New approaches to education key to achieving sustainable development goals

Brana medal presentation

Brana medal presentation

Charles Hopkins

Charles Hopkins

The following is an extended version of an interview that was first published at

Charles Hopkins holds the UNESCO Chair on Reorienting Teacher Education to Address Sustainability and, inter alia, is a senior advisor to UNESCO's Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development. A former superintendent of curriculum with the Toronto Board of Education, he was also the founder and principal of Canada’s largest environmental field study center, The Boyne River Natural Science School, and the Toronto Urban Studies Centre, North America’s only school-board-owned urban study centre.

He has lectured and presented papers on education in over 50 countries and was featured in nine major television documentaries.

What are some of the primary ways that teacher training has shifted to address sustainable development over the past decade?

We have just come off the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and taken stock. There has been a great increase in the understanding of what it is that we’re talking about – education for sustainability is about using public awareness, training programs and the education system to bring about a more sustainable future, as opposed to adding on sustainability electives within the existing education system. We are also seeing an understanding that sustainable development includes social as well as environmental factors, which was a huge shift during the decade.

You have just written a handbook for presidents and directors of technical colleges and technical and vocational institutions around the world for the UN. Could you tell us about it?

It is focused on moving from greening the campus to greening the mind – moving from saving money on energy and modelling good green behaviour to what is taught in the curriculum, what is modeled, what gets time-tabled, examined and reported. It’s about the culture of the whole institution, including its research and HR.

What would you like to see happen in this realm over the next decade?

We would like to see a deeper understanding by ministries of education that education is one of the Sustainable Development Goals that have replaced the Millennium Development Goals. Without a knowledgeable public, without profound education, we will not have development let alone sustainable development. The corollary to that is that it is our most educated countries that are leaving the deepest social, economic and environmental footprints on the planet. So, for the goal of sustainable development, the idea of reorienting our existing education is extremely important. Parents don’t put their kids in school for development, but governments fund education systems with the hopes that it will help them to compete internationally.

The new Sustainable Development Goals call upon all countries of the world to report on education for sustainable development, their programs and what they’re achieving, and to set national targets. These will be reported upon in the Global Education Monitoring Report put out by UNESCO each year.

The Council of Ministers of Education of Canada have put this down as one of 10 priorities, but there really isn’t that understanding or the funding to get the attention of individual school boards. We hope this international reporting may move this all up a few notches.

What are the key barriers to change?

There is the lack of understanding. There is the pursuit of the OECD math and language PISA scores, or a focusing more on the core curriculum. The barrier is that it is sort of put there in the preamble, but it is never time-tabled, reported upon or funded. One of the big issues is that teachers are still graduating without any idea of education for sustainability. There are some programs in some of our faculties of education, there are some electives and so on, but it’s going to take much more of a provincial-wide initiative and in-service program.

My network was started in 1999. At that time, there were 60 million teachers in the world and we were trying to look at how do we do in-service for 60 million. What it came down to was perhaps we could work with the faculties of education that are turning out new teachers. That’s where this whole program started, with hundreds of faculties of education in 70 countries around the world that are experimenting and working on it. The barrier is that there are not that many people in the world that actually know and understand it, to be able to do the training.

The program at Cape Breton University is a great program, but there are not many of these. For instance, all across Canada we’ve got two or three people at each of the faculties of education. We’ve formed a network. We had one of our first meetings last summer, at Trent University. But there isn’t even funding to bring the professors together to form the network. To date there has been no financial input by ministries of education.

There is interest from the Ontario College of Teachers. They would like to do something, but we need some centralized leadership. It could very well be that we need some foundation money or something of that nature to move. The provinces themselves are going to have to report on it, so hopefully things will come together in the next year.

The sequel to the UN Decade is the Global Action Program, from 2015 to 2019. The halfway point is next March when Canada is hosting the meeting in Ottawa, an international meeting of ministers of education from around the world. I think there are three people per country that are being invited to Ottawa. But even as the host country, we are not yet world leaders.

Who are the world leaders in this realm?

Probably the main cities in China, especially Beijing, and Shanghai, Hong Kong. China built 100 Education for Sustainable Development schools to do the research on what can be done. They’re doing amazing work there – they have such huge problems that they know that they need an educated public and an educated workforce that understands the issues. They have huge issues around climate change and water. They have huge issues around minorities, the poor from the west who have moved to the east coast of China, with all of those social implications and so on. But they are tackling it and making it a national priority.

The big issue is that formal education can’t really change without support from the general public. Remember Napoleon’s great line about leadership: never be so far out in front of your troops that you’re perceived as the enemy.

Right now I’m also doing work with the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Because we’ve put most of our money into the physical sciences we now understand the physics of climate change, but what we need to do now is to look at the sociology – advertising, branding, religions, all of the social sciences and humanities – to better understand how we change human behaviour.

Until the general public moves, even enlightened leaders can’t really do anything without risking being thrown out on the next election. Most people still have an idea in their mind that sustainability will be limiting, that sustainability will be the reduction of choice. What we really must do is to say, “No, we need a thriving economy that isn’t based on carbon.”

How can we become world leaders, and have jobs and so on, and create things for people that are based on biomimicry? For example, abalone shells are one of the hardest substances known in the world, and yet that animal makes it without moving far on the seabed, out of saltwater and the minerals and so on that it takes out of the sand. When it dies, it all goes right back into nature. It’s the idea of studying 4.7 billion years of free research as a way of guiding us to build new economies that are much more in harmony with nature – the idea of even more choices.

It’s not as though we want to limit things, and it’s not just about sustainability. We’re not just sustaining – we want to thrive.

Similarly, education for sustainable development isn’t just about schools. It includes schools, but it’s about public understanding and awareness. It’s about non-formal education; what people pick up just from billboards, newspapers, watching movies, et cetera.