What is taught and learnt are at the heart of education’s contribution to sustainable development. It is through the construction of curricula that certain knowledges, skills, attitudes and values are prioritized and learning organized across the wide range of educational settings and levels. International education policy debates in this millennium
have been dominated by access and, more recently, quality, without sufficient attention to questions of what is and might be learned and taught, and how. Such debates are needed and will be profoundly influenced by new understandings of learning processes and how these vary across learning settings and contexts. Prioritization of what should be taught and learnt are always political as well as technical. Crucial here too is the rise of attention to what individuals and communities value in terms of a set of capabilities that for them define sustainable development.
The global context is significant in setting the agenda. The recent period up to 2015 saw a focus on a “learning crisis” and the realization that the challenge was not simply to get children into schooling but to ensure that they learn more effectively. The arrival of the SDGs brings a new insistence that the challenge is broader still. SDG4 insists on equity and quality, but of lifelong learning, not just schooling. Both SDG4 and the wider set of 17 SDGs, moreover, bring a new set of questions about what different actors think should be learnt across all levels and modes of lifelong learning about a wide range of aspects of life, from energy and water use to promoting peace and gender equality.
A revisiting of the content of education is simultaneously a revisiting of education’s purpose. We assume that educational development should: provide all citizens with basic competencies and the opportunity to learn more; reduce the chasm in levels of achievement between students and between countries; and encourage attitudes and values that promote peaceful social evolution. However, the detail of responses to these imperatives will vary across locations and between different levels of education. For instance, it is important to consider what they mean in adult education contexts as compared to in primary schooling. Moreover, such questions need to be framed in relation to goals for:
- social development that balances equity with incentive, rights with obligations, re-distributive contributions with safety nets, and reshapes the preferences of the next generation to eschew conflict, provide for universal basic needs and live within planetary boundaries;
- political economy that values the future over the present, promotes tolerance and co-existence, contests destructive ideology, and offers constructive pathways towards responsible participation and viable economic strategies;
- economic policy that responsibly manages production and employment, redistributes income and benefits, and creates more investment in wellbeing and for public services free at the point of use; and
- science and technology that transforms health, agricultural and industrial productivity, clean energy production, and the ability to respond to social wants and needs.