Alternative educational approaches to education for sustainable development

Kopnina, H. . (2020). Education for the future? Critical evaluation of education for sustainable development goals. The Journal of Environmental Education, 51, 280-291.

Sustainability and sustainable development have become key tenets to economic, social, and political prosperity around the globe. Since the mid-twentieth century, these concepts evolved into teaching and application through the Education for Sustainable Development Goals (ESDG) in 2017 based on the United Nations' Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). However, the definitions and intentions of sustainability and sustainable development are not always agreed upon, inciting questions by some. These questions include whether the ESDG produces a universally desired result and whether sustainable development is taught at the expense of non-human species. The ESDG has been criticized for attempting to solve urgent economic and social issues in a vacuum without careful consideration of the environmental context, leading to unintended environmental consequences for humans and ecosystems. In this literature review, the researcher discusses critiques of the ESDG and provides alternative educational approaches to face sustainability challenges.

The researcher reviewed academic literature of environmental education and theory, critical approaches to sustainability, and the context and frameworks of the United Nations' international educational initiatives. The author also collected insight from educators and researchers over a number of years through informal communications to support their recommendations based on the research.

One critique of the ESDG is that the premise of sustainable development – the management of natural resources alongside population growth – is naïve because development inherently means more natural resource depletion. Another critique focuses on how development divides the globe into developed and undeveloped, eliciting a sense of superiority of one group or area over another. Finally, some critics claim that ESDG is extremely anthropocentric by considering the value of the environment and its resources to humans as opposed to the environments' intrinsic value.

The alternative educational approaches are primarily categorized into learning style, educational theory, and strategy, though they can often overlap. Incorporation of Indigenous knowledge with modern learning styles bridges the gap between tangible and intangible, human and non-human, and nature and culture. Indigenous traditions can be localized and help form pro-environmental attitudes and challenge modern perspectives. Ecocentric education promotes the interconnectedness of all living and nonliving things. This educational theory considers the ethical treatment for all with humans as an equal part of the whole rather than positioned as the central and most important species. Economic models like steady-state, circular economy, and degrowth are strategies that can be better for the environment, in comparison to current economic models based on perpetual growth. Environmental educators can use this research for inspiration in developing and evaluating curricula and activities related to sustainability or sustainable development.

There are limitations to this literature review. First, the literature may not reflect all the available research s on the successes and limitations of the ESDG. Second, the information the researcher gained through their personal connections and informal communications may be biased or misinterpreted. Third, most of the existing critiques of the ESDG are by those who were educated in the global West, but not all education systems to which the ESDG apply are considered Western. The author of this paper was educated in the Western context, so their views expressed towards ESDGs may differ from those approaching the ESDGs from different educational perspectives. Finally, the styles and approaches reviewed by the researcher may not be possible or practical for all environmental educators.

The researcher ultimately recommended strong inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, or traditional ecological knowledge, as the best learning alternative to the ESDG. The educational methods that are not human centric and those that prioritize degrowth are vital strategies to challenge the inequities perpetuated by the ESDG. Educators should include these methods and economic models in their curriculum. Further, the researcher suggested that the non-traditional practices explored in the literature review are more mainstream than in previous decades, which may help educators feel more comfortable when adopting alternative educational approaches.

The Bottom Line

<p>The United Nations' Education for Sustainable Development Goals (ESDG) are the model for sustainability and sustainable development education around the globe. However, the goals of ESDG are largely focused on immediate issues in the economic and social arenas without considering the full scope of ecological effects on humans and non-humans in the long term. From a literature review of broad EE theory, the researcher suggested that alternative educational approaches can lead to a better global initiative for education for sustainability and sustainable development. The inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, or Traditional Ecological Knowledge, is a strong learning alternative to the ESDG. Educational methods that are not human-centered and prioritize degrowth are key to challenging the inequities perpetuated by the ESDG. Environmental educators can use this research for inspiration in developing and evaluating curricula and activities related to sustainability or sustainable development.</p>

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