State of the Planet

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New Book Reimagines Sustainable Development Education for All Audiences

What does it mean to cultivate lifelong education for sustainable development? How can initiatives center communities and reach nontraditional settings? In a new book co-edited by Radhika Iyengar and Ozge Karadag, research scholars at Columbia Climate School’s Center for Sustainable Development, researchers detail evidence-based ways to improve sustainable development education across disciplines, communities, and age groups.

With chapters dedicated to topics including citizen science, youth empowerment, community-based education, and GIS mapping, Rethinking Education for Sustainable Development: Research, Policy and Practice is geared toward educators, researchers, and program managers around the world.

We spoke with Iyengar and Karadag about how the collection came about, what makes it unique, and what they hope to accomplish with its publication.

Radhika Iyengar (left) is director of education at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development. Ozge Karadag (right) is a public health researcher at the Center for Sustainable Development. Together they have edited a new book, Rethinking Education for Sustainable Development: Research, Policy and Practice.

How did this book come together?

Radhika Iyengar: During the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the education sector was beginning to re-think many ways education was put in practice inside and outside schools. This book is a reflection of how to re-envision education for sustainable development.

Ozge Karadag: Brainstorming, conceptualizing, and preparing the proposal took a long time. We invited colleagues with different experiences to contribute, and it took us more than two years to complete everything. We feel like the book is unique in the sense that it brings together real-world experiences of educators with practical tips rather than being a theoretical text.

What were your goals in compiling this book?

RI: This book summarizes the decades of climate education work at the Climate School and the Earth Institute. We have many scientists and social scientists from health, education, and natural sciences coming together to re-think what education for sustainable development should be like for the next 10 years. It lays the path for a more from-the-ground-up, inclusive education with justice and sustainability at the core.

The vision of the book is to find pathways to meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. It demonstrates the importance of interdisciplinary work to focus on justice and sustainability through various approaches—citizen science, GIS mapping, community dialogues, gaming using insurance logic for farmers, storytelling, and arts. Never before have we seen such breadth and scope of topics on education for sustainable development coming together in a book. All chapters are like case studies that have been tried and tested, reached policy makers, and will be widely accessible for a broad array of stakeholders. We emphasize that every sustainable development problem is intersectoral in nature and thus intersectoral strategies are needed to understand the problem and find a solution.

This book truly defines how education for sustainable development can be a strong strategy for climate resilience and adaptation.

OK: We believe this book can be useful for educators, education program managers, researchers and others interested in education for sustainable development for all levels from K-12 to universities and also for education programs in non-formal and community-based settings. The chapters reflect the practical experiences of authors through different educational interventions.

Rethinking Education for Sustainable Development: Research, Policy and Practice was published on Nov. 17, 2022 by Bloomsbury Academic.

Chapters in this book focus on efforts in many diverse parts of the world, including India, Nigeria, and the United States. How do you balance what is universal in such initiatives with the need to tailor education efforts to a country-specific framework?

RI: Education is very contextual and “education solutions” cannot be de-contextualized. However, when we study education for sustainable development through the case studies mentioned in the book, some key principles emerge: data-driven policy making, keeping the community at the center, greening of community-level professions (such as the water department personnel at the district or county level, agriculture extension workers, community health workers). In addition to learning in classrooms, education for sustainable development should include nonformal and informal settings, which have been neglected; for example, community-based programs, agricultural settings, informal learning through storytelling, and others.

OK: There are universal principles that apply to all education programs. We all know, for instance, that community participatory approaches and interactive teaching and learning methods create a difference in all settings, but educators need to tailor their programs based on the cultural, social, and other local needs of their communities.

Another central theme in this book is the importance of lifelong learning and “K-grey education.” Can you talk a little bit about what this means for sustainable development education and some of the ideas proposed?

RI: There is a lot of movement in the international educational discourse about climate education and education for sustainable development to be integrated into formal education. But based on these case studies, there is a huge population of farmers, community health workers, and teacher trainers to also keep learning about sustainability. At present this is done on an ad-hoc basis. This book provides some examples of how “green” learning with sustainable development as the lens can find its way into various professions. The examples include games and weather indexing for farmers, geo-spatial data use for storytelling, citizen-science as a methodological tool for college students, among others.

What are some ways to more effectively involve and center local communities in these education initiatives, and what are some of the challenges in doing so?

RI: De-centering learning as a one-way stream originating from the researcher is key. The researcher needs to learn from the community. There are a few case studies in the book where much of the learning happens in stakeholder meetings and meeting midway been what the literature suggests and what the community is suggesting. For instance, how to use education to develop a child-centered community resilience plan, developing a health-education intervention for schools, integrating climate science research into policy and practice. All these approaches have a big field-learning component to advance the thinking on the topic. Centering the community takes a lot of relationship building and time.

OK: The book suggests many modalities of building trust through open data, games, community education, stakeholder meetings and community participatory methods. When involving communities in education initiatives, empowering those communities is also very important for the long-term survival of the initiatives.

What other important takeaways would you like to highlight for readers?

RI: Disciplinary silos don’t lead to sustainable solutions. There are urgent climate and public health crises connected with many other global challenges, and researchers have a huge responsibility to learn from various disciplines and from the rich community-based knowledge to prepare for the coming years.

OK: Our education efforts should equip children and young people with necessary knowledge, skills, and values that they can use in real world settings, and, at the same time, empower them, increase their resilience, and promote their mental health and well-being.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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