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Education and its role in a whole new world

June 21, 2022

Back in 2014, Irina Bokova, then the Director-General of UNESCO, launched the UNESCO Roadmap in 2014 for a Global Action programme on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

Bokova began this document with a foreword, which made it clear that for humanity to survive the coming decades, and move to a way of life that could be sustained, tinkering at the edges of our system would simply not do. Bokova called for nothing less than a "paradigm shift" in the way we work, live and consumer resources.

That's a big, bold statement. A total rethink of everything we are doing is pretty scary. Our economies, societies, ways of travelling, consuming and powering our lifestyles have to become something totally different. This is not just switching to electric cars and cutting out the beefburgers, but something much, much more.

Education for Sustainable Development beyond 4.7

Within the Universal Values of the United Nations, in which we have agreed fundamental Human Rights and that nobody anywhere should face barriers to living a healthy, happy life, there is a plan to achieve this. Oh yes, the Sustainable Development Goals you have heard so much about might be a little wooly and vague around some of the terminology and implementation, but they do cover pretty much everything we need to do to get this world working for people, planet and prosperity in equal measures.

We zoom in on SDG 4 (Quality Education) and find 7 targets. The last one, target 4.7, tells us of the role that education has to play in sustainable development, and it really does completely understate the point.

Far from being one small target component of one of 17 SDGs, this one really is at the heart of absolutely every part of the Sustainability agenda. If we are going to overhaul the whole blue planet, then we need to know what we are doing, and how to adapt when it doesn't go to plan.

Look at any one of the SDGs on that plan. From Climate change to innovation, life below water to reducing inequalities: every single one requires an informed, adaptable, aware, empowered and capable society to make that happen. And just who is going to take responsibility for that? We are.

Aiming beyond sustainability

Before we get any emails, when we said "we are", we didn't mean just NEO Academy, though we'll do our best. "We" means everyone in education, from teachers and marketers to administrators and planners, learners and researchers. "Education" of course refers to K-12, FE and HE but also to the wide world of informal and non-formal learning, apprenticeships, mentoring and all the rest of it. We all have a huge part to play.

In what? Well, this is either the scary bit or the exciting bit, depending on how you feel about reworking the entire planet. You see, "sustainability" isn't very exciting. In our NEOchats with Eddy Van Hemelrijk, he asked us "if you asked your friend how their marriage was going, and they said it was sustainable, you'd probably think that doesn't sound very good". He's right. Sustainability is the ability to meet our needs without compromising the needs of current or future generations, but beyond that, we have aspirational words like renewal and regeneration.

Regeneration means making something new, and that's what this whole thing is about. We got a little carried away with fast fashion and avocado lattes, the illusion that wealth equates to happiness, and that we can all take as much as we want from the planet and from other people, and as long as we call it "success", things will be just peachy. We lost our way for a while.

Sustainability is sort of comforting, as it encourages us to tweak some things, reduce others and basically find new ways to do what we do. Regeneration is something more. This is where we get to say that the space to innovate is wide open, and we are up for the challenge. What happens if we have an economy based on happiness and wellbeing rather than GDP? What happens if we redefine what success looks like and support each other to find passion and purpose in pursuit of that? What happens when we share values beyond the material and look at what bonds us, and not what divides us?

The skills and knowledge for a whole new world

When the challenge is so complex, and the "wicked problems" of our world overlap, interact, contradict and generally just don't sit well together, who do we need to be to face that? When the way forward is going to shift and tremble, the cascading effects of climate breakdown and food insecurity speed up or take unpredictable turns, what do we need to know to face that? What kind of education do we need to regenerate the world and build something new and vibrant?

According to UNESCO, we need specific elements in all of our education contexts, institutions and approaches.

We need to integrate critical issues, such as climate change, biodiversity, disaster risk reduction (DRR), and sustainable consumption and production (SCP), into all of our curricula. In our experience, that process is happening pretty slowly, though some like Bali's Green School have been doing it for years already.

We need to design learning (not teaching) in a way that is interactive, puts the learner at the centre and in control, and which is transformative. Transformative pedagogies are approaches which leave us changed in the way we think, feel and act, and not just what we know. The James-Bond wannabees all love to hang out in the shadows just "knowing" stuff, but it won't slow down global warming, will it? Education needs to be about empowering growth and change, and not just sharing facts. Immersive, experiential, personal, adaptive are just a few adjectives that fit well with that new paradigm of learning and education, but there are many more.

Learners need to be equipped with the green skills for jobs. You'll note that we did not say "skills for green jobs" because in order to regenerate this planet, we have to accept that all jobs are green jobs. From hairdressers to engineers, taxi drivers to marketing ninjas (why do people call themselves that?!), we all need to integrate and internalise new ways of doing things that do not leave others behind and do not take more from this earth than it can support.

And the big picture? Our values need brought to the fore, alongside the reflective and cognitive skills to interact with empathy and cultural acumen with a wide range of people in uncountable situations. We need to have a core that is us, in ever-changing unpredictability. Empathy, compassion, inclusiveness, and the systems-thinking ability to understand how it all fits together; these are the outcomes of education in a regenerating world.

Let's get moving

When we at NEO Academy talk about the future of education, decentralization of control through Web3, immersive VR learning, purposeful learning and all the rest of it, it's because we see what could be. We are also a bit impatient, and that might come across in the tone of these articles at times, for which we make no apology. We have only a few years to sow these seeds.

There is no time for dragging heels and teaching to the test. The real test is whether we can let go, cross that knowing-doing fear gap, and move forward into uncertainty. Uncertain times are coming whether we move forward or not, but we can start now to build a world where we all have a fair shot at remaking it to include us all, to honour our new place as stewards of a living world, and not to fight for what is left of a dying one.

At NEO Academy, we want to promote and amplify the voices of those who have a similar passion and value set, even if you're not yet where you want to be. Especially if you're not yet where you want to be. Get in touch to see how we can help you get there, and let's be part of something new.

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