Webinar outcomes: ‘Learning cities’ COVID-19 recovery: From research to practice’ series - The challenge of Education for Sustainable Development


7 December 2020

On 21 October 2020, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), together with the PASCAL International Observatory (European Centre at the University of Glasgow), hosted the fourth in a series of webinars on ‘Learning Cities’ COVID-19 recovery: From research to practice’, the focus of which was on challenges to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

Opening remarks and welcome

Opening remarks were given by UIL Programme Specialist Mr Konstantinos Pagratis, who introduced the moderator of the session, Mr Roberto Guevara, Associate Professor at the International Development School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, and Director of PASCAL Observatory for Australasia. Mr Guevara began by asserting that, although many schools closed their doors at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, learning did not stop. Drawing upon Delors’ ‘four pillars of education’,[1] he called for recognition of a fifth pillar: learning to live sustainably. One of the positive effects of the pandemic is that it forced us to embrace virtual, intergenerational and community-based learning, he said, and this webinar would draw upon such learning and its connection to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), with particular emphasis on links between research and practice.

The next speaker, Mr Raúl Valdés-Cotera, Team Leader of UIL’s Policy Support and Capacity Development in Lifelong Learning unit, reminded participants of the purpose of this webinar series; that is, to provide an opportunity to hear from education experts and learn from examples of best practice. He reminded the audience of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which present integrated solutions to global challenges. The 2030 Agenda calls on the education community to integrate ESD into all levels and forms of education, he said. He also shared results from the 2019 International Conference on Learning Cities (ICLC 4), in Medellín, Colombia, which resulted in the setting up of thematic clusters for learning cities, of which ESD is one, and which some 100 UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) members have joined. The ESD cluster shares information, research and practice, provides mutual support, and has established key actions to promote ESD at the local level. Mr Valdés-Cotera encouraged cities, including those not currently in the ESD cluster, to create their own action plans.

Education for Sustainable Development Division, UNESCO

Next, Mr Alexander Leicht, UNESCO’s Chief of Section of the Education for Sustainable Development Division for Peace and Sustainable Development, opened his presentation by explaining the need for ESD to counteract climate change and biodiversity loss. ESD, he explained, provides a particular type of learning to build specific knowledge, skills, values and attitudes. It is calls for a curriculum that focuses on cognitive, social, emotional and behavioural skills. ESD, he said, is more than just something that should happen at an individual level: it calls for political action.

Mr Leicht pointed to the importance of active citizenship skills and full participation in political processes. He reported on UNESCO’s new framework, ‘Education for Sustainable Development: Towards achieving the SDGs’, or ‘ESD for 2030’, for which cities and city stakeholder voices had been sought. This framework spells out the specific contribution of ESD to the SDGs, and the help that ESD can provide in making the connections that exist across the SDGs. He articulated five priority actions to be taken at the policy, institutional, teacher and educator, youth and, most importantly, local and community level, to facilitate the adoption of ESD. He then elucidated the actions that had been proposed from this roadmap, which will be launched shortly by UNESCO. Amongst other actions, he said, promoting action at the local level and taking a holistic approach towards education that involves many different stakeholders is crucial. He stated in his concluding remarks that, while cities have a special role to play in promoting ESD, engaging all groups in society is fundamental.

PASCAL Learning Cities Networks (LCN)

Welcome remarks on behalf of the PASCAL Observatory were given by Ms Michele Schweisfurth, Professor of Comparative and International Education and Director of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change in the School of Education, University of Glasgow, and Senior Policy Adviser in Education to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s Department of International Development. She spoke on the theme of COVID-19, post-COVID-19 and educational access, quality and inclusion, noting the need to ‘build back better’ following the loss of learning, public funding cuts, exacerbated inequalities and ‘fake news’ brought by the pandemic. Ms Schweisfurth argued that some needs and interventions are specifically educational – for example, remediation and ensuring teaching is done ‘at the right level’[2] – but noted the caveat that there is a danger of narrowing curriculum and labelling learners. Other inventions, however, require a more holistic and integrated approach. By way of illustration, she introduced the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Centre for Sustainable, Healthy, and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (CSHLH), and made two key observations and posed two specific questions to participants:

  • Sustainable cities depend on a population with resilience and resources that health and learning brings;
  • Health and well-being, and lifelong learning opportunities, depend on the development of sustainable cities and the communities within them;
  • How, then, can education, health and the built environment work together to sustain neighbourhoods of all kinds? 
  • What kind of governance structures and community agency facilitate this?

City of Beijing

Mr Dayong Yuan, from the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences, presented on behalf of the City of Beijing, China, a member of the UNESCO GNLC. He reported that Beijing has a long history of ESD, which calls for a change to the way we think and talk about the environment. He argued that ESD requires a comprehensive development of moral, intellectual, physical, aesthetic and work-related learning; as a result, many schools are discouraged from incorporating it into their curriculum because of its scope. More generally, Mr Yuan spoke about the challenges of implementing ESD in Beijing, where air pollution, COVID-19, and the balance between technological development and the environment are significant.

City of Wyndham

Ms Diane Tabbagh, Community Learning Coordinator at Wyndham City Council, Australia, reported on the city’s Learning Community Strategy 2018–2023, which involves over 50 partners and focuses on four priorities: (1) celebrating living and learning in Wyndham; (2) advocating for equity and quality in service provision; (3) facilitating partnerships and collaboration across sectors; and (4) fostering innovative learning solutions and entrepreneurialism. The city, which is a member of the UNESCO GNLC, as well as the PASCAL LCN, promotes ESD in several ways; for her presentation, Ms Tabbagh focused on its library and community learning initiatives, which include:

  • library programmes encouraging and promoting sustainability;
  • activities and storytelling sessions as part of the environmentally focused ‘green living’ series;
  • National Recycling Week, which includes a competition for young people;
  • children’s activities, such as planting a bee-friendly garden and building birdhouses, wildlife worksheets, and Insect and Science Week experiments and activities.

In addition, Wyndham runs a Young Scientist of Wyndham Competition; a Teachers’ Environmental Network; an Environmental Expo with 20 local exhibitors providing inspiration and tips for living a more sustainable life; and activities facilitated through funding by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) as part of the Caring for Our Local Environment initiative.


Questions and answers were moderated by Mr Guevara. There were a wide range of questions from participants, which covering the following topics:

  • Formal processes around ESD, including the monitoring and evaluation of ESD, the rolling out of UNESCO’s ‘ESD for 2030’, and recent updates from UNESCO on ESD;
  • Integrating ESD into the curricula of different academic disciplines;
  • The links between ESD and COVID-19, with a particular focus on adults, the role of ESD in facilitating transformation during the pandemic, and how we might mitigate the challenge of ‘lost learning’ brought by the pandemic;
  • The role of indigenous knowledge in ESD; more specifically, how to involve indigenous peoples without jeopardizing their beliefs and cultures and what we can learn from these groups.

After a summary from Mr Guevara, Mr Michael Osborne, Professor of Adult and Lifelong Learning and Director of Research in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow and Director of the Centre for Research and Development in Adult and Lifelong Learning within the School of Education and Co-director of the PASCAL Observatory on Place Management, Social Capital and Lifelong Learning, made three final points drawn from the discussion. First, he reiterated Mr Guevara’s opening remarks about the need for a fifth learning pillar: education for sustainability. Second, he commended approaches that take a holistic approach, not only across disciplines, but which place value on all living things. Finally, he called for all learning cities to make ESD part of their strategic plans.

The summary was prepared by Mr Mike Osborne, Professor of Adult and Lifelong Learning, Director of Research, School of Education,  University of Glasgow and Director of PASCAL

[1] The Delors Report of 1996, entitled Learning: The Treasure Within (Delors et al., 1996), saw learning as a principle which rests on four pillars – learning to be, learning to know, learning to do and learning to live together – and envisaged a learning society in which everyone can learn according to her or his individual needs and interests, anywhere and anytime in an unrestricted, flexible and constructive way. See https://uil.unesco.org/fileadmin/keydocuments/LifelongLearning/en/UNESCOTechNotesLLL.pdf [Accessed 16 November 2020].

[2] See Banerjee, A. et al. 2006. Mainstreaming an Effective Intervention: Evidence from Randomized Evaluations of ‘Teaching at the Right Level’ in India. Available at: https://economics.mit.edu/files/16589 [Accessed 16 November 2020].