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Prof. Dr. Gerhard de Haan
Scientific Adviser of the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development and Head of Institut Futur at Freie Universität Berlin

“ESD is mainly a question of attitude”

Professor Dr. Gerhard de Haan spoke with the German Commission for UNESCO about implementing Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Germany and outlined the key leverage points in integrating ESD into the country’s educational landscape.

As the Scientific Adviser on the Global Action Programme in Germany, together with your team you use a monitoring process to assess the extent and quality of ESD activities in all sectors of education. How well-known is Education for Sustainable Development in Germany right now?
It’s difficult to say. We do have some information about ESD in relation to teaching staff and to young people aged between 14 and 24. Our quantitative study shows that the teachers surveyed don’t give themselves very good marks when it comes to what they know about ESD. The situation is similar among young people – on a scale of one to six (one being the top mark), they give themselves a mark of three, same as the teachers.

On the question of where they obtained their knowledge, rather than citing vocational training, school or higher education, they give mass media as their main source. The topic of ESD is not yet very wide-spread as a result. But if we broaden the horizon somewhat, we can determine that the topic of sustainability is now extremely well-known. There is a pronounced awareness of the issue and a great understanding of the role that sustainable development plays.
Did the expert survey shed light on key ESD leverage points in the German education system?
At institutional level in particular, ESD needs to be placed higher up the agenda to ensure it plays a greater role. This is one of the main things that many stakeholders point out. Vocational education and training are naturally key leverage points. But in teacher training in particular and also in early childhood education, not enough is being done right now. This also applies when it comes to integrating ESD into academic study and into train the trainer programmes in technical and vocational education and training.
To what extent are such leverage points already being addressed in the National Action Plan on ESD?
The National Action Plan addresses these leverage points to a quite a significant extent. From the interviews conducted with experts, it can be seen, however, that it’s not just about structures. In many cases, it’s evident that ESD is mainly a question of attitude – of whether or not someone wants to engage with and promote it. This is also confirmed by the quantitative study we conducted as part of the monitoring programme. Often, it is mostly specific individuals who are particularly committed to ESD. What we need, then, is essentially a transformation of teachers’ attitudes to ESD.

But how can people’s ingrained attitudes be changed? We try to do it by formulating different kinds of stories and developing different narratives to win people over to the cause. And in addition to setting out requirements at structural level and applying classic patterns of rationality, we have to make sure that the topic grabs people personally and appeals to their emotions. For the most part, that isn’t happening yet. Awareness of sustainable development has reached many places, but what we now need to see is people taking action themselves and getting more involved.
What results stood out in the respective education sectors?
In the area of early childhood education (ECE), the education plans for child day-care facilities show that great efforts have been taken to address ESD. ECE professionals have a tremendous sense of responsibility when it comes to shaping children’s futures.

Things are also happening in school education. New syllabuses, for example, place greater focus on the topic of ESD. However, ESD integration is often overshadowed by the need to tackle other challenges faced in everyday life in schools – the debate on school structures, for example, and pressing issues like inclusion and digitalisation. This is despite that fact that the teachers surveyed say they would like to incorporate ESD far more into their lessons, say at a ratio of between 30 and 40 percent of teaching time – a ratio which is nowhere near being achieved right now. In terms of attitudes towards ESD, therefore, those of school teachers and ECE professionals differ hardly at all. It would thus appear that when it comes to integrating ESD into classroom teaching, the structures in the school sector pose more obstacles than is the case in the child day-care sector.
What is the situation regarding technical and vocational education and training?
There are certainly problems there and they are partly due to the fact that a greater degree of consensus is needed between employers and the respective educational institutions. That just isn’t there right now. And even though there is slightly less interest in the topic in that sector, the teaching staff surveyed spoke in favour of dedicating one-third of teaching time to ESD. At structural level, however, ESD integration is still not very far advanced. Stakeholders in the technical and vocational education and training sector work far more at project level than those in other sectors.
The non-formal and informal education sector has long been a strong proponent of ESD. What trends have you observed there?
The non-formal and informal education sector had always played something of a pioneer role and it is still represented by a range of influential stakeholders, even today. The problem is that their position is changing as ESD becomes more structurally integrated into schools. Non-formal and informal stakeholders are now playing a more cooperative role than has been the case to date. The sector makes many attempts to establish educational landscapes – for example, in connection with all-day schooling.

At local level, many such stakeholders are embedded in small organisations and these have only limited ability to offer regular, binding programmes for all-day schools. And they have to collaborate with others when they do. Added to this comes the fact that they are often poorly paid for the work they do. In the future, more money must be made available because the situation can’t continue for much longer as it is.
Let’s look at higher education. How is ESD being implemented there?
In the higher education sector, we’re seeing great momentum which in many cases is driven by inhouse environment and sustainability officers. Universities are trying hard to invest in their own institutions, for example by introducing energy-related measures and conducting related research. When it comes to teaching, however, there are still some difficulties being faced.

From the most recent empirical analysis and from the qualitative study we conducted as part of the monitoring programme, it is evident that in recent years there has been little growth in the level of ESD-related knowledge among younger teaching staff. The topic remains strongly marginalised in teacher training. We need to change this in the future. Here, I’m not talking about isolated events, but about the fact that ESD must become more of a mainstream issue. That means taking a much greater interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach.
What role do young people play?
Young people will have to live in and cope with this world far longer than the older generations will. That’s why they play a particularly important role in relation to ESD. They are the ones who must shape the world – we can’t do it for them. But it’s up to us to give them the opportunity to be able to shape it pro-actively rather than just reacting to the problems created by the adults in the world today. Young people are thus key stakeholders and in many ways they possess potential that is refreshingly creative. Young people can often achieve a lot with a little. They’re able to develop the most amazing things, generate new ideas, launch them and then exchange their experience and enter into dialogue with one another.

Here it is important for young people to learn that participation pays off. Participation is a key lever, but it also has its limitations. In everyday schooling, pupils are afforded a wide range of opportunities, but there is one thing they don’t receive: The opportunity to be involved in deciding which teaching content is important. I see this both as significant and as an obstacle. We’re still not at the stage where participation means being able to decide things – at the moment, it only means becoming involved and having a say.

It’s important, however, for people to be given the opportunity to also make decisions. In educational landscapes in particular, we often encounter frustration among certain stakeholders. Following an intensive participation process, a decision will suddenly be reached by a local authority. What is then important in such situations is whether those who make the decisions are willing to take up the proposals of the participating stakeholders involved.
How do local authorities approach ESD?
Many local authorities use ESD to operate successful regional development programmes. Non-sustainable development is not future-proof. This is why we need even more qualified staff to work in this field and to promote ESD. And we need to drive this change through education. Sustainable development is not just a municipal, but a global issue that brings different cultures together.
When it comes to greater implementation of ESD in Germany, how much importance do you place on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Goal 4 of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education?
Sustainable Development Goal 4 for quality education has gained in importance in recent times – especially regarding the issue of incorporating a quality education indicator into the National Sustainability Strategy. In Germany, one of the most important indicators for quality education is that as many young people as possible achieve higher secondary education qualifications. This is a given in Germany, which is why we can assume that the country is well positioned to fulfil the Goal 4 objectives. But then again, this is only true to a certain extent because Goal 4 covers other issues as well.

The first is equal participation of boys and girls in education. About 56 percent of girls in a given year currently achieve a higher secondary education qualification. This compares with only 44 percent of boys. And the gap between the two is drifting further and further apart. The second issue is inclusion, where there are still considerable problems. Recent studies show that in the past ten years, the ratio of girls and boys attending special schools has only dropped from 4.9 to 4.3 percent. Looking at issue number three, when seen in relation to all other persons of employable age, Germany has more than seven million functional illiterates.

In terms of the fourth and final issue, equal access for all has far from been achieved. Young people from precarious environments and from a variety of migration backgrounds have far fewer chances of attaining a university entrance certificate (Abitur) than do young people from the educated middle-class. It seems Sustainable Development Goal 4 also applies to the land of poets and thinkers.

But be that as it may, when it comes to the number of higher-education qualifications attained and the improved life chances they bring (higher income, better health and greater life satisfaction), Germany is very well-placed compared to its European neighbours. Despite or perhaps because of this, ESD is of key importance for SDG 4. The higher the educational qualifications achieved, the less sustainable our behaviour and for the following reason: Sustainability depends on consumption, consumption depends on income, and a higher income is more likely to be achieved with higher qualifications. In other words, those who know most about the issues surrounding sustainable development behave in the least environmentally-appropriate way. Their lifestyle standards involve things like higher energy consumption, air travel and larger living space and homes. What this means is that without ESD we’ll get nowhere, because the world wouldn’t develop in a sustainability-focused way.
With the Global Action Programme on ESD ending in 2019, what would you say are the key challenges faced?
Apart from the points already mentioned, such as structural integration, I would say that we have to start with our own attitudes and our own institutions. Alongside the overarching strategies, there are practical issues that must be addressed. Are our old buildings and homes up-to-date in terms of energy use? What kind of coffee should be served at events? We have to lead by example on issues like these.

This also applies to UNESCO, which is responsible for both the UN Decade and the Global Action Programme on ESD. One thing that astonishes me in this regard is that the UNESCO associated schools have hardly exploited their vast potential. Germany has some 300 of these schools. These schools should accordingly focus on at least three (out of six) UNESCO related thematic areas – one of them being ESD. I believe UNESCO associated schools should not be able to drop ESD from their curricula or teaching plans. The number of UNESCO associated schools designated under the Global Action Programme should actually be higher than the current three. I see a lot of room for improvement there. That’s why I’m delighted to see that in recent years, ESD has been given greater focus in UNESCO’s ASPnet Climate Action Project and that from 2019, meaning with immediate effect, the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) will support whole-institution approaches to sustainability in UNESCO associated schools.

Summing up, I’d say that under the Global Action Programme we’ve identified a large number of the key challenges faced. The task now is to tackle them and shape the educational landscape in a fitting and appropriate way.
Höhepunkte des Weltaktions­programms BNE 2015 bis 2019