“ESDG” – addressing the Global Goals via developing sustainability competencies in higher education

At the recent AASHE2018 conference in Pittsburgh, which drew 2000 people to discuss sustainabilty in higher education, I came across a new acronym that gave me a useful lightbulb moment: ESDG.

Universities across the globe, including my own, are rightly starting to focus their attention on addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. These include acting to eliminate hunger and poverty, reducing societal inequalities, ensuring free and fair elections and a lot more. Universities might contribute via their teaching, research and public engagement work, and have a key role in relation to Goal 4 on Education, and Target 4.7 (below).

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

As the SDGs were being formulated, the UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was coming to a close. As a result, ESD is a well-established (though of course, hotly debated) set of principles and practices for understanding and implementing sustainability education, in universities and elsewhere. DESD was followed by UNESCO’s Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD, expressed via a Roadmap published by UNESCO. As this was published prior to the SDGs, I gather from an AASHE session that work is underway to explicitly link the SDGs to GAP.

So, with much of the new push for action for sustainability in universities focusing on the SDGs, how can this also incorporate the insights developed on ESD over recent years?

The idea of “ESDG”, which I first heard at AASHE offers a helpful bridge – meaning the kind of education that will support the achievement of the Global Goals.

How to make this concept tangible for university staff and students looking to make ESDG happen? My initial thinking is to suggest working with two main conceptual frameworks: the SDGs and Core Competencies for sustainable development.

Competencies for Sustainability Problem-Solving

Sustainable Development issues addressed by the Global Goals tend to be complex in nature, challenging to address and involve multiple stakeholders with differing degrees of influence and diverse understandings of the problems and effective solutions. So what do you need to be able to do to effectively act on these issues? Answering this question would point to the knowledge, skills and understanding that learning for the SDGs would seek to engender.

Fortunately, some strong work on this has been done already. An influential framework was developed by Wiek et al. in 2011 (see image), synthesising literature and practitioners’ views on skills and competencies required for engaging with complex sustainable development issues.

A visualisation of Competencies, based on Wiek et al.’s (2011) framework.

A good two-page summary of these concepts that was presented at AASHE2018 in relation to the Educating Future Change Agents project – the summary is available here: Key Competencies Overview

These competencies have been used across the globe to develop programmes, modules and learning outcomes in universities. I see them as offering a relatively accessible conceptual framework to complement the SDGs to help implement ESDG. Using Competencies ensures that the core values and ways of thinking can be embedded within teaching and learning. Using the SDGs motivates learning by linking subject matter to real-world challenges and measurable indicators of progress. A potentially potent combination!

Example: ESDG in a subject-specific context

To pick one example, engineering courses might look at particular design challenges (non-polluting stoves to address SDGs around health, energy) and apply the competences to develop solutions.

This might mean considering:

  • how a technology can work in a particular socio-cultural context, or involve linkages or trade-offs between SDGs (systems thinking)
  • how it could be maintained and mainstreamed in the future (futures thinking)
  • how it could be made viable and affordable (strategic thinking)
  • how it could be done as a group-based project with an industrial partner, or via volunteering on a study trip (inter-personal skills)
  • how it could be justified based upon the social and environmental value (values and ethics)

Thus, topics and teaching and learning activities could be chosen to both address the SDGs and support development of competencies for sustainable development.

My example relates to a taught programme, but the same might apply to learning in other settings within a university (the “informal” and “hidden” curricula), looking at how public events, activities by student societies and life on campus might contribute to the SDGs and enable learning towards sustainability competencies.

Further Reading:

I did a 5-minute short talk on this topic to link in with DMU’s 24-hour vigil for the SDGs in October 2018 – you can view it here.

UN Sustainable Development Goals: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs

UNESCO Global Action Plan for Education for Sustainable Development: https://en.unesco.org/gap

Engle, E.W., Barsom, S.H., Vandenbergh, L., III, G.E.S. and Alter, T.R., (2017). Developing a framework for sustainability meta-competencies. International Journal of Higher Education and Sustainability1(4), pp.285-303.

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L. and Redman, C.L., (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability science6(2), pp.203-218.