Third and final blogpost in a series by Margaret Sinclair, marking five years of NISSEM
I began my career as an education planner, so I am keenly aware of the policy–practice gap. I have worked in countries where inspectors/advisers couldn’t visit schools because of the cost of the petrol or because of insecurity. How can countries facing such financial and other constraints increase students’ exposure to SEL (social and emotional learning) and societal/environmental issues?
One approach is to transform textbooks, which are often barriers to reform, so that they instead become carriers of the new vision. The writers of syllabi and textbooks can support innovation and reform by embedding new approaches in national textbooks and other education materials. In low resource contexts, the Ministry of Education (MOE) may write the materials or set the criteria for publishers. From the viewpoint of an education planner, the MOE can exert a modest influence across even a large and/or insecure country through textbook renewal aligned to transformative learning. This can be complemented by raising awareness among teachers and the general public as to what is intended and why it is important. As a planner, I see the need to engage syllabus and textbook writers with the SEL/SDG Target 4.7 societal/environmental agenda as a priority.
If the new ideas are not reflected in the textbooks, even the best intentioned and most capable teachers face problems. In many countries, teachers feel obliged to ‘complete the textbook’, which is often overloaded with content because of older educators’ and experts’ reluctance to trim it down. Rote learning prevails in classroom practice and national examinations.
Without strong political will, there will be resistance to condensing subject syllabuses and textbooks to concentrate on core concepts and relate them to contemporary concerns. Some countries showed that they could condense curriculum/learning materials during Covid-19, but would this be feasible in the cause of making subject textbooks more suited to 21st century challenges – more suited to developing student agency in support of personal and societal needs? Can it be done for textbooks used by government schools in a low- or middle-income country?
Political will is important for a change in textbooks but so is a clear process, because so many subject specialists are involved. NISSEM seeks to explore that process. Given the multiple elements within the frameworks of SEL and education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship education (GCED) and such, how can these elements be distributed across subjects and revisited appropriately as the child climbs the ladder of education? And how can these elements be developed in a contextually appropriate fashion, reflecting national culture, societal and environmental challenges, and with engaging and inspirational examples taken from the national setting, which may not be familiar to syllabus and textbook writers?
In the first instance, national subject experts need to become familiar with the transformative learning agenda and how to contextualize it. This can take lengthy discussion and investigation among champions in the education community, as happened in the development of Delhi’s Happiness Curriculum and more recently in the RELI initiative for life skills in East Africa. Subject specialists then need to see how SEL/life skills and societal/environmental topics can be reinforced and contextualized in their respective disciplines, across grades and/or subject areas.
Language studies offer many opportunities. The interpersonal and intrapersonal skills of self-management, communication, collaboration, negotiation, and social problem-solving feature in many stories used in language teaching classrooms, giving the opportunity to explore and practise them in spoken form. The focus would be on language for life skills to address the challenges of adolescence and adulthood and responsible citizenship. NISSEM Global Briefs vol. 4 offers global perspectives on supporting SEL and SDG Target 4.7 topics through ‘doing more with language teaching’. The brief from Patrice Kane, a teacher trainer in Mali, shows how sustainable development – in the form of preserving trees – can motivate the learning of English in a district where he has reached students’ hearts and minds through a topic that affects their families and daily lives.
In science subjects, there can be a deeper understanding of core scientific concepts by linking to national applications – in relation to ecology/biodiversity, climate change, pollution, public health, and other issues of national concern. The focus would be on knowledge, skills, values and agency that help students use science insights to tackle societal and environmental concerns and support their own and public health and well-being. Photosynthesis, for example, can be linked to transformative learning topics, deepening and reinforcing the learning of how plants support life on earth while helping absorb excess carbon dioxide (a ‘greenhouse gas’ contributing to global warming) generated by human activities. Or photosynthesis can continue to be taught as a page of text to learn by heart, which may not impinge much on students’ agency as present and future responsible citizens. Individual textbook chapters can also be devoted to key issues such as water supplies, forests and pollution, as in primary and middle school science textbooks in India. 
In some countries, social studies offers a good opportunity to cover SEL/life skills and SDG 4.7-type topics in primary grades, where integrated social studies may provide an ideal base for explicit inclusion of SEL and priority SDG Target 4 themes as separate lesson units as well as reinforcing them across relevant topics.
More work is needed in core subject areas, at global and national level, if the policy–practice gap for societal, environmental and personal transformative learning experiences is to be bridged. NISSEM aims to bring together partners and champions who wish to support the translation of ‘transformative learning’ goals into classroom practice through innovative and supportive materials.
If you are working towards this goal, please get in touch at https://nissem.org/contact.