Moving beyond the EE and ESD Disciplinary Debate in Formal Education

Rosalyn Mckeown, Centre for Geography and Environment Education, University of Tennessee, USA and Charles Hopkins, York University, Canada
(Condensed from article published in Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, Vol. 1 (1): 17-26)

Many educators think of education for sustainable development (ESD) on a disciplinary level. For ESD to be effective, we posit that more than disciplines need to be engaged. ESD works beyond the disciplinary scale at whole–school, educational system, and international scales.

Disciplinary Level
ESD is so inclusive that no single discipline could encompass all four thrusts of ESD as defined by the International Implementation Scheme (IIS) for the UNDESD (UNESCO 2005a). Perhaps more appropriate questions would be: What can this discipline contribute to ESD? or Will engaging a number of disciplines in ESD be sufficient to make significant progress?

Not all disciplines are treated equally in formal primary and secondary education. Traditional disciplines such as language, mathematics, and science form the core school subjects that are regularly tested and progress or lack thereof reported. In addition, other school subjects —such as history, geography, art, music, physical education, health, and religious studies — form a second tier of courses that are often offered but can be cut from the curriculum in times of financial or other difficulties.

The traditional school subjects are funded, timetabled, and reported. Peace education, environmental education, economics education, population education, vocational and technical education — all struggle for class time and are often infused into portions of existing curriculum or are added–on as elective classes, which makes their place in the curriculum tenuous and often temporary. defining and categorizing of core disciplines and adjectival educations holds an important distinction.

For ESD to notably impact formal education, it must be infused into core school subjects that have major, defined, and ongoing roles in primary and secondary curricula. We examine the contributions of two school subjects to ESD.

Geography and ESD
Discussions on geography’s contribution to the formal sector of ESD in terms of content and pedagogy show the linkages between geography and ESD.
• Geography is traditionally an integrating discipline, which is basic to ESD.
• Geography bridges natural and social science, which are both needed to analyze many sustainability issues.
• Geography deals with many of the economic, social, and environmental issues of Agenda 21.
• Regional geography classes contribute to understanding tensions (e.g. ethnic and religious) that contribute to war and conflict, which threaten sustainability.
• Geography contributes a spatial understanding and scale of sustainability issues.
• Geographers have educated for community issue investigation and problem solving for years.

Some of the contributions of geography are shared with other disciplines (e.g. content related to the major sustainability issues, such as water and population) and some contributions are unique (e.g. mapping spatial distributions of topics related to sustainability). Nevertheless, geographers are engaging in discussions, which every discipline should embark upon, centered on the question, “What is my discipline’s contribution to educating for a more sustainable future?”

Workplace Education (TVET) and ESD
Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is traditionally the sector of the education community concerned with educating for work–related concerns and issues. In the past, TVET was considered for school–to–career students, who would not attend post–secondary education; however, today TVET is being recast as education for the world of work and should form a part of the education of every student from primary school onward.

Because every student should have the opportunity to learn fundamentals to develop a means of livelihood, TVET is being mainstreamed into education in some places around the world. In conjunction with this notion of preparation for work is the idea that the workplace itself could become more sustainable if the workers themselves understood the basics of sustainability. “[T]he TVET of the future must not only prepare individuals for employment in the information society, but also make them responsible citizens who give due consideration to preserving the integrity of their environment and the welfare of others” (UNESCO 1999, p. 54).

Although these two school subjects make important contributions to ESD, the disciplinary approach to reorienting education to address sustainability falls short. For example, ESD calls for a trans-disciplinary approach that integrates, not separates, content and skills from different disciplines (McKeown et al. 2002; Sterling, 2001). Also a disciplinary approach looks at content, which is only part of improving basic education and reorienting education — the first two thrusts of ESD.

School Level-whole-school approaches
The whole–school approach recognizes that it will take more than information about sustainable development to make the enormous behavioral shift needed to achieve a more sustainable future (Henderson and Tilbury 2004). The whole-school approach attends to environmental, social, and economic realms of sustainable development.

“We have proposed the term ‘ESD–schools’ as a new term, which is different from the commonly used terms ‘eco–schools’ or ‘green schools’. By using a new term we want to stress that there are new challenges for schools that wish to engage in ESD–oriented development. ESD is not only dealing with aspects of people’s dependence on the quality of the environment and access to natural resources now and in the future, but also aspects of participation, self efficacy, equality and social justice are essential perspectives in preparing pupils for their engagement in sustainable development” (Breiting, Mayer, and Mogensen 2005, p 4). ESD schools try to embed sustainability beyond disciplines by modeling sustainable development practices in all their activities — from purchasing and hiring policies to everyday running of the schools.

This emerging phenomenon of a whole–school approach could not be realized if ESD is envisioned solely as a discipline or a sum of several disciplines. In the whole–school approach, the curriculum, programs, practices, and policies of an educational institution are engaged to contribute to building a more sustainable future. In this approach, sustainability is lived as well as taught. The buildings and the policies model sustainability, which is a powerful reinforcement of concepts taught in the classroom.

Educational–System Level
UNESCO identified ten key aspects that support quality education — the first thrust of ESD. This model involves two levels: the individual learner and systems of education (UNESCO 2005b).

At the level of the learner, quality education: seeks out the learner, acknowledges the learner’s knowledge and experience, makes content relevant to the life of the learner, uses many instructional and learning processes, and enhances the learning environment. At the level of the educational system, quality education: creates a legislative framework, implements good policies, builds administrative support and leadership, provides sufficient resources, and measures learning outcomes.

Especially at the level of the educational system, the tasks of improving quality basic education are far beyond the capabilities of a single discipline or even a whole–school approach if their efforts are not supported by the larger educational system.

Educational systems, whether regional or national, are responsible for providing the financial and other resources that will enable reorienting education to address sustainability. Often, ministries write curriculum, approve textbooks, certify teachers and administrators, provide in-service professional development, and provide other services that will either enable or thwart the implementation of ESD. Likewise, legislative bodies provide legal frameworks and financial resources. For example, one educational concern that affects educational systems in many nations is the charging of school fees. To improve access to basic education, governments must address the issue of school fees in legislation, policy, and finance.

International Level
Because education is perceived central to a more sustainable future, key to poverty reduction, and essential to a more equitable world, the United Nations currently has four major initiatives that involve education: The MDGs, Education for All, the UNLD and the UNDESD.

Although many educational issues are thought of as national issues (e.g. curriculum and teacher certification), some educational issues are transboundary, affecting several nations. These emerging issues pose threats to a sustainable future. The ESD community is currently grappling with the following three educational issues in different parts of the world. Although these concerns emerged years ago, they keep resurfacing in new and urgent forms, requiring multi-national responses.

  • HIV/AIDS – Education can assist in: preventing HIV infection, keeping people healthy after infection, preventing transmission to infants, and rebuilding economies hard hit by AIDS as well as welcoming AIDS orphans to school and meeting their learning needs (Lewis 2006; UNESCO 2004b).
  • Educating girls and women — This problem is being addressed by EFA and MDGs, which bring together monies from donor nations around the world.
  • Refugees – ESD has the potential to ameliorate the ill affects dislocation for both the migrants and the societies that receive immigrants and refugees. Education for and about refugees emerges as an issue of immense proportion.

Concluding Remarks
Given the breadth of support needed to fulfill the formal education components of ESD–improving quality basic education and reorienting education to address sustainability–consortiums of partners are necessary to create comprehensive ESD programs; disciplines alone cannot accomplish it. For the UNDESD to make significant progress in the formal education sector, disciplines, schools, educational systems, and international organizations must cooperate and work in concert.


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