In 2015, the United Nations unveiled its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Providing an education where both the teacher and students explore not only the physical world, and the power of knowledge, but also investigate their own thinking patterns and behaviour will be critical for the successful implementation of the SDG Goal 4, which envisages quality education for all.

UNESCO reports that while Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is increasingly becoming mandatory in the national curricula worldwide, much more is required to incorporate ESD into teachers training.

With only 7 per cent of countries reporting ESD as mandatory, this suggests there is a significant gap in the capacities of teachers to deliver an education that fosters ecological imagination, critical thinking, independent thought, and a greater awareness of the interdependence of all life.

A key challenge, therefore is the need to focus on retraining teachers and educators to give them the skills needed to think beyond their core subjects, moving freely across disciplines and encouraging students to embrace multiple worldviews to design solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges.

How do we achieve this type of education? Should we favour Paulo Freire’s invigorating critique of the ‘banking’ model of education, which regards students as mere receivers of education, devoid of creative impetus? Or should we challenge educators to equip our students with the practical skills, analytic abilities and philosophical depth to reshape the human presence in the world.

By this, I mean an education that replaces the extractive consumer economy with one that eliminates the concept of waste, uses energy and materials with great efficiency, and distributes wealth fairly within and between generations.

I mean an education that promotes interdependence and working together to reverse climate change and increase the bio-productivity of the planet to create a collaborative rather than a competitive society for all.

I also mean an education that makes quality of life, rather than open-ended economic growth, the focus of future thinking.

At a practical level, I believe that every school should establish a school garden that not only produces food but is an essential underpinning of all subjects on the curriculum. A school garden, an edible ecosystem, is a microcosm of life.

There is a significant danger in misinterpreting the 17 SDGs as separate disciplines that need to be dealt with one by one and in isolation.
May East, CEO of Gaia Education

In this way, students would learn about the place humans occupy in the biosphere, not as masters exploiting nature, but as co-creators of resilience with the entire construct of life. Without this central understanding, we humans will continue to err.

A school garden underpins classroom studies in ecology, biology, physics, and mathematics, relating them to issues as diverse as soil, climate, integral water management, the cycles of carbon and nitrogen, the cycle of life, reproduction, habitats and construction, nutrition and health, and the crucial role of microbes in connecting humans with ‘nature’.

The social sciences also could benefit from a school garden. Students can learn about sharing, equality, inclusivity and social justice as imperatives for a peaceful co-existence locally and globally. There are also opportunities for exploring democratic decision-making.

There is a significant danger in misinterpreting the 17 SDGs as separate disciplines that need to be dealt with one by one and in isolation. Our academic disciplines, government departments and international institutions operate in a siloed expert-lead fashion that makes such whole systems thinking and collaborating difficult to achieve.

To address this Gaia Education and UNESCO Global Action Programme have recently launched the educational tool ‘SDG Community Implementation Flashcards’ containing more than 200 questions investigating the social, ecological, economic and worldview aspects of each SDG.

They have been translated into the five UN official languages and highly interactive training events have taken place in a diverse range of settings around the world, including tribal communities in Orissa, intentional ecovillages in the Global North, Ashrams in Thailand, universities in Europe, even Red Cross asylum welcome centres in Denmark.

The 1.8 billion young people around the world today represent a dynamic, informed, and globally connected engine for change. Local stewardship and global citizenship should be cultivated at every stage of human development.

In this context I would rather call them glocalisers – glocal is about being locally attuned to the bio-cultural uniqueness of your territory but also globally aware, and able to grasp the bigger picture.

The poet Yeats once said ‘education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’. This is the task before educators: igniting the fire of the current and future young glocalisers, harnessing their aspirations so that they can in time redesign the human presence in the planet. May East, CEO Gaia Education Excerpts of a talk during the UN High Level Meeting on Education convened by the President of the UN General Assembly

May East, CEO Gaia Education Excerpts of a talk during the UN High Level Meeting on Education convened by the President of the UN General Assembly

Gaia Education is a leading-edge provider of sustainability education that promotes thriving communities within planetary boundaries. Since 2006 Gaia Education has successfully supported the delivery of more than 240 programmes on six continents. These vocational courses are open to a diverse group of people with a wide range of professional and academic backgrounds who are interested in taking an active role in the sustainability transition.