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SKY[Skills and Knowledge for Youth] home Essay What does it mean to teach "sustainability"? Non-cognitive ability considerations

What does it mean to teach "sustainability"? Non-cognitive ability considerationsShoko Yamada

To create a sustainable society in the future, new courses of study introduced in Japan in 2020 emphasize the need to develop (1) knowledge and skills, (2) the ability to think, judge, and express oneself, and (3) the ability to move toward learning and deepened humanity. Unlike memorizing mathematical formulas and historical events, such knowledge and skills cannot be exercised unless the students can determine what actions will lead to creating a “sustainable society.” Besides, the conditions under which a society becomes “sustainable” vary from situation to situation, and there is no clear-cut rule of “what to teach in what subject.” This means that there is no right answer that is easy to understand for both students and teachers. The courses of study are interspersed throughout the curriculum guidelines that require students to make decisions in response to various situations.

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) advocated Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). It supported the UNESCO Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2004-2014), both in funding and practice. In November 2014, as part of the “Aichi-Nagoya Declaration,” this was adopted as part of the UNESCO World Conference. To sum up, the conference called for the continuation of ESD in Japan. Also, the fourth goal of the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) adopted at the United Nations headquarters in 2015 (to provide quality education for all) includes “Education for Sustainable Development,” and the reason for the inclusion of this phrase is the result of Japan’s diplomatic efforts.

Since the 2000s, ESD in its various forms in secondary and high schools, such as those accredited as UNESCO Schools and Super Global High Schools, has been impressive. Although I am not an expert on ESD and am unable to talk about its teaching methods and achievements, I do not feel that ESD is about “teaching sustainability” despite the many different ESD examples in practice. Most of them are about deepening understanding and developing empathy for other people’s situations, such as environmental issues, poverty, and social disparities in developing countries. That is very important, but if it has become a culture wherein only well-behaved children from highly educated families are learning without any keen sense of their reality; I think that is not the essence of a sustainable society, and that is not what ESD is all about.

What the term “sustainability,” coined in the 1980s, has come to mean today is a topic for another article. Still, here I will discuss it in terms of what it means to have the ability to live in a “sustainable society” with a sense of reality and whether we can objectively see whether we have acquired that ability or not.

To be accompanied by a sense of reality, the ability would have to be rooted in everyday life for the person who acquires it. That is, the friends and family we come into contact with today, the people we pass on our way to and from work and school, the buildings and natural objects in the environment, the food we eat, the tools we use, etc. These familiar objects and people, the attitudes and actions we take towards the environment, will lead to the formation of the ability to live in a sustainable society.

It should be noted that the term “sustainability” has moral content. It means that the unilateral pursuit of selfishness, including exploiting Earth’s resources and the political, economic, and cultural activities of human society, are not “sustainable”; therefore, attitudes and actions that control desires are necessary for harmonious development. Moral values such as consideration for others and valuing things have existed in all societies. But now that globalization has made it almost impossible for a society to be a closed space separate from the rest of the world, has morality also become globalized? It seems the globalization of the concept of morality may make it challenging to teach attitudes and actions in schools detached from people’s daily lives and see them internalized in the minds of children and students.

For example, imagine a student learns in class that the coffee consumed in Japanese homes every day is harvested by exploiting children’s labor in a faraway country and that child labor must be eliminated. That is significant as “knowledge,” but when the student sees the potatoes in the curry for dinner, they might wonder, “Do Japanese potato farmers’ children help the family business? Is it because it’s fun, or is it forcible?” It may be unlikely that they would consider it to be child labor. But if someone in a faraway country is working for no other reason than force, that faraway country’s problems are only connected to you when you think about how different it is from a child who is happily helping. Therefore, “global” knowledge, disconnected from our daily lives, can prevent us from imagining the problems close to home, even when they are related to the consumption of the same agricultural products.

If teaching and learning about “sustainability” actually begins in familiar life, how do we know if the students have developed the kind of attitudes that such education aims for? Since education is an intervention aimed at developing human resources with specific knowledge and competencies, without knowing the results, we cannot know whether the intervention was effective or not. However, education that promotes attitude change, such as education for “sustainability,” tends to present only examples of “what interventions were used” without an established method of understanding the results. Besides, school teachers, who have a lot of work to do daily, often say they want teaching materials and lesson plans to be used immediately. This may lead to a tendency to focus more on developing countries’ development problems and environmental pollution rather than on more familiar themes.

The Skills and Knowledge for Youths (SKY) project at Nagoya University has been assessing young people’s skills, based on the idea that there are non-cognitive abilities, which are human beings’ ability to make judgments and deal with real-world problems, in addition to cognitive knowledge. In our measurement, we present some attitudinal and behavioral questions such as “How would you behave in ~~~ situation?” and infer what kind of non-cognitive abilities a person has based on the response tendency. To date, we have conducted many such measurements of how important non-cognitive abilities are for industrial workers in developing countries to solve problems in their workplaces. With this experience and point of view, it seems the current debate in Japan about the need for education of attitudes toward “sustainability” focuses on the ideas of those who plan and run the education system. However, I feel that if children are to be endowed with creating a “sustainable” society, it will come from places closer to home—such as social media and familiar experiences in their daily lives—which are quite different from those lofty discussions.