SDGsToday’s guest blog is by Ben Ballin.

255 learning objectives

Attentive souls may have spotted that a report was published by UNESCO earlier this year, setting out learning objectives for each of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.  It is no doubt a laudable achievement to create fifteen learning objectives for each of the seventeen goals: that’s a very productive 255 learning objectives in total.  Moreover, each set of fifteen objectives has been neatly subdivided into three categories:

  • Cognitive learning objectives;
  • Socio-emotional learning objectives;
  • Behavioural learning objectives.

On top of the learning objectives for each goal, there are extensive lists of suggested topics, learning approaches and methods.  At this point, I start to lose count (and quite possibly the will to live).  Categorising all those objectives in such a tidy manner must have taken a vast amount of work, involving many embattled hours around the international conference table, a forest of post-its and many carefully-considered words in many languages. The process probably had great value for those involved and such a learning processes is not to be sniffed at.

But what about the rest of us?  How useful is it to us?

The writers certainly hoped that this report would be useful to textbook writers, teachers, informal educators, trainers, policymakers, curriculum designers and those involved in MOOCs.  Hoping to stimulate discussion, I put the question of its usefulness to a meeting of the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network: a low-budget and informal gathering of precisely the sort of people in the list above (not quite sure about the MOOCs, though).  Like most such documents, the report begins with a preamble. This is interesting and it only runs to five pages, which is pretty good going.  It includes a brief overview of the seventeen SDGs, which while available elsewhere in a more colourful form, is certainly worth having to hand.  The preamble also includes a fascinating but gnarly list of eight key competencies for sustainability, although these don’t crop up again. Each competency is followed by a list of additional things that people ought to be thinking about.

Listomania?

At this point, lapsed Catholic that I am, I was reminded a little of the catechisms of my childhood: lists of prayers and phrases to memorise.  These too are often also in numbered sequences.  If applied correctly and with a good heart, they are intended to set the true believer on the right path to salvation: in this instance, a sustainable path. One problem with this sort of catechism or guidance list is that it misses a key issue.  What hard-pressed teachers usually need is a little support, time and space to think and plan creatively, rather than long lists of extra stuff to have to think about.  Without that thinking space and support, finding ways to effectively integrate sustainability into their educational practice is enormously difficult.

Moreover, teachers and schools are already wrestling with some very long to-do lists relating to national curricula, data collection, safeguarding, inspection frameworks etc. Having worked in the past couple of years with teaching colleagues from Bangladesh, Kenya, The Gambia, Spain and Germany, I can confidently say the problem of finding space for sustainability in schools is not a peculiarly British problem … and the reasons are often very similar.  In short, wherever thinking and planning space is squeezed, high quality work on sustainability tends to get squeezed out.  The same is true when school curricula grow narrow to meet the demands of high stakes testing. Or when dwindling budgets put a further squeeze on staff time and resources.  You get an almost perfect storm.  The miracle is that so many schools still manage to weather it and come up with amazing work.

Personally, I think we need much more of that time and space. Ultimately, that means educational reform and not longer lists of things to do; an opening up of the curriculum; a relocating of professional decision-making back into the hands of educators (and of learning into the hands of the learner).  Otherwise, well-intentioned reports like this can only be part of the problem.

So, back to the network members, who I have left wrestling with the UNESCO report.  The good news, dear reader, is that we have read the report, so you don’t have to.  Here are a few things that we found.

Politically useful?  We all thought that it was helpful to know about the report, and that it might even prove a useful tool in maintaining the profile of sustainability education.  It helps keep it visible.   Indeed, one of us sent it to her MP.

A problem of integration?  We all felt that there was a risk that, as with the Sustainable Schools Framework, individual goals and objectives take on a life of their own, rather than being seen as part of a connected whole.  The report often talks about the need for integration and systems thinking, but its structure tends in the opposite direction.

Categories of objectives  All objectives are equal, but some are more equal than others.  In other words, the content for individual goals was often too much about content and not enough about process.  Cognitive objectives (stuff to know and understand) were fairly clear.  Behavioural ones were abut what learners were able to, so at least didn’t fall into the classic trap of simplistic and prescribed behaviour change.  The socio-emotional ones were generally more socio- than -emotional.  SDG4 is about ’quality education’ but the objectives were too often just about knowing a lot of different things.  Where was the deeper learning?  Is that not what we need most if we are to critique present norms and to work together creatively and imaginatively for a more just and sustainable world?

Unintended bias?  A good example of critical thinking at work: one perceptive reader detected signs of unintentional cultural bias in one of the objectives for Gender Equality, where a reference to ‘traditional perception of gender roles’ ignored the many non-European traditions where there are multiple conceptions of gender.

In sum, we agreed that this is a flawed report that overlays the existing demands on teachers and schools with many further demands.  It is perhaps symptomatic of what happens when committees and conferences decide what is best for the rest of us.  It is not, however, without its uses: not least of these is to serve as a reminder of where our time and energy might more productively spent if we are to really build on the excellent work that already exists.

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Ben Ballin chairs the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network: @wmsussch  This blog is written in a personal capacity.