What is sustainability education?

Sustainability education aims to empower learners to become global citizens for sustainable development. In this blogpost, you will learn about four frequently asked questions about the concept:

  1. What does sustainability education mean?
  2. How to realise it?
  3. What does it teach?
  4. Why is it important?

1. What do you mean by sustainability education?

Imagine a class of business students. They’re sitting in an overcrowded lecture hall, learning from a professor about sales. In a 2-hour lecture, the professor goes through 200 slides. Is this sustainability education? No it isn’t. Let’s explore why not below.

Sustainability education “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” (UNESCO).

This ambition makes this concept a paradigm shift in education. Above all, this sustainability education definition is:

  • Action-oriented: Rather than sitting in a classroom all day, students investigate and solve real-life problems.
  • Learner-centred: Rather than the teacher designing the curriculum, students take ownership of what and how they learn. The teacher becomes a facilitator.
  • Interdisciplinary: Rather than just studying a topic from one discipline, students explore topics from social, economic and environmental perspectives.
  • Local and global: Rather than investigating issues on a national level, e.g. the national economy, students explore topics in their local and global dimensions.
  • Focused on key topics: Rather than focusing on how to sell more products to consumers, sustainability education explicitly focuses on key environmental and societal challenges, such as water scarcity, climate change, disaster risk reduction, biodiversity loss, food crisis or climate refugees.
  • Transformative: Rather than teaching students to become obedient followers, sustainability education empowers learners to become global citizens for sustainable development.
Sustainability education is action and learner-oriented

Sustainability education is action-oriented

2. How to realise it?

Sustainability education is not only about integrating sustainability into the curriculum. It demands that educational institutions take a holistic approach to:

  • Reorient the curriculum towards sustainability education,
  • Embed sustainability into the organisational culture, policy, and governance,
  • Take campus organisation as a living laboratory for learners to learn about sustainability,
  • Reach out to and help the local community become more sustainable itself.

This whole-institution approach requires that the concept becomes not only a top priority for educators and students but also administrators, managers, and policy-makers.

A whole-institution approach is needed that engages teachers, students and management

Sustainability education engages teachers, students, and management

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3. What does sustainability education teach?

This educational approach teaches key competencies that empower students to become global citizens for sustainable development. However, what exactly are these competencies? We like the competency framework of Arnim Wiek and colleagues (2014). Their framework focuses on five competencies:


Systems thinking gives students a lens to look at the world in all its complexity, messiness and uncertainty. For example, when studying energy production from a system’s perspective, then students would identify things like the system’s actors, dynamics, leverage points, thresholds or feedback loops. Check out Thinking in Systems: A primer, by Donella H. Meadows, as a great introduction.

Anticipatory thinking

Anticipatory thinking enables learners to think creatively and critically about the future. How will the environment be impacted when current consumption trends continue? How would a sustainable world look like? What are the unintended consequences of sustainability policies? Among others, students learn about scenario planning, transition management, modelling, and simulations.

Normative competence

Students learn to define for themselves how the world ought to be and what sustainability means to them. To achieve this, students learn about topics including climate justice, ethics,  multi-criteria assessment or inter-generational equity. This enables them to, among others, argue to what extent products, companies, goals or systems contribute to sustainability or not.

Strategic competence

Sustainability education teaches students how to ‘get things done’. This is why they need to learn to:

  • Design sustainability projects, policies, and campaigns,
  • Navigate the complexities of multi-stakeholder processes,
  • Overcome resistance and deal with criticism,
  • Understand and communicate with their target group,
  • Continue to reflect and monitor change processes.

Interpersonal competence

Change only happens through groups, teams or communities that are mobilised around a common cause. To become sustainability leaders, students need to inspire followers, negotiate with opponents, build alliances and communicate across cultures. Therefore, they need to learn about topics like team-work, partnerships, leadership, democracy or participation.

Sustainability education teaches new competencies

Start a green office to further sustainability education

4. Why is sustainability education important?

Globalisation and digitalisation connect the world. As a result, cultures mix, economies grow and communication speeds up. The world becomes increasingly complex and uncertain.

In addition to these mega-trends, humanity is altering the planet’s climate, animals and landscapes in unprecedented ways, and threatening all life on earth.

We’ve entered the Anthropocene – a new geological area shaped by humanity:

Given these global developments, students have an increasing demand for education that goes beyond teaching knowledge and skills just to find a job.

Above all, students need new perspectives to be able to understand the rapidly changing world they live in. In addition, they need to participate in this world. Many of them also want to help reduce poverty, protect the environment and create inclusive societies. To realise this ambition, a new approach to education is needed.

Sustainability education provides this alternative approach, aiming to educate students as global citizens for sustainable development.

Sustainable development education empowers students to shape the world

Sustainability education empowers students to shape the world

Start a green office to further sustainability education

Photos by student-led Green Offices at Utrecht University, Leiden University and Hildesheim University.