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Number: 67
Year: 1999
Author: Eloísa Trellez Solís and Gustavo Wilches Chaux
Title: Education for a Sustainable Future in the Americas


Suggested Program Goals and Guidelines

While many nations have embraced the need for education in seeking sustainability, to date, relatively limited progress has been achieved. This lack of progress stems from many sources. In some cases a lack of awareness has impeded progress. In others a lack of policy or funding to implement the vision has been responsible. The tasks listed below represent some of the critical focal points that must be addressed in action plans at all levels of governance, if more rapid advances are to be made. By addressing these needs in the early planning stages, governments can prevent or minimize delays, sidetracking, or derailment of efforts to educate for sustainability. In addition to these universal issues, governments will need to address issues that are specific to local conditions (e.g., the quality of the relationship with the teachers unions, or the timing and implementation of reforms).

Task 1 - Engaging Traditional Disciplines in a Transdisciplinary Framework

Environmental education for sustainable development is by nature holistic and interdisciplinary. Understanding the study of global issues requires concepts and analytical tools from a variety of disciplines. As a result, this approach is difficult to implement in traditional school settings where studies are divided and taught within a disciplinary framework. In North America, most curricula describe in detail the content and sequence of study in each discipline. These curricula are unsuitable for the task at hand and more time should be spent on the holistic exploration of issues beyond the elementary level.

Task 2 - Sharing the Responsibility

Who is responsible for education for sustainability? Every sector of the government that is touched by sustainable development (i.e., every ministry and department) can play a role in the reorienting of the educational process. At the international level, in relevant meetings of the UN or the Inter-American System, ministries of education and ministries of the environment have taken the lead in stating that education, awareness, and training are essential tools in bringing about sustainable development. It should be noted that, as an overall strategy, teachers involvement in the process of change is absolutely essential. Experience shows that, without their active participation in the earliest stages of reorientation, they cannot be expected to cooperate later. If excluded from the development process, they are unlikely to accept and implement the strategies of others.

Task 3 - Building Human Capacity

The successful implementation of a new educational approach will require responsible, accountable leadership. Expertise will be required in both sustainable development and in systemic educational change. Realistic strategies must be developed to create knowledgeable and capable leadership. It is unrealistic to expect that simple on-the-job training or retraining for millions of teachers and thousands of administrators will be sufficient to verse them in both the principles of sustainable development and the theory and practice of educational change. Planners must identify mechanisms that will harness existing educator skills and resources.

While the effort can begin with practicing teachers, it is clear that institutions of teacher education must reorient pre-service teacher education to include environmental education for sustainable development. International cooperative programs for administrators, curriculum developers, and lead teachers can be developed to support implementation of education for sustainability throughout the Americas. But these programs will also need to employ the existing knowledge base and strengths of the currently practicing education community.

Task 4 - Developing Financial and Material Resources

Because few financial resources have been dedicated to implementing a reoriented program, little progress has been made regarding education and the pursuit of sustainable development since the Earth Summit in 1992. To be effective, funding must come from both national and local levels of government. At the national level, policy must be formulated with respect to curriculum, administration, and teacher education. At the local level funding is required to develop curriculum, purchase accompanying resources, and train teachers.

Curriculum and other educational materials, which are locally relevant and culturally appropriate, must be developed to support education for sustainability efforts. Specific issues within the field of study often vary intra-nationally. Ecological, economic, and cultural diversity prevails throughout the Americas and, as a result, it will be necessary to develop regional and local curricula which correspond to substantive regional differences.

Developing policy and establishing additional budget items are two other critically important steps. In order for the initiative to succeed, it will need active and authoritative support from both national and local governments. The lack of political commitment proved to be the downfall of the last global effort infuse environmental education into the curriculum during the 1970s.

Task 5 - Developing a Creative, Innovative, and Risk-Taking Climate

In order to bring about the large changes required by the reorientation of education toward sustainability, a climate of safety should be created for those responsible for effecting dramatic changes. Policy makers, administrators, and teachers will need to innovate, experiment, and take risks in order to accomplish new educational goals. These actors must have the authority and support of the educational community to change the status quo. Staff members must feel that their administration will support innovative efforts, even if parents or interest groups question and criticize their initiatives. Policy should be developed and implemented to ensure that administrators and educators at all levels have the right to introduce new or controversial topics and pedagogical methods. Of course, to prevent abuse of these rights, a system of checks and balances, rights and responsibilities, within professional guidelines and an appropriate cultural context should also be in place.

Task 6 - Practicing the Principles within the System

As students grow older, they begin to see that principles taught in school or at the university are not actually practiced by the institution. The credibility of the message, therefore, may soon be lost. This modeling of the principles of education for sustainability must eventually permeate the curriculum, and the functioning of the institution. Practices such as energy, water and waste management, recycling, purchasing practices, handling of cleaning fluids and lab chemicals, transportation policies, must all be consistently modeled if they are going to be effectively taught.