UNESCO | Education - Interview with Charles Hopkins, UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainable Development, York University, Canada
April 2009

Interview with Charles Hopkins, UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainable Development, York University, Canada

The financial market crisis is a typical example of missing Sustainable Development. Are you optimistic about the future of the world?
For so many of the world’s poor it’s a disaster. So I am not very optimistic. But the good news is we realize that we can’t just suddenly switch from focusing on the environment to addressing the economy or social issues, each in isolation, as in the past. This time we are capable of looking at the market in a concerted way through the concept of sustainable development. So I am optimistic that we could make a better recovery. In the meantime it’s going to be very, very hard on many on the world’s poor.

Who lags behind so far? Is it more society, the economy or politics?
From an ESD perspective I would say it is society in general. Many countries around the world don’t have an integrated ESD or even an effective SD strategy. The society in these countries is often not engaged. In other countries we are finding that the general society has not been exposed to sustainability at all. But we need the ESD public awareness and understanding programs. We need training programs at all levels and we need better education programs that deal with the real sustainability issues. Once we have an informed society we can better address the environmental and economic issues in a more equitable and informed manner.

Schools are an important interface for education for sustainable development. If young people acquire the knowledge and values, they have the chance to think and act with lasting effect. So how can students best learn to understand the exceedingly abstract subject of sustainability?
One of the best ways is by not calling it sustainability, especially with younger students. ESD has to deal with the students’ and teachers’ real issues such as sharing, caring and relating, before you slowly move from a “me” focus to a “we” focus. Dealing with their own local environmental and social issues first and then slowly building up to a global perspective is a workable entry for schools. An important component of formal education’s engagement with ESD is using ESD to address the existing academic goals. Access and Retention in quality education is a shared thrust of ESD and school systems. Using sustainability issues to enhance critical thinking skills is but one of many examples of overlapping objectives. To begin, we should focus on age appropriate competences. These competences go beyond factual knowledge and include skills, values, perceptions and action skills. ESD however is “place-based” and must also be developed in a locally relevant and culturally appropriate manner.

What are good ESD practices at school level?
One place to start is the curriculum. What is being taught and modelled? If we are trying to promote democracy, we must model democracy in the classroom. What kind of governance models do we have in the school itself? These are the sort of surface things that would be good practices. But also there are much deeper ones: What do we fund or timetable? What do we evaluate and what do we report upon? What is it that our whole school system models in its purchasing, school meals and buildings? The system must declare ESD a priority, fund it, measure its progress and report upon achievements. That way the teachers, students and school officials will know that ESD truly is important and not just another peripheral add-on.

Do you think that the teachers have already realized how important education for sustainable development is?
Usually they intuitively understand and agree. But they often say there is no time in the curriculum, there are no resources. Some teachers think it’s just another societal issue for schools to deal with without training or fiscal or human resources. To change this, we really need to engage the senior education leaders. They have to understand ESD, be mandated and resourced to develop strategic, concerted implementation plans. We also need to work with parents and the entire community as they don’t know yet what ESD is trying to accomplish. So we have to work both from the top down and the bottom up.

What could be extra steps to ensure that the important role of education for sustainable development is emphasized more strongly?
One major step needed is to ensure that at least the new teachers will have competences in ESD. There are 60 million teachers now in the world. We just don’t have funding to retrain them all. But we certainly can be working with the faculties producing the new teachers. We need to engage those institutions and the ministries that direct them. UNESCO knows this and is working hard with countries and institutions to address this issue.

(Interview by Farid Gardizi, Deputy Spokesperson, German Commission for UNESCO)

Turn knowledge into action for sustainable development declares Bonn Conference


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