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The Relevance of Education in Today’s World: Practicing Sustainability in Zimbabwe

Written by Agnella Guzha, Global Schools Advocate from Zimbabwe

The excitement cannot be contained in the halls of the junior classes. “A Class outside the classroom” week is one of the most anticipated in the term. Practical learning activities have proven to be popular in the English language class. After all, it’s a break from the usual less entertaining theoretical classwork exercises. Me, as an educator, I’m also excited. The practical learning experiences supporting the theory we learned in class are making education relevant. Playing the role of a journalist or an activist advocating for an improvement in people’s lives is not only motivating but inspiring students to desire a better future and a better world.

But why is it so important that children learn how to put theory into practice?

Firstly, I would say is prudent for children to learn to be aware of the challenges facing the world. But, once they learn and accept that, they can understand the practical solutions and how we can implement them to build a more equitable and sustainable world. In this case, the coursework assessment method implemented in Zimbabwe through the use of CALA (Continuous Assessment Learning Activity), activities and projects students have to carry out to pass their coursework, has effectively improved the learning process and helped educators stay relevant in today’s world. I’m happy to share more about my experience and inspire you, wherever you are in the world, to ignite change in your country.

How to make education relevant for today's world: the national curriculum change in Zimbabwe

If the purpose for learning is to score well on a test, we’ve lost sight of the real reason for learning” - Jeannie Fulbright.

I understand Jeannie’s quote very well when I look at the history of education in Zimbabwe. The curriculum in Zimbabwe before 2017 was exam-oriented with rote learning. It was knowledge-based with very little practical focus. How can students succeed if they win their Certificate without any skill or competence? The old curriculum was too theoretical and left school leavers failing to relate their knowledge to their immediate world, creating a gap between the needs of industry and the general socio-economic transformation. I remember back in 2016, speaking to a school graduate who was questioning me on some of the aspects he learned at school he considered irrelevant. He bemoaned the 13 years he spent at school, claiming that they failed to prepare him for life. I couldn’t agree more.

However, things changed quickly, as luckily, a new curriculum was introduced in 2017. Since then, teaching and learning have taken a new practical approach, promoting a learner-centered framework where students develop the capacity to apply their knowledge and skills in their community. The current curriculum has been a game-changer. It is with CALA, which students implement once every term in the final two years of a certificate level, that they relate their classroom knowledge to the outside world.

What’s more, teachers design CALA, which means that they can include cross-cutting themes stemming from some of the world’s issues and challenges. In my case, as an English language teacher, the syllabus requires learners to be able to write an article, report, or a speech, amongst other language elements. So when developing practical activities, I can design a coursework activity where learners find out about different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from learning about Climate Change (SDG 13) in their community to being tasked to come up with reports to present to the rest of the school on Life Below Water (SDG 14).

In this manner, I was proud to be a Zimbabwean educator when the Ministry of Education couldn’t have said a louder yes when UNESCO and other world education bodies and organizations called for reforms in education that promote participatory teaching and learning methods that motivate and empower learners. After all, through CALA’s objectives, Zimbabwe has shown that designing a curriculum that achieves competencies like critical thinking skills, problem-solving, communication, enterprise skills, leadership, and teamwork skills, among others, is possible. Mind you, although Zimbabwe’s efforts in introducing practical education are a big step forward, we cannot forget that looking into the future, these new curricula must be led by sustainability.

Looking Ahead: Introducing Sustainability in the New Curriculum

When I was selected to be an Advocate in the Global Schools Program (GSP), I was very excited. I had loads of ideas for activities to do during my tenure. I was, however, a little apprehensive about introducing the initiative to the teachers as educators today feel they already have enough, if not too much, on their hands. Nonetheless, the teachers' lack of knowledge of the SDGs worked to my advantage. I took their curiosity as leverage that helped me explain the idea of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and that it was not a new thing or more work on their part but a good resource base for CALA activities. Most of the time, these practical lessons from the experience supersede that of well-illustrated textbooks. In my case, guided by the GSP toolkit “The class outside the classroom” provided during our Advocacy training, I was able to promote CALA- and sustainability-friendly activities that show learners experiencing real-life situations.

What I’ve seen is that my introduction of ESD to my colleagues and students has created a meaningful impact across the school. For example, in the agriculture class, students, by using plastic bottles collected from the litter, are learning how to use those for irrigation in dry regions like where our school is located. Another example comes from the SDG Club, where students used the school welding machine to put together a cage bin made from the frames of an old bed. Through this bin, which has demarcations to separate different types of litter, from plastic bottles to papers and regular plastic, students are learning the importance of recycling and reusing, principles of SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production.

On the whole, I have to argue that completing high school education fully aware of the societal challenges facilitates innovation, which is a critical skill in creating sustainable solutions. Implementing Education for Sustainable Development has rejuvenated the learning process at my school, as students are eager to be part of SDG-related campaigns even if they don’t fully understand what the movement is all about.

As you can see, as a Zimbabwean, I’ve been very lucky to have the facilities to implement ESD in my classroom. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not possible to replicate in other countries. Thus, in the end, if I have to leave you with a conclusion, is to remember that the SDGs serve for teachers to present the global issues that are affecting young people today and may have severe effects in the future. Nonetheless, to find solutions, the best person to come up with them is one who is most likely to experience the future: Students.