Education helps to ensure the wellbeing of humans and nature

Quality and equal education is one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Professor of global education at the University of Oulu Elina Lehtomäki sheds light on the multi-level connection between education and sustainability.

Quality and equal education is one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Professor of global education at the University of Oulu Elina Lehtomäki sheds light on the multi-level connection between education and sustainability. 

“Studies have shown that education significantly contributes to wellbeing and welfare”, professor Elina Lehtomäki says. "It is clearly connected to health and the number of children. There is also evidence to indicate that education is a good way to rise from poverty. " 

At the same time, education is connected to sustainable development, which takes into account future generations and nature: According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, transparent, equal and high-quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all must be guaranteed by 2030. Lehtomäki clarifies the connection in more detail. 

"This can be perceived in a circle model. Human wellbeing is at the heart of the model, surrounded by infrastructures, such as a healthy living environment, sustainable agriculture, and water and waste management. Nature is in the outer circumference. It is difficult to influence the infrastructures without education. Wellbeing enables us to ensure that the systems and nature are doing well, too." 


Freedom in educational development is internationally rare 

The trump card of education is that it can reach a vast number of people from early childhood education to universities and independent studies. The challenge is how to make the learners aware of their choices and their effects. 

"The point is that at current consumption, the Earth's capacity is insufficient. Responsibility is not emphasised enough in education”, the professor says. "Teachers, educators and researchers have a great responsibility to incorporate sustainable development more strongly into learning. Phenomenon-based learning in the current basic education curriculum offers good possibilities for this." 

Also the quality of education matters. First and foremost, it is affected by the educational leadership, teachers, teacher education and resources. In many countries, education budget falls behind, for example, defence expenditure, but Lehtomäki thinks the level is sufficient in Finland. 

In addition, schools and educational institutions reflect the models and values of the surrounding society, which is echoed in quality. "In Finland, municipalities, schools and teachers have freedom to develop education practices. Such freedom does not exist in the majority of the world's schools: most countries have a school inspectorate for control purpose and, in many countries, the state employs the teachers. 

"This freedom of development amazes people internationally, and many foreign students and delegations come to Finland in order to familiarise themselves with our education system. We are unable to export our societal model as such, but the commitment of educational leadership and teachers to continuous development is worth of sharing." 


Commitment to sustainable development requires monitoring 

Certificates and networks can motivate schools to sustainable development. 70 Finnish schools participate in Unesco Schools network, which has over 11 500 schools in 182 countries, promoting human rights and peace education. Some schools and institutions have the Environmental certification or Sustainable development certification. Finland participates in the Global Education Network Europe, that offers peer reviews in global responsibility education.  

Commitment and fulfilment of criteria require regular monitoring. In principle, freedom similar to that of Finnish schools may be incompatible with this. 

"The World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report on Learning pointed out the Finnish education system and asked whether we already trust too much – is everyone responsible?”, Lehtomäki says, and draws attention to the role of educational leadership. "Research results indicate that school leadership affects how responsibly schools commit to human rights and sustainable development." 

She hopes that schools would also have a community or responsibility certificate. "For example, the prevention of bullying and social exclusion is too project-related in nature." 


The core tasks of the university to include sustainability 

As a professor of global education and leader of the EDGE research group examining education, diversity, globalisation and ethics, Elina Lehtomäki wants to integrate the theme of sustainability into all teaching. The Faculty of Education at the University of Oulu has already distinguished itself as a global player. According to a recent report by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Oulu offers the country’s only teacher education programme in English, which includes learning about sustainability and development. Lehtomäki has also participated in setting up a multidisciplinary working group, which has presented the university management a plan for profiling the university´s contribution towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The planned actions are to create a study module of sustainable development and increase the visibility of the theme in research and societal interaction. 


Text: Jarno Mällinen

Last updated: 16.11.2018