate education, so they learn as well.

Testimonies of transformative action for Sustainable Development Goals had a range of inspiring speakers from a Madagascan priest to a Danish CEO to a youth ambassador from Trinidad and Tobago. These people were from different parts of the world, with different ages, genders and professions and yet what they had in common was motivation to take action for sustainable development: a passion ignited through family influence and nature experience. They discussed how education should be project-based and sustainable instead of simply for the sake of exams. The four key areas required for sustainable development discussed were mindset, willingness, ability and monitoring. People require the right mindset, the willingness to commit to sustainable change however also require the competence to do so (both the passion and the skills could be directly from education), and change must be continuously monitored to reach a better tomorrow.

“Responding to Global Challenges through ESD: Green & Circular Economies” was a Zoom meeting discussing the importance of ESD in the creation of a ‘circular economy’ – one which goes against the ‘take, make, waste’ model of today, instead opting to keep materials in circulation for as long as possible. This helps tackle two of the greatest issues facing the modern world: resource scarcity and climate change. A circular economy has potential for countless new jobs such as in product design, the manufacturing industry and waste management. However, there is currently a skills gap that must be fixed by education for a circular economy to ever thrive. This includes vocational educational training for teachers and any adults. The key types of learning highlighted as absolute musts for education for a circular economy were problem-based learning, innovation and creativity and critical thinking.

The final session of the day I attended was “Putting ESD into action: Youth”. Areas of discussion that piqued my interest included when the speaker Malek Abidi stated that in the Middle East and North Africa, young people represent over half the population yet 1 in 5 children are not in school: an education crisis. This only worsens for girls, and poor digital infrastructure meant the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on education. Poor digital infrastructure helps explain the lack of youth participation in policy, thus a lack of awareness and initiative among youth in the Middle East and North Africa. A question posed asked what tools could help empower and mobilize youth for ESD. Included in the discussion were positive examples of change and realistic options of action. Safe spaces for young people to discuss climate issues and the use of social media platforms to engage young people. The integration of environment and climate change into games children play was also raised, something The Living Coast Biosphere has been doing through Minecraft with primary school children.

It was said that education for sustainable development should be a two-way process, with teachers listening to ideas from youth to help empower them. To ensure lifelong learning takes place, centres must be found where generations mix so young people can share their learning across a varied age range.

Day 3

“Education for Sustainable Development in Lifelong Learning” emphasised how if we are to educate the next generation, we must first educate the current generation; going on to say that we all must continue to learn if we are to live with this environment of uncertainty. Seychelles Education and Outreach Programme Officer Maria Brioche explained the importance of adults sharing cultural and traditional knowledge with younger generations, and vice versa with children becoming teachers. Children using their education to inform their families led to the community becoming conscious of the impacts of their actions, stimulating environmental protection as people refused to eat illegally caught fish. Once again community-based learning environments were highlighted as necessary, and the core skills taught by education being creativity, resilience, and confidence. A Lego Group leader explained how play and exploration were key to children’s learning.

The closing ceremony summarised the conference and discussed key things to take away from it. Referencing Greta Thunberg, the question was asked “how can we make sure this has been more than empty words?” This is the importance of the Berlin Declaration, a concrete commitment to integrate ESD into the core of curricula at all levels, including teacher training and vocational training, highlighting the importance of technology, inclusivity and climate action. This has been agreed to by all participants, so I hope some serious change in the education will be seen as a result. Other interesting mentions were that learning should be inquiry, experience and solution oriented in order to best impact learners, and that young people demand acceleration of sustainability in all sectors.

All in all, I hope that the excellent ideas and aims discussed at this conference will be put into practice through the Berlin Declaration sooner rather than later, as the fight against climate change has become a race against the clock.


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