Educating for the social, the emotional and the sustainable

By Andy Smart, Margaret Sinclair, Aaron Benavot, Jean Bernard, Colette Chabbott, S. Garnett Russell and James Williams

Earlier this year, the UN Secretary-General reported that “the shift in development pathways to generate the transformation required to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030 is not yet advancing at the speed or scale required.” He noted with regret that “…the most vulnerable countries are bearing the brunt of the current obstacles to SDG implementation…. The bleak situation of countries in situations of conflict or fragility is all the more troubling given that, by 2030, more than half the world’s poor are projected to live in countries affected by conflict.” This blog looks at a new publication by NISSEM on the challenges facing poorly resourced or conflict-affected countries in addressing SDG Target 4.7. It argues that addressing this target can help change long-term behaviour to help achieve the SDGs.

Why Target 4.7?

4.7Among the SDG 4 targets, 4.7 is unique for driving social, economic, political and environmental change since it highlights transformative values and principles. It reflects country commitments to education for sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

The global indicator for Target 4.7 calls for its themes to be mainstreamed in educational policies, curricula, teacher training, learning assessments, and ultimately in classroom teaching and learning. Social and emotional learning (SEL), sometimes called “soft skills” or “non-cognitive skills” is vital. When instructional materials include these skills in contextually meaningful ways, students are more likely to learn how to empathize, collaborate and negotiate – and build humane, just and environmentally-sound societies, as envisioned by the SDGs.

Despite the formidable monitoring challenges related to the target, countries need to find ways to embed these themes in policies and curricula – including textbooks – and prepare teachers.

Embedding Target 4.7 themes and socio-emotional learning in textbooks

Achieving these changes is particularly hard in poorer and conflict-affected countries. A new initiative, Networking to Integrate SDG 4.7 and SEL into Education Materials (NISSEM), aims to identify and support practical ways of achieving SDG Target 4.7 in these contexts. Its new open access publication, NISSEM Global Briefs: Educating for the social, the emotional and the sustainable, with over 60 contributors, shows how certain high-impact, relatively low-cost interventions targeting writers of textbooks and reading materials can help.

The publication clarifies the terminology around Target 4.7 and socio-emotional learning, showing that they can mean different things in different cultures and therefore cannot be taught in the same way in every context. Social and emotional priorities are very different in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia or North America.

Lessons for textbook writers

Target 4.7 raises questions for curriculum specialists and textbook writers, which often leave out minority identities, be they indigenous, ethnic, linguistic or global. It demands that textbooks support teachers to develop students’ empathy and sense of shared humanity, by including elements of social and emotional learning. Textbook writers should identify examples of Target 4.7 content that apply to their own context and link this with the syllabus. They should look at the gaps in current textbooks relevant to the target, as the GEM Report did in 2016.

Textbooks can either hamper or aid learning. Often, in low- and middle-income countries, textbooks are too difficult for disadvantaged students to understand. This is especially the case in primary school textbooks and for pupils who are not studying in their mother tongue. Text is often too dense and there is no lesson time for a balanced cognitive, social and emotional response to the lesson topic. Indeed, textbook writers face a difficult task in matching content to both curriculum requirements and classroom realities. Strong institutional support for writers is needed to prioritise readability and embed simple pedagogical support for the average teacher. An important step is to include more classroom teachers in teams that prepare textbooks or their specifications.

The publication presents a basic model to guide writers on how to embed Target 4.7-related content in core school subjects. This approach is illustrated in a recent updating of primary school social studies textbooks in Bangladesh where the treatment of the topic of tolerance was condensed and supplemented by embedding a pedagogy that helps students read with comprehension and gives them more time to engage with the theme and with each other.

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Figure 1: Sample pages from Bangladesh and Global Studies, class 4

NISSEM Global Briefs also describes innovative approaches to early grade reading, which include Target 4.7 and SEL content. In Afghanistan and Lebanon, for example, early grade literacy interventions cover SEL in children’s literacy books in grades 1 to 3.

Revamping textbooks and educational materials: a selective and low-cost strategy

The contributors to the volume conclude by recommending a low-cost strategy for change.

  1. Textbook writers should be provided with transformative training and support to embed the spirit of Target 4.7 in simplified form in the early years of education, in order to support teachers through structured pedagogy and to support social and emotional learning.
  2. Cognitively-rich, motivational and nationally relevant topics should be developed to enrich the schooling of adolescents with ideas for responsible citizenship and sustainable development.
  3. The role of champions, whether individual or institutional, is crucial, as illustrated by successful innovations led by Pratham, including the production of reading materials in different national languages and network-building through ‘impact teachers’.

Under ideal circumstances, SDG Target 4.7 requires preparing teachers to gain mastery over its themes, with ample resources for students to engage in individual and collaborative work, both inside and outside the classroom, and based on evidence-informed social and emotional learning approaches. Where basic education is under-resourced, however, alternative strategies are needed. Revamping current textbooks and education materials with appropriate social and emotional learning elements can hasten the transformations required for Agenda 2030. We hope education ministries and donors will take steps along this path. You are invited to turn to the contents of NISSEM Global Briefs to find more examples of field programmes and to engage with the authors or editors to further address this challenge.



  1. It’s just unfortunate that, again, the GEM report does not take into account the important role of early childhood care and education (ECCE) in shaping a child’s attitudes and values. The entire text above makes no mention of the need to begin educating for tolerance, the celebration of diversity, empathy, “shared humanity”, etc., before children enter primary school — as if they come into school as an empty slate. But we know that ECCE can shape values and attitudes in both negative and positive ways. We therefore simply must pay more attention to the role of ECCE in promoting positive SEL.

  2. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), Mental health is the common problem during Pandemic Lockdown due to the financial situation of self, Job Security, future planning, etc. So Mental Health can be the next pandemic according to WHO. We have to face this situation. Socio-emotional skills are important to face this new threat. This article will give you information about what are socio-emotional skills and how to apply to reduce the risk factors.

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