Education for a more sustainable 21st Century

I volunteer in a first grade classroom at a local elementary school. This week the students are learning about measuring time in months and hours and are learning to spell “ai” words. Their teacher is giving them a wonderful start in their academic career. Nevertheless, I worry that the education they will receive in their remaining 11 years in school may not prepare them for the future. The next generation will be larger, yet there will be fewer natural resources (e.g., timber, unpolluted fresh water, and fish stocks). Both citizens and leaders will face huge environmental, social, and economic challenges.

When I went to school, the education of the day prepared me to be successful in the current society. Repeating that type of education would do the students of today a disservice. The pace of change is accelerating. The direction of that change is both awesome (e.g., changes in communication technology blending computers and telephones) and frightening (e.g., degradation of the majority of Earth’s eco-systems and a growing gap between the “haves” and the ‘have nots”). With globalization and climate change the problems that were once geographically distant are arriving on our doorsteps. To deal with the problems of tomorrow students of today will need to learn to deal with complexity, work collaboratively across disciplines, and make decisions in an uncertain environment.

There are a number of educational initiatives that attempt to address the questions associated with what type of education should we provide to students of today to prepare them for the workforce and civic participation (e.g., Partnership for 21st Century Skills and EdSteps Global Competencies). Such initiatives seem to fall short, in part because they do not identify the purpose of primary and secondary education. While the vast majority of school districts wrestle with providing a quality education for students—which is admirable—often the purpose of that education goes undefined. Is the purpose still to create a workforce that will keep the U.S. economically competitive as mentioned in A Nation at Risk in 1983? Educating for economic competitiveness created a few short-term winners and lots of losers. In the long run every country is currently paying or will pay the price of ecological deterioration, social inequity, and economic instability inside their borders or in a neighboring country or trading partner. Could the purpose of education become safeguarding the well being of the students now and in the future which would entail working toward the common good, global stability, and a brighter more sustainable tomorrow?

Some states and provinces (State of Washington and the Province of Manitoba of Canada) as well as countries (Finland and India) have included sustainability as a major curricular theme. Education for sustainable development (ESD) has become an overarching paradigm for educational discourse outside of the USA as a result of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005 – 2014. As I look at the first graders and think about their collective future, I am of the opinion that the formal education community in the U.S. should engage in exploring the ESD paradigm.

Rosalyn McKeown is the Secretariat for the UNESCO Chair on Reorienting Teacher Education to Address Sustainability at York University in Toronto, Canada

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