Re-imagining Education for Sustainable Development

Published on 25 January 2022

It is the Anthropocene or the Age of Humans.  Uncontrolled human activity, biodiversity loss, and extensive pollution of air, water and soil have defined this whole new geologic epoch.  Freshwater resources have declined globally, and by 2050, four billion people may be faced with severe water scarcity.  The extraction and processing of metals, minerals, fossil fuels, and biomass are responsible for climate change, mass extinctions, air pollution and water stress.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “humans have warmed the planet, causing widespread and rapid changes to the earth’s oceans, ice, land surface and global sea levels.”  Out of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can thrive, four have already been crossed.  This can result in irreversible environmental damage and threaten the economy, trigger violent global conflicts, unplanned migration, and undermine the notion of equity and fairness.

CarbonBrief: Nine Tipping Points

The Arctic is heating twice as fast as any other location on earth and sea ice is shrinking by 14 percent per decade.  Polar bears that depend on sea ice will have no food, water or a place to rest.  An area larger than Alaska and California combine was lost.  Tigers have lost 95 percent of their historical range.  Their habitat loss is due to agriculture, construction and timber plantations.  Sea level rise and mangrove deforestation in the future will completely wipe out their habitat.  The elephants are forced to migrate greater distances due to drying water resources, lack of food, human-led fragmentation of elephant corridors and poaching for ivory tusks.

The ones who are faced with the devasting consequences of the climate crisis are the children of the world and they did not start this fire.  Currently, 82.4 million people are displaced due to climate conflicts over land, water and food, and the children among them are deeply impacted by the loss of their home and a protective environment.  Most abandon education to earn a livelihood like adults.  According to UNICEF, one billion children in 33 countries will be severely impacted by climate change.  The World Bank estimates that 132 million children could be pushed into poverty.

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Education Crisis

The current COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the education crisis with school closures, intermittent lockdowns and the sudden shift to remote learning on online platforms.  Traditional rote-based learning, parroting memorized answers, mastering the strategy of solving multiple-choice questions, achieving top ranks through fierce competition, standardized testing and vying for the coveted corner office will be of little use when our fragile life is precariously hanging in balance and planet earth is on fire.  The world has reached a tipping point.

The time is now to think critically and out of the box, debate and dialogue, and collaborate globally to find solutions for pressing issues facing humanity like unprecedented volcanic eruptions, floods, heatwaves, snowstorms, pollution, crop failure, disease outbreaks, rising inequality, poverty and climate conflicts over land, water and food.  There is an urgent need to transition to a more sustainable future for all.  The best way forward in this direction is through education on sustainability, where learning is centered around solving local problems having a global impact.  Effective management of the ocean, the atmosphere, and climate systems can have local as well as global consequences.

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.  Led by the UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Decade is designed to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.  Restoring ecosystems is critical for global health. The loss of natural habitats is a key driver of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.  Forests, peatlands and mangrove restorations, urban tree plantation, good farm practices, and energy conservation to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), outlined in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, adopted in 2015 and ratified by 190 countries to date, can help in halting, restoring and reversing environmental degradation.

Science and Technology to the Rescue

Breathtaking advancements in science and technology have made 21st-century living extremely comfortable.  In the past, people affected by the plague were jailed in quarantine islands and left to recover on their own or perish due to lack of adequate medical care.  During the current COVID-19 pandemic, there are multitudes of technology tools, drugs, vaccines, genomic surveillance, digital gadgets, telemedicine, satellite television, doorstep delivery services and instant access to any information.

Technology is making the world smaller and open.  For young people today, who spend most of their waking hours online, it is a borderless world.  Technology is creating greater awareness about global challenges like poverty, inequality, world hunger, lack of clean water and climate change.  Unlike any time in human history, there are tools to tackle these problems and they can be conquered by working together collaboratively across borders.

But how will the students who are pitted against each other in the current school education system through marks and grades, who are groomed through coaching classes to relentlessly pursue the centum score, learn to collaborate in a higher education system and interact across borders in the workplace?

Misinformation and Misguidance

Along with information and scientific data, even misinformation is shared at lightning speed via the Internet.  Science helps to separate truth from falsehood.  Students should be able to make sense of pressing matters such as pandemic outbreaks, immunizations, climate change, and the growing mistrust of science and scientific expertise.  They have to be taught how to find reliable sources of information about science or how to evaluate and reject scientific misinformation.

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According to a survey, YouTube videos, Facebook tutorials and Instagram demos repeatedly made the viewers overconfident of performing the tasks they were exposed to, and as a result, they overestimated their skills.  Merely accumulating knowledge without putting it to impactful use is pointless.  Young people should be guided to participate in online content that augments their well-being and ignites their passion for learning.  They should be able to sift through all information, ignore fake news, discard harmful content and be cyber-safe.  This is how the future of the Internet and the world will be shaped.

Higher Education

As for higher education, there seems to be a disconnect between university education which has expanded on an industrial scale, and 21st-century tech-saturated work opportunities.

A smartphone is a magnificent gadget, but when held very close to the ear for a long duration, it can cause can harm, as it emits non-ionizing radiation directly into the head.  Algorithms designed to keep a young person hooked to the screen can end up causing addiction and mental health issues, if not self-regulated.  Social media can promote hate speech and disturb the peace of a country.  The most current scientific evidence shows that a pulse oximeter, used for diagnosing COVID-19, works better on light skins than dark.  Artificial Intelligence used in airport passenger screening deems certain racial, ethnic and religious minorities as dangerous outsiders.  This is the result of a lack of diversity in the workplace and underlying cognitive biases in people who code – the programmers who give instructions to the computer on what actions to perform.  As for the GDP, it is only a rough indicator of a country’s standard of living based on its material performance.  It does not take into account the environmental or social impacts.

With COVID-19, one has come to realize that the study of diagnosis and treatment of disease in medicine is as much as important as the prevention of disease.  The oral microbiome is crucial to overall health as it can cause both dental and systemic diseases.  Ecology studies must also include various aspects of economics, sociology and history.  Likewise, engineering education is not just about building the next generation of technology tools, smartphones, subways or bridges.  It must also deal with the social impacts of such innovation.

Merely studying the material environment is not sufficient anymore.  Students have to learn how it impacts all living beings.  Interdisciplinary education is more suited to tackle problems related to disease outbreaks, geopolitical tensions and climate change.  

Holistic Education and Problem-Based Learning

Traditional pedagogy should give way to 21st-century real-life problem-based learning.  All knowledge is now available with a click of a button in this modern hyperconnected world.  This vast repertoire of information should be put to good use to solve the burgeoning problems facing planet earth.  All young people should be given equal access to quality digital learning resources.

Experts in their chosen field can only provide a fragmented view.  Experts and non-experts must work together to provide a holistic view.  An education system with siloed subjects cannot solve messy and chaotic real-world issues.  Every learning has to be engaged with social issues and public welfare if the problem of climate change has to be solved.  The culture of disengagement has to be done away with.  Young people wish to build a better world and they wish to make a living rebuilding the planet and promoting a green economy.  Climate change and sustainability solutions should be taught in class.  Conversations that promote a sustainable future and engagement with social justice are the need of the hour.  Science and technology should be applied to vital societal issues.  The tech-savvy young people of today have the energy, desire, will, and creativity to heal the world.

Instead of teaching students how to answer questions, they must be taught how to ask questions. Before solving a problem, they must be taught to ask questions about what is causing the problem, think holistically about the problem, take a multidisciplinary perspective and try to connect the dots.  This methodology can be applied to achieve the SDGs.

Design thinking will help students to think, identify and solve problems.  Art-integrated learning will enable creativity and help students grasp any concept in any subject.  It is crucial to integrate the Arts in STEM Education and promote STEAM Education.  Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills, which nurture creativity, inquiry and empathy, will help students become aware of themselves and the world around them.  Pro-environmental behaviour should be inculcated from early childhood.  Machines can think and solve an individual problem, but they cannot analyze it in an integrated way as humans do.

A one-size-fits-all approach to education is not going to solve the problem that the digital divide will create.  Cyber-schooling is not a suitable option for all.  Being socially isolated and sitting in a room all day will not be healthy for most young people in the long run.  Education should be personalized and tailored to students’ interests, needs and skills.  Self-regulation on the Internet, goal-setting, cultivating sustained attention and self-initiated learning are important skills for a tech-fuelled future.

There is a need to re-imagine a more just, equitable, inclusive, resilient and sustainable world, where no one is to be left behind.  Everyone must have access to essential services and opportunities to thrive.  It is time to educate students for a sustainable future.

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