Many teachers and researchers reading this may be asking themselves: what is sustainable development (SD) and why should I care about it? Here I offer insights on the following three areas: what it is, how it can be used in university language classrooms, and why we should start considering using it in our classrooms.
SD has many definitions and use cases. It can be loosely defined as ‘the long-term stability of the economy and environment; this is only achievable through the integration and acknowledgement of economic, environmental, and social concerns throughout the decision-making process’ (Emas, 2015). Thus, SD can be characterised as essentially creating a liveable world for the next generations through solving economic, environmental and social issues. SD can also be understood through the lens of higher education through education for sustainable development (ESD) and, more recently, through the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which has ESD in-built.
ESD is an attempt to see how education can play a role in SD by offering students opportunities to learn about social, economic and environmental issues as well as become change-makers in their own lives around these issues. ESD not only strives to present the complexities around the issue, but also offers students a space to research and critically examine how this issue affects them and others worldwide. ESD endeavours to move away from ‘transmissive’ learning towards ‘learning through discovery’ and ‘transformative’ learning (Sterling, 2004) through student-centred learning approaches. The goal is to promote pro-environmental behaviours (PEB), which could mean that students are more likely to recycle, for instance, or advocate for social equality. Ultimately, we want informed, critical citizens that are actively creating a better world for all, and this is done by challenging student beliefs and values in the classroom. For language teachers, the movement towards critical thinking or student-led approaches may sound familiar. These separate fields of research are talking about the same things. Sustainable development goals take this a step further.
‘Education for sustainable development endeavours to move away from “transmissive” learning towards “learning through discovery” and “transformative” learning through student-centred learning approaches.’
SDGs are another point of reference that are becoming more visible in our communities around the world due to the enormous efforts of organisations such as the United Nations. SDGs are a set of seventeen UN goals to be accomplished by 2030, each with a set of practical, and in some cases ambitious, targets. Essentially, they provide a comprehensive list and road map to overcome seventeen of the worlds most challenging issues, which are complex, but profoundly intertwined.
Language education for sustainable development (LESD) ensures this road map can be followed in two important ways: (1) using content from SDGs to complement our curriculums, and (2) increasing the opportunities for student-led research, discovery, critical thinking and demonstration of knowledge around these important ideas. Not only can we improve students’ understanding of critical global issues through integrating LESD, but we can also offer students opportunities to use language, recycle vocabulary, and improve critical-thinking and autonomy. Although the fields of language education and SD seem discordant, both tend to promote the same larger goals in education: to empower future global citizens. The key to integrating SD into language classrooms is in creating spaces in our classrooms for critical thinking and student-led research. Giving students possibilities to exhibit their beliefs, values and norms is the hard part, but teachers in the language classroom are already doing this in effective ways (Jodoin & Singer, 2019). LESD does require extra work and awareness to integrate it properly, not to mention a lot of scaffolding at lower levels, but it is worth the effort.
Ultimately, we want our students to be equipped with the ability to communicate broadly to the world about their ideas (language education) and bring their own knowledge, beliefs, values and norms of these critical issues to the global conversation (ESD). LESD can lay the foundations for this outlook where our students become global citizens shaping a brighter future for all. The SDGs are the first step to overcoming critical global issues, but we need our students to take the next steps. This is where language teachers play an important role in facilitating this journey. Our students and future generations will thank us.
Emas, R. (2015). The concept of sustainable development: Definition and defining principles. Brief for the Global Sustainable Development Report. Retrieved from: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5839GSDR%202015_SD_concept_definiton_rev.pdf
Jodoin, J., & Singer, J. (2019). A framework for integrating education for sustainable development in the English as a foreign language classroom in Japan: An appeal to the language teaching community. Osaka JALT Journal, 6, 51–66.
Sterling, S. (2004). An analysis of the development of sustainability education internationally: Evolution, interpretation and transformative potential. In J. Blewitt & C. Cullingford (Eds.), The sustainability curriculum: The challenge for higher education (pp. 43–62). New York: Taylor and Francis.