Reforming education in the Western Balkans

REC spearheads ESD integration into regional curricula changes

May 13, 2015

GP_KidsEducational reform is an important component of the European Union integration process. For Kosovo*, Montenegro and Serbia, which are currently involved in this process, a key element of efforts to implement educational reform involves shifting away from old instructional models and towards new school curricula developed in line with an 'outcome-based' learning approach.

Working to accommodate this shift in educational terrain, a team of experts from the REC has been instrumental in helping to develop learning outcomes for new school curricula in the Western Balkans that are related to sustainable development, while drawing financial support for this work from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, EuropeAid and national ministries. The REC is also cooperating successfully with ministries of education, which marks an important step in high-level collaboration towards achieving the integration of educational curricula through policy reform. It also presents a unique opportunity for the REC to have a strong and long-lasting impact on education for sustainable development throughout the CEE region and beyond.

Eastern Partnership and pre-accession countries continue to amend their educational frameworks in striving to attain modes of excellence in education. This initiative is a unique example of how an inter-governmental organisation like the REC can partner with national governments to shape policies in line with the reforms needed for sustainable futures.

What is 'outcome-based' learning?

The movement towards outcome-based education follows recent 'total quality' trends in business and manufacturing, and "reflects a belief that the best way for individuals and organisations to get where they're going is first to determine where they are and where they want to be, and then to plan backwards to determine the best way to get from here to there." Such an approach marks a break with traditional educational inputs such as course credits earned and hours spent in class.

Multiple learning outcomes are established for each learning field, or subject area, in a given curriculum. 'Content' outcomes describe what students should know and be able to achieve in particular subject areas, while 'student performance' outcomes describe how and at what level students must demonstrate relevant knowledge and skills. Meanwhile, at the institutional level, 'school performance' standards are established to define and determine the quality of education that schools are expected to provide in order for students to meet content and performance outcomes.

It is within this context that a cross-curricular approach has been taken to ensure that education for sustainable development (ESD) principles are woven into the framework of learning outcomes established for primary and secondary curricula, as well as general educational requirements for vocational schools.

Regional shifts

The REC has already performed instrumental work in the successful development of inter-subject areas for primary and secondary curricula in Montenegro. The National Educational Council of Montenegro officially approved inter-subject curricula areas on sustainable development for primary education on March 17, 2014. One year later, on March 23, 2015, in cooperation with the REC and the National Educational Council, Montenegro approved sustainable development curricula areas for general secondary education. This is significant in that it is now mandatory for teachers to implement these curricula areas in schools across the whole country.

New curriculum frameworks are now being developed in Serbia and Kosovo*, which will first be piloted before being implemented nationwide. In Serbia, the Institute for the Advancement of Education, REC experts and teachers have been directly engaged in developing new learning outcomes. These outcomes were piloted within the context of a sustainable development module in 41 practice schools and 122 pilot schools, involving more than 10,000 teachers, beginning in November 2014 and with the expected completion of online trainings in June 2014.

Teachers have also played a critical role in formulating and adapting these learning outcomes. As part of their training, teachers analysed various sustainable development outcomes that the REC and the expert team had proposed in order to determine which subject outcomes should be included in the school curricula. Teachers were also asked to identify and define any additional ESD-related outcomes not already included in the set of subject outcomes developed by the REC and the Institute for the Advancement of Education.

Regarding the Serbia initiative, across all subject areas sustainable development concepts have been successfully integrated into a minimum of 8.5 percent of the total learning outcomes and a maximum of 97.9 percent of the total learning outcomes relating to SD in any individual subject field. This is a positive reflection of financial support worth EUR 220,543 that EuropeAid and its implementing partners have provided for the REC initiative to integrate sustainable development concepts into the boarder institutional reforms currently under way through the "Razvoina" project, which aims to reform Serbia's education curriculum on a nationwide scale.

In addition to sustainable development learning outcomes being integrated into the Serbian curricula framework, the work carried out by the REC and the Ministry of Education in Serbia has brought about other notable changes: environmental protection criteria will be officially included among indicators for assessing the performance of educational institutions; sustainable development principles will be officially incorporated into indicators for assessing teachers' professional development; and the concept of environmental responsibility will be integrated into official school curricula.

The Kosovo Ministry of Education, Science and Technology contributed EUR 16,000 in direct co-financing for the implementation of the framework programme in Kosovo*. The result is that learning outcomes have been developed for Core Curriculum I and Core Curriculum II of the national education framework. The REC has teamed up to develop inter-subject topics related to sustainable development, and has also conducted trainings for pilot schools on how to present these themes in the classroom. It is expected that these inter-subject topics on sustainable development, as well as the newly developed set of sustainable development learning outcomes, will gain official approval in 2015, following necessary adjustments and the incorporation of lessons learned at the conclusion of the pilot process. It is also expected that an optional subject on sustainable development will also be officially approved during that timeframe.

An investment in the future

The educational shift taking place is a huge, and necessarily rare, undertaking, and the full weight of the reforms will be felt only in about 10 years' time. But because the changes will have a lasting effect over two generations, it is important that the work is carried out thoroughly to ensure that the fundamental skills and behavioural shifts needed to live sustainably on this planet are instilled in the minds of children.

It is the stated goal of the Global Action Plan (GAP) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to "generate and scale up action in all levels and areas of education and learning to accelerate progress towards sustainable development." This is to be accomplished through concentrating the international work on ESD into five priority action areas: 1) to advance policy; 2) to integrate sustainability practices into education and training environments; 3) to increase the capacity of educators and trainers; 4) to empower and mobilise youth; and 5) to encourage local communities and municipal authorities to develop community-based ESD programmes.

The REC, in forging a cooperative link between an inter-governmental organisation and national governments, has opened up a new way of influencing policy to bring about wide-scale implementation of national-level curriculum changes, and is thus playing an important role in bringing ESD to the CEE region in line with UNESCO's ambitious vision for a sustainable future.

For more information on this programme, please contact Brendan Kenneth Duprey, PhD: Expert II: Environmental Education


* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.