Education for sustainable development

Demands for education to meet future challenges

At a starting point of the ProfESus-Project it was important to clarify the key questions:

  • What kind of education do we need for the 21st century?
  • What is the purpose of education in the current context of societal transformation?

These key-questions are discussed in the UNESCO-Publication Rethinking Education Towards a global common good?

In the introduction of this publication Irina Bokova Director-General of UNESCO highlights:
“The world is getting younger, and aspirations for human rights and dignity are rising. Societies are more connected than ever, but intolerance and conflict remain rife. New power hubs are emerging, but inequalities are deepening and the planet is under pressure. Opportunities for sustainable and inclusive development are vast, but challenges are steep and complex.

The world is changing – education must also change. Societies everywhere are undergoing deep transformation, and this calls for new forms of education to foster the competencies that societies and economies need, today and tomorrow. This means moving beyond literacy and numeracy, to focus on learning environments and on new approaches to learning for greater justice, social equity and global solidarity. Education must be about learning to live on a planet under pressure. It must be about cultural literacy, on the basis of respect and equal dignity, helping to weave together the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

 “This second decade of the twenty-first century marks a new historic juncture, bringing with it different challenges and fresh opportunities for human learning and development. We are entering a new historical phase characterised by the interconnectedness and interdependency of societies and by new levels of complexity, uncertainty and tensions.” (UNESCO, 2015, p. 15).

New dimensions for Education

“The purpose of education must therefore be revisited in light of renewed vision of sustainable human and social development that is both equitable and viable. This vision of sustainability must take into consideration the social, environmental and economic dimensions of human development and the various ways in which these relate to education: ‘An empowering education is one that builds the human resources we need to be productive, to continue to learn, to solve problems, to be creative, and to live together and with nature in peace and harmony. When nations ensure that such an education is accessible to all throughout their lives, a quiet revolution is set in motion: education becomes the engine of sustainable development and the key to a better world. Education can, and must, contribute to a new vision of sustainable global development” (UNESCO, 2015, p. 31f).

What is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) 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. It is about lifelong learning, and is an integral part of quality education. ESD is holistic and transformational education which addresses learning content and outcomes, pedagogy and the learning environment. It achieves its purpose by transforming society.

Learning content: Integrating critical issues, such as climate change, biodiversity, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable consumption and production (SCP), into the curriculum.

Pedagogy and learning environments: Designing teaching and learning in an interactive, learner-centered way that enables exploratory, action oriented and transformative learning. Rethinking learning environments
– physical as well as virtual and online
– to inspire learners to act for sustainability.

Wolfgang Brunner & Shepherd Urunje present the three dimensions of ESD:

  1. Relevant content
  2. Effective methods
  3. Desired competences

Also the difference between knowledge and competences is relevant.

Knowledge is an awareness or understanding of something – such as facts, information, descriptions and skills, which is acquired through experience or education.

Competency is shown in action. To be competent you need to be able to interpret the situation in the context and to have a repertoire of possible actions to take.” (Brunner and Urenje, p.7)

Wiek et al. defined the following key-competences for ESD:

• Systems thinking

The ability to see, understand and relate the different parts in a system and how these parts together connect issues to come up with a whole picture.

• Normative competence - Value Thinking

The ability to collectively demonstrate an understanding of values and principles in view of negotiating and integrating these in your vision and practice of sustainability.

• Interpersonal competence - Cooperation

The ability to create an environment that enables people to learn from and with each other. The ability to motivate, enable and facilitate collaborative and participatory learning processes regarding sustainability issues. (Wiek, Withycombe and Redman, 2011)

• Anticipatory competence - Critical Thinking

The ability to critically analyse and evaluate current situations in view of predicting and envisioning future scenarios and their possible outcomes.

• Strategic competence - Strategic Thinking

The ability to collectively design and implement interventions, and to enable and manage change processes towards sustainability issues. Strategic questioning is a form of thinking about change. Change is often accompanied by a range of uncomfortable emotions, including denial, fear and resistance. However, change also provides opportunities for new ideas to emerge. Strategic questioning assists the integration of new ideas and strategies into the development of individuals and communities in such a way that people can feel comfortable.

Action competence is embedded in each of the above competences.

Societal transformation: Empowering learners of any age, in any education setting, to transform themselves and the society they live in.

  • Enabling a transition to greener economies and societies.
  • Equipping learners with skills for ‘green jobs’.
  • Motivating people to adopt sustainable lifestyles.
  • Empowering people to be ‘global citizens’ who engage and assume active roles, both locally and globally, to face and to resolve global challenges and ultimately to become proactive contributors to creating a more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable world.

Learning outcomes: Stimulating learning and promoting core competencies, such as critical and systemic thinking, collaborative decision-making, and taking responsibility for present and future generations.

“The Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD, the follow- up programme to the Decade of ESD (2005-2014), seeks to generate and scale-up ESD and to accelerate progress towards sustainable development. The GAP aims to contribute substantially to the 2030 agenda, through two objectives:

  • Reorienting education and learning so that everyone has the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that empower them to contribute to a sustainable future.
  • Strengthening education and learning in all agendas, programmes and activities that promote sustainable development.” (UNESCO, Source: Retrived from:

“With a world population of 7 billion people and limited natural resources, we, as individuals and societies need to learn to live together sustainably. We need to take action responsibly based on the understanding that what we do today can have implications on the lives of people and the planet in future. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) empowers people to change the way they think and work towards a sustainable future.” (Source: UNESCO)