Happy Fifth Anniversary, NISSEM! What is ‘transformative learning’?

Second of three blogposts by Margaret Sinclair, marking five years of NISSEM

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Since the UN Transformative Education Summit of September 2022, the concepts and values of SDG Target 4.7 – including education for sustainability and globally responsible citizenship, supported by social-emotional learning (SEL) and building positive attitudes and behaviors – have been seen as core elements of ‘transformative learning’. The titles and labels for these dimensions of learning differ according to place and time. What is important is that, as a first step, national educators review the range of what is now seen as transformative learning and prioritize topics of relevance in their own country and for students of different ages. Education leaders can then use titles, sub-titles, and labels that will motivate students and teachers as well as being acceptable to families and the wider community.

Global discourse

My first engagement with issues of transformative education came during the 1990s, when there seemed to be a burst of civil conflicts following the end of the Cold War. At that time, UN agencies spoke of education for a ‘Culture of peace’, and of ‘Conflict resolution education’, focused on skills for inclusion and negotiation. I saw ‘Life Skills’ emerge globally, often as a tactful term for assertiveness and skills for avoiding unwanted or unprotected sex, in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. More broadly, the global community began to use the phrase ‘Learning to live together’, followed by terms such as ‘Education for social cohesion’ and ‘Education for resilience’. The term ‘21st century skills’ also came to the fore, often with an emphasis on teamwork and critical thinking for the changing workplace. These themes were brought together in 2015 under the umbrella of Sustainable Development Goal Target 4.7, including education for sustainable development (ESD), global citizenship (GCED), a culture of peace, human rights, gender equality and respect for diversity. My own recent study of transformative learning in the Asia–Pacific region drew on the 2017 MGIEP checklist of peace/sustainable development/global citizenship topics and sub-topics – the MGIEP survey provided heatmaps for their representation in curricula across 22 countries in Asia – and other frameworks.

With all of these changes, my personal area of special interest – education for negotiation and conflict resolution – has lost focus, though it is usually mentioned in passing as a sub-topic within SEL. Yet this area is vital for the oft-sought 21st century skills of collaboration and societal problem-solving as well as for a culture of peace. I still hope to raise its profile.

The national scene

There is no need for national education systems to stick with global terminology; it is more important to motivate young people and their teachers with themes and terms that are acceptable to the community and other stakeholders. One question is whether to choose an overall title that is concise but which tends to carry a particular emphasis (such as ESD or GCED or C21 competencies), or a longer title that is essentially a list, or a title that is open-ended. Sometimes a flexible label may allow adaptation to national circumstances: ‘Emerging issues’ was used in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, while Kenya’s Basic Education Curriculum Framework of 2017 refers to ‘Pertinent and contemporary issues’ [1]. In the Asian region, the term ‘transversal competencies’ has been used to refer to competencies that should be reflected across the curriculum.

At national level, whatever the title for transformative learning elements of curriculum, the most important substantive question is, ‘What learning outcomes do students need to take with them on leaving school, in addition to (hopefully) the 3Rs (literacy/numeracy) and some elements of knowledge from the traditional syllabi of examined school subjects?’ Priority themes or messages from the transformative agenda of environmental and societal concerns can be selected, choosing topics that are important in the national context, such as deforestation, desertification, flooding, gender equality, and respect across ethnicities, religious groups and income levels.

Examples of topics are set out in UNESCO’s suggested learning objectives for GCED (2015) and ESD (2017). These frameworks give equal importance to cognitive, social–emotional, and behavioral learning objectives. Learning facts about forest cover or ecosystem functions is more useful when accompanied by experiences that enable students to feel empathy for affected humans (and creatures) and to develop attitudes and agency to encourage remedial action. In support of the development of the whole child – as well as the contribution of education to societal goals – we would like school leavers to be equipped with the social and emotional competencies and sub-competencies in the broad dimensions set out in CASEL and EASEL frameworks [2], adjusted to their own national culture(s).

In East Africa, the term ‘life skills’ has been adopted by the Regional Educational Learning Initiative (RELI) to cover these social and emotional competencies. In RELI’s Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa (ALiVE) study, a link is made to the competency-based curricula adopted in many national curriculum frameworks. The ALiVE study measured the competencies and values of self-awareness, collaboration, problem-solving, and respect, through extensive household surveys of adolescents aged 13–17. [3] A regional conference in June 2023 set in motion a follow-up phase to explore how these competencies can be targeted in national education systems. In India, an extensive glossary of life skills elements has been prepared and contextualized by the Life Skills Collaborative.

NISSEM does not adhere to any particular terminology or framework, given the need to adjust to culture and context. We believe that the selection of elements of transformative learning to benefit students should be determined by the education community in each jurisdiction, and fine-tuned to be motivational, acceptable, and relevant. We advocate for wide stakeholder and youth engagement to identify such elements in support of textbook writers who cannot take on this responsibility alone.

[1] Ban Ki Moon, the then UN Secretary-General, called in 2012 for education that teaches children to respect others across their own society and globally, termed Global Citizenship Education (GCED). There is overlap between GCED and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), which addresses sustainability in the student’s immediate environment, at national level, and in relation to global issues such as climate change.

[2] See the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework at https://casel.org/casel-sel-framework-11-2020/ and the Harvard Ecological Approaches to SEL (EASEL) framework at http://exploresel.gse.harvard.edu/

[3] See, for example: https://reliafrica.org/report-do-our-children-in-kenya-have-life-skills-and-values/ and related publications at https://reliafrica.org/vali/

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