Training educators with a rounder sense of purpose

27 May, 2021

We are currently faced with a broad spectrum of social and environmental problems, ranging from climate change and the loss of biodiversity to the enormous inequalities that exist between countries and within our societies. Education is an essential tool for achieving social and environmentally sustainable development. But what type of educator is needed to help students prepare for these global challenges? This question lies at the heart of ‘A Rounder Sense of Purpose’ (RSP), a project funded by the Erasmus+ program in which the TURBA Lab research group of the UOC’s Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) is participating.

The aim of this international initiative is to develop and implement a new framework of applied competences to train educators at any level who want to offer education for sustainable development (ESD). This type of training has a ‘sense of purpose’ that also considers social, economic and environmental aspects. In the words of the researcher leading the project at the TURBA Lab, Isabel Ruiz-Mallén, this training seeks to “go beyond” the acquisition of knowledge about the environmental issues such as biodiversity, conservation and recycling.

“The aim is to incorporate a more critical vision that is connected to current global challenges throughand which strengthenings atptitudes, skills and processes of critical reflection that allow us to question not only individual behaviours (e.g. whether or not to recycle), but also how the current system of production and consumption works, as well as its inequalities.”

Competences for improving teachers’ skills in education for sustainable development

The first part of the project, coordinated by the University of Gloucestershire (UK), stems from the realization that one of the obstacles to being able to adopt this type of learning is the lack of training received by the educators themselves.

Over the last five years, in response to this challenge, the RSP project has developed a practical framework comprising twelve competences that can be used as the basis for any training programme or for evaluating educators who wish to improve their skills in this regard. The work in this initial phase has involved “distilling” the twenty-plus education for sustainable development competences defined by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in 2011, adapting them to a real-life setting and evaluating them with more than 400 people, including students and experts from various fields. 

Twelve competences were defined as a result of this process: Decisiveness, Action, Values, Participation, Responsibility, Creativity, Empathy, Futures, Criticality, Transdisciplinarity, Attentiveness and Systems. All of these are displayed on the project’s website in the form of an artist’s palette and also in a table format, showing that education can be viewed as both “an art and a science.” Different tools, guidelines and exercise proposals have also been developed to help educator trainers in the implementation of the competence framework. 

Linking educational competences to the Sustainable Development Goals

The second phase of the project consisted of the implementation of this competence framework, applying it to institutions in various European countries and at different educational levels. Moreover, an additional set of activities has been developed with the aim of showing how the competences defined by the project can be linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The competence framework and the courses are conceived for different levels and audiences, and can even be applied to non-formal education. “It has been implemented in a different way in each of the participating countries, depending on the specific context. In Germany, for example, where there is a subject on education for sustainable development, the framework is being applied to higher education. Our Italian partner, meanwhile, has focused on educators who participate in non-formal education activitiesworkshops,” said Isabel Ruiz-Mallén. 

In this sense, for the TURBA Lab researcher, education for sustainable development is a “highly cross-cutting” discipline that can be applied to various subjects, even without the existence of a specific course. “With the training and the activities developed as part of the project, it could be implemented not only in natural sciences, but also social sciences, economics, health, food… All subjects can be approached through this prism.” 

This focus is regularly incorporated in pre-school and primary education activities in Spain, for example through educational activities that promote reuse and recycling and school gardens or through green school programmes. However, according to the researcher, “these values and this way of looking at the world can be lost in secondary and higher education, where they depend on the existence of motivated teachers who are personally and voluntarily interested in integrating education for sustainable development and the SDGs into their classes.”

An education for sustainable development programme adapted to the UOC’s framework

In the case of the UOC, the TURBA Lab, in collaboration with the Office of the Vice President for Globalization and Cooperation and the various Faculties, has analysed how to adapt these competences to the university’s own competence framework. The result is the design of a training programme on the Ethical and Global Commitment’ competence as defined by the UOC, which would be roughly equivalent to the ‘Responsibility’ competence in the framework of the RSP project.

The aim would be to acquire the skills to act in an honest, ethical, sustainable, socially responsible way that respects human rights and diversity, in both academic and professional practice. So far, the training has been carried out in the form of two 25-hour courses for a hundred teachers, with a third course being planned for October 2021. 

Recently, members of the research group have also held a one-day online seminar aimed at educators which focused on teacher training in competences linked to education for sustainable development. The day was structured into three sessions which explained: the different competence models and their transformative potential; the twelve RSP competences, the components that define them and their learning results; and, finally, practical examples of activities that link these competences to the SDGs.

Sustainability commitment prize: the Green Gown Awards

The results from ‘A Rounder Sense of Purpose’ have led to it winning a prize in the UK Green Gown Awards. It took an award in the ‘Next Generation Learning and Skills’ category, in recognition of its commitment to sustainability.

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