Weak ESD

Festive notions
of Education for Sustainable Development

Weak ESD - Quick Wins leading to Strategic Loss

Overviewing then entirety of ESD-development since 2004, it appears it's transformative promise remained outstanding as various notions prevailed over thorough reconsiderations and an informed improvement of education. Notions that actually hold little new seem to dominate the discourse as they are brought to centre stage by leaders in the world of ESD.

To free the way for progress we here address 'ESD Competences', 'Social Learning', 'Systems Thinking' and the 'Whole School Approach'. 

ESD Competences

In the aftermath of so called '21st Century Skills' and preceding 'Circular Skills' substantial effort has been put in the formulation and spread of 'ESD'-competences, the usefulness of which remain shady while pushing them appears to block progress. 

Social Learning

Claiming 'Social Learning' is a special building block of ESD can be seen as rather pretentious - as if learning could be seen outside the realm of the social realm, contacts and endeavours.


Obviously, when thinking about the dimensions of sustainable development phenomena are interrelated, whether causal or circular - hardly any science could have developped with this notion.


The way a 'Whole School or -Institution' idea is approached in recent years appears to create further structures, processes and institutional control over schooling, remaining far from education, let alone learning.

A Critical Encounter with Contemporary ESD

Seeking explanatory factors why still today the transformative potential of ESD remains untouched in broader policy and practice, I conclude on a deterioration of meaning and course resulting from a different understanding and relevance contributed to ideas and concepts such as:
• Systems Thinking,
• (ESD-)Competences,
• Social Learning,
• a ‘Whole School/Institution Approach’,
• ESD in Teacher Training and Education.

Underlying, I experienced that larger parts of the world of researchers and policy-developers most involved are characterised by an awkward mix of involvement and distancing, warm heartedness and haughtiness, paralleled with sensations of strangeness to the real and other realms of research than their own.
My reflections in this paragraph should be regarded as both constructive and critical, seeking for the better of ESD.  

Special attention is paid to Teacher Education in the realm of ESD, not because it is disturbing but despite decades of conferencing lacking entirely. 

Systems Thinking, System Dynamics
a too profound claim

Since Forrester brought his original 1950’s concept ‘Systems Dynamics’ to the Club of Rome in 1971, it became a paradigm in the realm of sustainable development to address the predicament of our socio-economic system. As the mapping of interrelations between amongst others population, production, food and pollution was worked into “The Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al., 1972), it would be a neglect not to consider System Dynamics in ESD, even despite the questionable predictive quality of the model(s) used. The idea that our system’s elements are interrelated in a cyclical rather than a linear cause and effect can be valuable for learning about complex systems and of use for transdisciplinary education. Already in the 1980’s schools in Arizona cross-connected content, following the efforts of Brown, Forrester’s former mentor at MIT (MIT, 1996). However, considering its principal notion and the inherent quality of learning, I find it difficult to justify System Dynamics a concept for education as such. Amongst others Economy, Geography and Medicine could not have been studied without the notion of complex systems and their circular interdependencies, thus hold the idea for centuries already. Although it is rational and educationally relevant to better understand the relation, dependency,
coupled nature and mutual influence of systems, certainly between those manufactured and ecology, System Dynamics and Systems Thinking do not qualify as a ground-breaking insight or the emergence of a new methodology or pedagogy,
let alone an encompassing approach to ESD. Moreover, Systems Thinking provides little foothold how to interpret sustainability and tends to observe and understand present day systems while from the perspective of sustainable development addressing their future usefulness should prevail. 

ESD Competences and 21st Century Skills
a pontifical presence of pretentious policy advice

One of the repeated, seemingly endless, efforts in the world of ESD is the listing of ESD-competences with an eye on the adaption of present curricula. In our reasoning (6.4.3), it makes little sense to manifest ESD by ways of adding elements to curricula to match system segments when the learning within each segment remains as it is. Advising to add ostensible ‘21st Century Skills’ or specific ‘ESD-competences’ to each segment and overarching curricula is like adding sprockets to an already failing engine. Moreover, such efforts to ‘pimp’ curricula distract from true improvements and therewith reinforce the status quo of present education as an agency to colonize technologically and economically deterministic futures (Gough, 1990) the system is lined out for now.
Questioning what the various skills and competences listed mean, there is little evidence of their added value besides raising awareness that requirements for life after school tend to differ. An over accentuation of which blurs the view since they largely remain the same. The claim of ‘difference’ can be gathered pretentious, as if qualities as ‘cooperation’ and values as ‘empathy’ have been strange to our ancestors. The listings therewith present a false promise, claim transformative value where they offer none. Prescriptions like these are seen to distract schools and diffuse their priority-setting when they frantically seek activities to comply with such ambiguous and non-committal notes then surfacing in their curricula. As teachers explained, pressure to comply takes hostage of their own inclination to think soundly and consider the essence of ESD. The listings are witnessed not to inform change, for after 20 years or more talking about 21st Century Skills and higher order learning objectives, we are still stuck, unable to break out of the old patterns of teaching and learning (Goldspink, 2015). Despite long year efforts by the ESD-community, I argue that a persistent listing of terms and rather loosely stitched phrases rewording long standing skills and values as ‘ESD Competences’, also when newly (un-)packed from ‘21st Century Skills’ (Capelo, Santos, & Pedrosa, 2012; UNECE, 2011; Vare et al., 2019), will not bring the effectuating of ESD nearer. On the contrary, a profiling through competencies of such broad quality they apply to any field obstructs essential discussions and brands ESD with a limited perspective. The range of overlapping and recurrently funded projects, seminars and conferences, the substantial spending on numerous international exchanges for only a small group of people, hardly delivered new insights while stubborn preaching obstructs progress through the defection of attention.
If one seeks further understanding of the belayed quality of ESD Competences and the like, there are for example the ‘Issues and Directions’ in which the Ministry of Education of Ontario in 1980 already described the learner as “self-motivated, a self-directed problem-solver, aware of both the processes and uses of learning and deriving a sense of self-worth and confidence from a variety of accomplishments”, “a methodical thinker who is capable of inquiry, analyses, synthesis, evaluation, as well as a perceptive discoverer” (Ministry of Education, 1980). 

The ability and willingness to cope with uncertain, new, and rapidly changing conditions 2. Complex communication/social skills—interpreting both verbal and non-verbal information from others to respond appropriately 3. Non-routine problem-solving skills—using expert thinking to examine a broad span of information, recognise patterns and narrow the information to reach a diagnosis of the problem. 4. self-management/self-development—the ability to work remotely, in virtual teams and to be self-motivating and self-monitoring. 5. Systems Thinking—the ability to understand how an entire system works, including how an action, change, or malfunction in one part of the system affects the rest of the system (National Research Council, 2011).

Social Learning
discarding the Student

As elaborated on in 6.2.8 , I tend to be critical of Social Learning as a carrier, let alone a concept for ESD. The way we envision learning and applied it in practice, the process is obviously infused by continuous social interactions and positioned in the social domain, an essential characteristic and function of an Open Educational Area.
Such is most logic, inextricable yet not per definition indispensable since it is not the (young) learners’ assimilation in the present but their vision and effectuation of the future that defines the transformative quality of ESD.
Although Social Learning might come across sympathetic and democratic, I tend to be critical when it is profiled as a pillar of ESD if such builds on a conviction of ‘social relevance and fairness’ informed by all-too-common norms and values. When Social Learning positions knowledge-construction as an active process conducted by groups or communities, it is subject to unqualified consensus, the result of political struggles and negotiations undertaken by individuals who are implicitly regarded to have knowledge in some prior way. I argue such should be critically questioned during and through the learning process, it cannot define it. Moreover, since we found supporters of Social Learning agents of own specific interests in the ESD-discourse, the generation of standpoints and vistas taking place in secluded subcommunities to then be inflicted on others, it made me ponder how authentic and true hearted Social Learning as then remains. We grew specifically critical during the years when it was brought to the stage as an essence of ESD with the argument sub-optimations resulting from compromise should be accepted – a position exposing a numbing characteristic of contemporary research- and policy-development in the field.
Seeing the slow progress and insignificant effects so far, ESD-research might have fallen victim to Social Learning itself.
Furthermore, positioning Social Learning as a common good for ESD by romanticising the social realm as per definition positive and constructive, risks that undesired or destructive exchanges are insufficiently considered. It needs to be seen if the social life and reach of a (young) person is rich enough in terms of the presence of people with relevant competences, experiences, attitudes and will to exchange. Regarding the larger social realm, aspects as manipulation, people being steered around, indoctrination and the unfair use of say and power over others, are concerns far beyond any cuddly conception of Social Learning. The world also includes places and situations where real life enfolds in ways that can hardly be regarded a benevolent educational environment. Also for this reason, while concurring with the basic principle of social constructivism (Vygotsky, 1980) that interactions with others can play en essential role in the construction of meaning, I consider such not exclusively so since meaning can be derived through personal observation and interpretation. For that I hold the persons’ individual development, growing roots and standing strong, key to ESD.
Should Social Learning be positioned as a component of the learning context beyond school, we first need to acknowledge that experiential and social learning by way of first-hand practices and interactions, are widely known and practiced in school systems around the world for decades through internships, field research, service-learning and the like. As we found, such learning should not be organised as a service for but arise from the students’ learning processes and is certainly not in need for a new naming. 

The Whole School Approach
a choice for Systems and Structures over Students

The OPEDUCA-project had the idea of a Whole School Approach (WSA) emerge from practice in its earlier years between 2004 and 2008, integrating the corporate (organisation), campus, curriculum and community, schools being places where sustainability-principles are embedded and embodied (J. Eussen, 2007b; Leusink, 2015). As extensively described in previous chapters, it should however not be confused with present notions of a WSA as these appear more oriented on systems, structures and covenants. Whereas these reason from systems to schooling,
the OPEDUCA-concept starts from learning to effectuate education. As we learned along the way, the organisation of education by a school should be supportive and not directive, enabling and not commanding the learning process. Instead of gearing up a school organisation we proposed ‘school’ as a nexus of learning (J. Eussen, 2007b; Goedmakers, 2007, 2008) enabling a Whole Student Approach’ (6.3).
One should realise a WSA is not a new insight to begin with since it was stated already 15 years ago sustainability is relevant to all aspects of school life including formal and hidden curricula, school leadership and management as well as teacher development, encouraging schools to practise what they preach (Ferreira, Ryan, & Tilbury, 2006). It should give reason to consider why these days hardly any successful examples of a WSA can be found and UNESCO positions the idea as key in its
ESD for 2030, ambiguously stating: “For priority action area 2 on education and training settings, attention is required to promote the whole-institution approach, emphasizing the importance and necessity for schools or other education institutions, at all levels from early childhood to higher education and lifelong learning in communities, to work together. There have to be strategic policies and measures to reinforce the interaction and cooperation of the formal, non-formal and informal educational settings.” Although this formulation resembles the OPEDUCA-concept, the emphases is on institutional corporation, speaking of ‘reinforcing’ interactions. Besides, even this more organisational approach is not new to ESD at it was already promoted by Van Ginkel for the creation of UNU-RCE’s (Fadeeva & Mochizuki, 2007). Back then and apparently still today the conviction is held learning can be effectuated through the cooperation of institutional segments. Such is obviously far from continuous learning throughout and beyond the system.

As observed, an institutional approach of ESD contributes to an ossified practice as the various institutions’ existence is taken as starting point. As we witnessed, position(ing), roles, hegemony, political arguments and perceived supremacy of certain actors eventually leads to compromises in every area, at its best resulting in weak forms of ESD. The WSA now presented seems to be built on the illusion learning and ESD can be commanded through rigorous control and the accounting of systems and structures attempting to organise education. Such ignores educational practice and is far from the essence of students’ learning, making ESD become even more stuck in the confinements of the present apparatus.

I furthermore see more recent ideas of a WSA to include thus many elements and actors, it apparently commands an integral reorientation of schooling while only referring to matters and relations schools are regarded to have in place to begin with. Each element not new in itself, nor is the notion that a school should consider them parallel and interrelated makes the promotion of a WSA for ESD presumptuous,
the disregard of history and disrespect for school reality amalgamating in an overbearing proposition.

As weak and wavering approach of ESD, the WSA becomes reflected in needless attempts to dress up schools. As if for example placing solar cells on a school’s rooftop or a bee-hotel in its yard are more than optical illusions of ESD, lukewarm ideas functioning as fig leaf. The way the WSA is worded and positioned seems to result from a multi-facetted vagueness of subjective ESD, seeking to anchor it(self) in a broken system. A 2-year WSA-project in the Netherlands (Wageningen University and three schools in secondary) was found to impoverish ESD, the schools not making progress (NRO, 2019), a school leader phrased it correct when stating: “They heard the clock ticking but have no idea when midnight will strike”.

What is most worrying in this regard is when ‘school’ is qualified as a socialisation-machine. While UNESCO’s ESD for 2030 on the one hand acknowledges that students should have opportunities to launch critical inquiry and be exposed to realities,
it is on the other hand nearly frightening to read that: “There has to be more attention to individuals and how they are transformed”. The authors apparently the same as those advocating the WSA, this reveals an underlying hegemonic conviction contrary to any OPEDUCA principle and points to a haughty perspective of policy developers and researchers. It would be wiser to take a critical position and be aware the way education is interpreted defines the thin line between the enhancement of students’ explorative thinking and indoctrination (Biesta, 2013). Students cannot be ‘taught’ a worldview from out an academic ivory tower but they can be guided to develop one, a mission however requiring capacity and understanding wrought in life’s practice.
Since ESD cannot be arranged by building further structures and the reshuffling of roles in institutions, not commanded by research and policies strange to life itself, with regard to the WSA I can only hope good teachers wil not choose structures over students.  

"ESD in Teacher Education" is obviously the longest preaching and promotion in ESD without any noticeable result

The failure of ESD in Teacher Training and Education

Despite claims constructed decades ago and the laudation of those tambouring its importance, bringing ESD to initial teacher training failed thus far entirely.
An omission of strategic importance when truly respecting the role and position of teachers, the challenges they face and the potential the profession represents to effectuate ESD-based Education.
Confirmed by researchers who observe the situation more specifically, ESD is at is best limited to separate courses and modules while no integral structural changes can be identified (Brandt, Barth, Merritt, & Hale, 2021; Pickard, 2020; Rieckmann, 2017). The embedding of ESD in teacher education an ad hoc or neglected area of practice and scholarship (Ferreira, Davis, & Stevenson, 2016; Ferreira et al., 2014), teachers lacking systematic support which constraints change (G Pickard, 2011; Steele, Steele, & North, 2010). A remarkable failure when observing over 30 years of academic writing, research and conferencing on the matter, supported by national and intergovernmental attention and funding, the matter prominent on the ESD-agenda since. Although also UNESCO’s ESD-for-2030 commands that ‘Training institutions for educators systematically integrate ESD’, it offers no critical retrospect of the actual development during the preceding DESD- and GAP programs that held alike statements.
Whereas experiencing ESD can be seen as an essence of becoming a teacher, the ‘add-on’ approach to pre-service teacher education misses the point of what ESD is all about (Garth Pickard, 2008). In all countries studied, including Sweden being renowned for its quality education, national curricula appear to include ESD but
in-service training for teachers and school leaders doesn’t suffice (Friman, 2018). Following a range of deliberations and cooperation with four leading Universities in Initial Teacher Training in the Netherlands, taking in the practice and opinions of several more across Europe and building on direct exchanges with Teacher Training Institutes presented in the RCE’s around the world, including those holding UNESCO Chairs, we could only conclude ESD in Teacher Education thus far failed. 

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Over the Summer of 2021 we will share first concepts of texts for each debate but you can already participate by ways of a brief response to the above statements (on one or more issues). 

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