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Build back better: Education must change after COVID-19 to meet the climate crisis

By Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education

In May, as the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the headlines and every aspect of our lives, a study found that in 50 years one billion people could live in insufferable heat. Areas home to a third of the world’s population would be hotter than the Sahara, while hundreds of millions more would have to abandon their homes to rising sea levels. 

This virus hit as we exited the hottest decade in recorded history, with unprecedented natural disasters, floods and fires. Meanwhile, projections show Governments around the world will not meet either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets needed to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change.

We must unite to fight the impending threat of COVID-19, which has already killed over 400,000 people. But we cannot forget that the climate crisis is also a battle for our lives, and that many will die from its effects if we do not act now.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called upon Governments to “build back better” after the current crisis by creating more sustainable, resilient and inclusive societies. This must include education, as societies cannot transform if what and how we learn remains the same. 

Rebuild education to create change-makers, ready for global challenges

School closures in over 180 countries have laid bare inequalities in education, deficiencies in remote learning, the cost of the digital divide, as well as the important role schools play in student health and wellbeing

After this crisis, Governments around the world will need to reassess learning systems to meet these challenges. This is a once in a generation opportunity to improve education, alongside economies, to fight the climate crisis.

It is a time for education leaders to use this period of disruption to ensure what people learn is truly relevant to their lives and to the survival of the planet.

Last year, the UN General Assembly recognized Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as a model for rethinking learning to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

ESD reassesses what we learn, where we learn and how we learn. It develops the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that enable learners to make informed decisions and actions on global problems such as the climate crisis.

It empowers learners of all ages to change the way they think and work towards a sustainable future.

ESD addresses the content of education so that curricula include learning about environmental integrity, economic viability and how to work towards a just society. But it also reassesses education methods and outcomes to form critically minded, empathetic students who can work together to solve problems and act on local and global emergencies.

A recent UNESCO study showed countries have heavily emphasized cognitive learning over social-emotional and behavioral learning, which are crucial tools to empower learners and make change happen.

We need to ensure education gives students the tools to tackle the problems of the present and future, to fight the climate crisis and to transform society.

Education should make us resilient to situations like the current pandemic and the climate crisis...

ESD is a key enabler for all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but it also may be key to preparing the world for future crises like COVID-19.

The pandemic has shown us the importance for individuals and societies to have the ability to quickly respond to unexpected risks. This implies the ability to understand complexity, to anticipate different scenarios, to negotiate trade-offs, to be ready to act quickly based on limited information, and to collaborate in finding the best solutions.

ESD has long advocated for precisely these competencies for the promotion of sustainable development.

Equally important for the immediate crisis response and the prevention of future crises are individual socio-emotional skills. The response to massive crises that affect every part of life requires a great dose of resilience in dealing with uncertainty and change to living conditions.

Learning to live with ambiguity is a skill to deal with stress and anxiety in uncertain times. It’s crucial to avoid the appeal of simplified answers, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Promoting this socio-emotional skill set an important element of ESD, as it has been for related approaches such as Global Citizenship Education.

These elements of ESD will prepare learners for situations like this pandemic but are also vital to promote sustainable development. By using ESD as a roadmap to the future of education, we will be strengthening our capabilities to tackle both challenges.

…. and try to prevent them.

We do not yet know for certain how COVID-19 was contracted by humans. We do know that Zoonosis – diseases transmitted from animals to humans – becomes much more likely as wild animals are losing their habitats

Humanity has an immediate survival interest to protect natural habitats. May 22 heralded World Biodiversity Day, a time to reflect that humans have changed three-quarters of the land and two-thirds of the ocean.

ESD’s promotion of understanding the importance of the natural world creates tomorrow's champions of biodiversity: students that understand that the health of humanity depends on the well-being of nature.

Learning should foster global interconnectedness

Global problems require global solutions. This is as true for the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is for the response to climate change and to achieve all Sustainable Development Goals.

ESD can help us understand the global nature of today’s challenges, including their inequitable distribution. It can provide us with the tools to search for solutions at the global level and help us translate responses into concrete solutions for the local living environment.

ESD also encourages collaborative learning outcomes, encouraging students to work together.

The climate crisis needs to be attacked with the same velocity as COVID-19, and this cannot happen without rethinking learning.

Some have pointed to the reduction in CO2 emissions over this global slowdown as a positive outcome, but without commitment to radical change emissions will return to previous levels or possibly even increase.

Governments, policy makers and education leaders need to ensure that Education for Sustainable Development continues to be built into education frameworks at every stage of national education.

The commitment to ESD must include learning in all contexts, for all learners no matter their gender, location, socio-economic status or connection to the internet.

Later this year, UNESCO will launch a Roadmap towards Education for Sustainable Development that will lay the groundwork for action in the next ten years, on the basis of the ‘ESD for 2030’ framework recently adopted by our Member States. I invite all education stakeholders – Governments, education and training leaders, policy-makers, teachers, students and parents – to commit to ESD for 2030 and join us in discussion in the leadup to and at the World Conference on ESD in Berlin in May 2021.

The COVID-19 crisis leads us to question some of the fundamental assumptions about ourselves and our lives

When it comes to education, we need to strengthen an approach that promotes the well-being of people and the planet.

We need education that goes beyond providing basic knowledge and skills and leads to awareness, ideas and action that help us advance towards sustainable development.

Education for Sustainable Development empowers learners to transform themselves and transform societies. This transformation is as urgent as the response to COVID-19, let’s not squander this opportunity to change learning and build a better world.

Original article can be found here.


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