islands of inspiration

Islands of Inspiration draft cover.jpg

Below is the text of my presentation to the 18CCEM Ministerial Roundtable on Bridging the Gap Between Policy and Practice in Education for Sustainable Development.  


Greetings, honorable ministers and esteemed delegates. I am honoured to have the opportunity to speak with you. 

I was invited here to share with you a report I worked on earlier this year, funded by the Commonwealth Secretariat. The report analyzed the implementation of Education for Sustainable Development, or ESD, in Small Island Developing States. This study originated from discussions around the impacts of climate change, to which small states are particularly vulnerable.  Recognizing that small states comprise a significant proportion of the member countries of the Commonwealth, we have a common interest in advocating for the implementation of (ESD) and the sharing of best practices around the world.

The title of the study, Islands of Inspiration, points to the outstanding work which is being done, and to the fact that this work remains largely isolated.  In all the study presented 41 findings and 14 recommendations which speak directly to today's topic, bridging the gap between policy and practice. In my presentation, I will try to synthesize these into five broad recommendations, and to link them up with the themes of the conference through a discussion of how the findings relate to the current IAGs, and what the implications may be for the successor IAGs. 

So, five recommendations: 


One of the most prominent themes in the study was that ESD is not a course to be taught. There is no set of knowledge and skills that if taught will lead directly to sustainable societies. Even the best curriculum will be undermined if students come to school each day and practice careless or wasteful behaviours.  Effective ESD is about the way students are socialized in schools to become engaged with environmental and social issues. This should start in the early years, with participatory learning, with integrated project work, with critical discussion on real issues, as well as service learning. The most effective ESD takes place when students are actively involved in "doing" sustainability.


While the study identified many excellent practices in ESD, the majority of these were isolated cases where schools, organizations, or systems are doing a small number of things very well, but are encountering barriers because the efforts are not well-enough aligned with other policies or initiatives. If curriculum is reformed without commensurate changes to assessment practices, the curriculum will not be implemented effectively. If new policies are introduced, but monitoring and support are not adjusted, the poilcies will not have the expected impacts. There needs to be coordination of ESD initiatives under the banner of high level policies that incorporate sustainability as a core value. 


Each country has its own factors driving the discussion in education development. To gain traction for ESD, we need to work in the areas that have energy. If teacher credentials are a major focus, consider systematically incorporating ESD into training, credentialling, and promotional paths.  If dialogue focuses on examinations, then we should look at the aspects of ESD which are testable, and ensure those are included in assessment frameworks at an appropraite level. Perhaps there is a major focus on technology, or private-public partnerships.  Whatever the issue, we need to look at what is motivating students and teachers, and leverage those areas as entry points for sustainability. 

In the stakeholders forum, for instance, there has been a lot of discussion around youth entrepreneurship and skills for employment. Yet there has been precious little work linking up TVET with ESD, or skills for employment in the "green economy".  I raise this point because of its relevance to the IAGs. The Outcome Document of the Rio+20 Conference has raised the profile of the "green economy" concept, and this area is likely to influence discussions around the successor IAGs.  


The study identified a number of missed opportunities for partnerships. To date, much of the best work in ESD is being conducted by CSOs.  In these cases, bridging the gap between policy and practice is easy, because the practice is already there. It just needs the policy to support it. Formal partnerships would strengthen these programs by providing them better opportunities to align their work with government systems for teacher training, school environment programs, and so on. This is a win-win. Governments have a strong track record of cooperating with literacy-focused NGOs, and a similar approach can be adopted with ESD.


Our school systems have no shortage of priorities and concerns. Our curricula are already over-stuffed. Adding in new policies on top of old ones creates confusion and fragmentation. These approaches marginalize ESD. If we are committed to sustainability, we need to avoid the temptation to simply launch new initiatives. Instead, we need to look at our current initiatives and begin a systematic process of reorienting them. One of the senior officials I corresponded with on this study indicated that there was an epiphany in her Ministry with the realization that ESD was not another new project, but rather, a new perspective which helped to unify and bring coherence to a number of other programs which they were already undertaking. 

The most exciting work being done is in countries that have committed to sustainability at a high level.  With high level policies in place, other reform activities such as curriculum updating, and teacher training naturally organize around sustainability, and partnerships with civil society emerge much more naturally. In some countries, these policy frameworks are linked to national development strategies, such as Guyana's Low Carbon Development Strategy, or here in Mauritius, through the concept of Maurice Ile Durable. In other countries, bold steps are being taken by education Ministries, such as is the case in Tonga, with their Lakalaka Policy Framework which incorporates sustainabilty through a cultural approach.

These strategies embrace sustainability as a national priority. While we have many priorities in our education systems, if the future we are educating our children for is in jeopardy, then those other priorities begin to seem slightly less urgent.

On that note, I'd like to turn to the IAGs, beginning with the current goals and frameworks, and how they relate to the practice of ESD.

For its part, Education For All is silent on issues of sustainability, as if education were just a neutral tool for the general good.  We still have work to do on EFA targets, but it is important to recognize that if we just focus on more and better education, without addressing education's moral purpose, we are just preparing the next generation to be even better than ours at exploiting the Earth's resources, and exploiting one another.

As for the Millennium Development Goals, sustainable development is in there, but it's on its own, apart from education, whereas education is reduced to the narrowest of targets. The concern of education, with the future we want, is not articulated.  

Of much lower profile, is the UN Decade on ESD. The Decade has raised awareness about ESD, but it has not gained much traction. Here we see the splintering that comes from too many priorities, and perhaps because it is not tied in with the higher profile IAGs, the DESD is treated as peripheral to the mainstream.  In addition, the DESD did not identify clear goals or targets, instead leaving it to each country to set their own. This hasn't happened in most cases, which should be noted in the discussion of how the successor IAGs are framed. 

With the timeframes of EFA, the MDGs, and the DESD all expiring within the space of a few years, we have a window now to revisit our priorities. 

One of the first high profile events contributing to the discussion was the Rio+20 Conference.  The Outcome Document of Rio+20 stresses education's role in our pursuit of sustainability. The section on education begins by re-affirming committments to the existing IAGs, and then lays a foundation for a more rigorous commitment to ESD, going beyond the DESD rhetoric to identify a number of key areas where ESD needs to be strengthened. 

In closing, I want to stress the point that what gets measured matters. The scope and nature of the new IAGs will frame a great deal of discussion in the public arena, as well as channeling donor funds. These goals will become drivers of their own over the next decade. So I would like to conclude not by asking what these goals should be, but rather, a more fundamental question, what are we educating for.