What is education for sustainable development?

Summary: Education for Sustainable Development provides an exciting vision of an interdisciplinary and learner-centred way to empower students to advance a pro-social and environmental agenda in their organisations, communities and personal lives. It’s a key practice of a sustainable university.

Table of contents
Definition of education for sustainable development
(1) Learning outcomes
(2) Learning content
(3) Pedagogy

Definition of Education for Sustainable Development

Academics and practitioners can’t agree on a shared definition.  Like sustainable development or sustainability, the concept means different things to different people. (Surprise!)

So, just pick a definition that suit you best. We like the UNESCO‘s definition:

“Education for Sustainable Development empowers learners to take informed decisions and responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society, for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity.”

That sounds wonderful. But, it’s also a bit of a mouthful. So, let’s try to look at the different elements of this definition:

(1) Learning outcomes
(2) Learning content
(3) Pedagogy

(1) Learning outcomes: Creating change makers, rather than passive consumers

As the definition above illustrates, Education for Sustainable Development aspires to “empower learners to take informed decisions and responsible actions”. Different from educating obedient consumers or employees, this type of teaching and learning wants students to think and act for themselves.

Other scholars and practitioners write that students should be able to become “change agents” or “change makers”. Those are people who don’t passively observe what is happening in society but are able to act, intervene, ask critical questions.

This ambition of Education for Sustainable Development requires different learning outcomes, compared to more “traditional” education. A huge body of literature exists around what learning outcomes Education for Sustainable Development strives for.

Arnim Wiek and colleagues conducted a study we really like. They looked at different concepts of Education for Sustainable Development and synthesized common learning outcomes that students are expected to learn. Those include among others

  • System’s thinking,
  • Envisioning alternative futures,
  • Critical thinking to evaluate sustainability values and principles,
  • And the ability to motivate others and work collaboratively.

In this sense, Education for Sustainable Development aims to achieve that students can think and act for themselves and with others to work on a more sustainable world. For this, students need to be able to among others think and act critically, holistically and collaboratively.

But, how do you achieve these learning outcomes? That’s why Education for Sustainable Development requires a different pedagogical approach.

Sustainable education creates change makers, rather than passive consumers

Sustainable education creates change makers, rather than passive consumers

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(2) Learning content: Investigating topics from an interdisciplinary perspective

Learning content describes what students learn. As the definition of UNESCO illustrates, the goal is that students learn about topics in an interdisciplinary way, from an economic, social and environmental perspective. What does this mean?

Let’s look at an example:

You can learn about economic growth purely from an economic perspective, looking at its economic drivers and consequences. But that’s not Education for Sustainable Development! You should learn about the social implications of economic growth, such as its impact on income (in)equality, well-being and health. Of course, you should also learn about the environmental perspective, analysing how economic growth impacts the environment in a positive or negative way.

This is the cool thing about Education for Sustainable Development: It makes education so much more interesting!

You can take literally any topic and look at it from an economic, social and environmental perspective. As a result, you don’t only see the world from the perspective of one discipline, but get a richer picture of reality, by drawing on the insights from multiple disciplines.

Students learn to investigate topics from an interdisciplinary perspective

Students learn to investigate topics from an interdisciplinary perspective

(3) Pedagogy: Interactive, learner-centred and action-oriented (+ fun)

Pedagogy describes the practice or method of teaching. Different to the content, it doesn’t describe what students learn, but how they learn.

A question to you: You take 200 students, put them into a lecture hall, and have a professor lecture 3 hours non-stop about economic growth from an economic, social and environmental perspective. Is this Education for Sustainable Development?

Yes, because the students learn about the topic from an interdisciplinary perspective.
No, because they probably won’t remember a lot, due to the method of teaching.

An interactive, learner-centred and action-oriented pedagogy is the third generally agreed upon element of Education for Sustainable Development.

To put it plainly: Students shouldn’t sit in a lecture hall all day, listening to presentation after presentation! On the contrary, they should work collaboratively on group assignments, solve real-life problems for an external client, go on excursions or discuss problems in small group seminars.

For examples:

  • Engineering students could develop plans for how to improve recycling on campus,
  • Pedagogy students could create a curriculum to teach students on the Sustainable Development Goals,
  • Art students could give theatre performances around issues of environmental justice,
  • Sports students could propose ideas on how to advance healthy and sustainable foods and catering,
  • Business students could advise local companies on how to make production processes waste free.

The teacher is more a facilitator, rather than a knowledge provider. The student much more active and responsible, rather than being a passive recipient of knowledge.

Education for sustainable development is interactive, learner-centred and action-oriented

Education for sustainable development is interactive, learner-centred and action-oriented

To sum it up: Education for Sustainable Development provides an exciting vision of an interdisciplinary and learner-centred way to empower students to advance a pro-social and environmental agenda in their organisations, communities and personal lives.

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