Today, education for sustainable development (ESD) can be defined as ”a vision of education that seeks to balance human and economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for the Earth’s natural resources” (Wals & Kieft, 2010). However, as recently as the late 2000s, “despite the prevalence of the term and discussion surrounding ESD, and perhaps because of it, a widely used or accepted definition [did] not exist” (Landorf, Doscher, & Rocco, 2008). ESD has emerged over the last 50 years, from a confluence of educational themes: environmental education, global citizenship education and development education. Although initially focused on environmental concerns such as climate change and biodiversity loss, over time ESD has evolved to include a wider range of sustainable development (SD) issues, such as poverty reduction. In this post, I will first explore the origins of ESD in the context of the United Nations, before going on to discuss definitions of ESD in research literature.
Origins of ESD in the context of the United Nations
The United Nations (UN) and its associated bodies – in particular the United Nation Education Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) have played a key role in ESD. Wals & Kieft note that a focus on education in international environmental conferences going back as far as 1972 (cf. the Man & the Environment Conference held in Stockholm), evolved into Agenda 21. Agenda 21 was launched at the “1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), where 178 Member States agreed on a framework for action in Agenda 21 – chapter 36” (Buckler & Creech, 2014).
Agenda 21 defined four threads to ESD (Wals & Kieft, 2010): “improving access to quality basic education; reorienting existing education [curricula] to address sustainability; increasing public understanding and awareness of sustainability; and providing training for all sectors of the economy.”
Three years later, ESD was made a key part of the UN Decade for Sustainable Development (DESD) from 2005-2014 (UNESCO, 2015b). DESD “was an explicit global movement towards improving and reorienting education systems towards sustainable development” (Buckler & Creech, 2014). Under DESD, ESD was framed in a more tactical light (Wals, 2009), aiming to:
- facilitate networks and bonds among activists that defend ESD;
- improve ESD teaching and learning;
- help countries to adopt the Goals of the Millennium by means of ESD;
- offer countries new opportunities to adopt ESD in their efforts of educational renewal.
Now, UNESCO aims for “every human being to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future” (UNESCO, 2015b). Post 2015, in the context of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that supersede the former Millennium Development Goals (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015) and the Rio+20 conference, UN member states have now moved on to adopt a set of new targets for all countries – not just developing countries. SDG 4 targets education: “[e]nsure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” although arguably education is required to reach all SDGs (UNESCO, 2015a).
The DESD has been explicitly succeeded under the SDGs via the Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD, with two key objectives:
- “to reorient education and learning so that everyone has the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that empower them to contribute to sustainable development – and make a difference;
- to strengthen education and learning in all agendas, programmes and activities that promote sustainable development.” (UNESCO, 2014, p.14)
Definitions of ESD: perspectives in education research
Educational research offers a more nuanced and debated definition of ESD. Landorf et al. (2008) remark that: “the meaning of ‘education for sustainable development’ is complicated first by controversy over the nature of its primary component concept, sustainable development, secondly over the actual role of education, and finally over the broad and inclusive social issues it seeks to address”.
This debate seems to be ongoing since the 90s, as Jickling (1992) states: “There is considerable debate about the merits of sustainable development and the actions it requires. As we enter the 1990s, this term has become, for many, a vague slogan susceptible to manipulation. For some it is logically inconsistent. For others there are concerns that efforts to implement it will obscure understanding of the economic, political, philosophical and epistemological roots of environmental issues, and adequate examinations of social alternative”. However, this hardly advances the debate in terms of setting clear limits to what is entailed by ESD.
Although “[n]o one discipline can or should claim ownership of ESD”, and “[ESD] poses such broad and encompassing challenges that it requires contributions from many disciplines” (McKeown, Hopkins, Rizzi, & Chrystalbridge, 2006) a number of disciplines have more actively contributed to definitions and development of concepts of ESD. These are principally environmental science, global citizenship and development education.
ESD and environmental science
Ulbrich, Settele, & Benedict (2010) examine biodiversity as an environmental science (ES) topic in the context of ESD. They note that “In an ESD perspective, pupils should acquire not only a scientific understanding of biodiversity, but also an understanding of the complex interactions of economy and society which impact biodiversity, and the skills and attitudes needed to participate as citizens in the management of biodiversity for sustainable development”.
A similar perspective is demonstrated in Makrakis, Larios, & Kaliantzi (2012), who explore climate change in the context of ESD. They cite a definition from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of climate literacy, which feeds in to implicit definitions of ESD as scientific knowledge combined with the ability to make informed and responsible decisions for the future.
However Jickling (1992) cautions against a wholesale replacement of environmental science topics by ESD, stating: “[t]here does appear to be considerable momentum amongst environmental educators who wish to teach sustainable development […] this momentum is not without anomalies which should raise our suspicions. […] [S]ustainable development is being criticized. […] I want them to realize that there is a debate going on between a variety of stances, between adherents of an ecocentric worldview and those who adhere to an anthropocentric worldview. I want my children to be able to participate intelligently in that debate”.
This contrasts with the view of the UK Council for Environmental Education, who assert that ESD aims to “improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet for the future’” (Landorf et al., 2008), thus marrying much more effectively the concept of development while also preserving ecological integrity.
ESD & Global Citizenship
McNaughton (2012) uses the terms Global Citizenship Education (GCE) and ESD interchangeably, while also leveraging the work of various researchers (e.g. Hwang, Hart and Barrett) who exclusively focus on environmental education. Although McNaughton does not discuss definitions explicitly, ESD implicitly comprises both global citizenship education and environmental education. Similarly Sims & Falkenberg (2013) situate global citizenship within ESD implicitly, without exploring the decision process. UNESCO (2014) in contrast explicitly mention that “new concerns have come to the fore, such as the need to promote global citizenship” and Buckler & Creech (2014, p.37) consider global citizenship to be a sub-element of ESD – although they acknowledge that various countries (e.g. Muscat, Scotland) see global citizenship as a companion to ESD instead.
Unifying ESD from an ES and GCE perspective
“Learning for a Sustainable Future […] describes ESD as follows: ESD is about respecting and preserving our histories, valuing culture and community, caring for others and the environment, and taking action to create a fair, healthy, and safe world for all beings. ESD also supports flexibility, creativity, critical reflection, and fosters a sense of personal responsibility for the economy, society, and environment .” (Landorf et al., 2008) This definition is useful in that it encompasses concepts drawn from the three traditions of environmental science, citizenship and development while also situating ESD as a process as well as a set of content drive topics. A similar approach his reflected by a more recent research review (Azeiteiro, Bacelar-Nicolau, Caetano, & Caeiro, 2015) which highlights that “[s]ustainability science (although a distinctive research field (Kajikawa, 2008) with capacities, scientific and technical skills, methodologies and competences of its own), links knowledge to action for sustainability, embracing the principles of ESD, which is an emerging field within educational science with strong ties to sustainability science (Disterheft et al., 2013).”
Education systems via “[s]chools can […] exert an influence on young people’s engagement with environmental issues including their contribution to the development of sustainable societies” noted Kennedy, Po, & Chow (2013). From a broader perspective, “[t]ransformative versions of ESD require alternative teaching and learning strategies that also allow for the development of new competences” (Wals & Kieft, 2010) through the adoption of participative teaching and learning methods that encourage the development of critical thinking, collaboration and behavioural change.
Definitions of ESD are diverse, and have evolved significantly over time, moving away from purely ecological perspectives to include more anthropocentric concerns, balancing human and ecological needs. As this shift has taken place, ESD has thus also evolved from covering a set of environmental science topics, to including issues of citizenship. In part due to this shift, the definitions have thus moved from describing only content to process and competences expected to arise from ESD. This change requires deeper educational changes when examining how to integrate ESD into the school system, and how to design policy to effectively offer ESD to every student.
Azeiteiro, U. M., Bacelar-Nicolau, P., Caetano, F. J. P., & Caeiro, S. (2015). Education for sustainable development through e-learning in higher education: experiences from Portugal. Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, 308–319. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.11.056
Buckler, C., & Creech, H. (2014). Shaping the Future We Want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). Paris. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002303/230302e.pdf
Jickling, B. (1992). Why I Don’t Want my Children to be Educated for Sustainable Development: Sustainable Belief. The Journal of Environmental Education, 23(4), 5–8. Retrieved from http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/viewArticle/325/497
Kennedy, K. J., Po, T., & Chow, J. K. F. (2013). Schooling’s Contribution to a Sustainable Future in Asia: Can Schools Develop “Green” Citizens? In R. Maclean, S. Jagannathan, & J. Sarvi (Eds.), Skills Development for Inclusive and Sustainable Growth in Developing Asia-Pacific (pp. 345–361). Dordrecht, Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer.
Landorf, H., Doscher, S., & Rocco, T. (2008). Education for sustainable human development: Towards a definition. Theory and Research in Education, 6(2), 221–236. doi:10.1177/1477878508091114
Makrakis, V., Larios, N., & Kaliantzi, G. (2012). ICT-Enabled Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development Across the School Curriculum. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 14(2), 54–72.
McKeown, R., Hopkins, C. A., Rizzi, R., & Chrystalbridge, M. (2006). Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit. Paris. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001524/152453eo.pdf
McNaughton, M. J. (2012). Implementing Education for Sustainable Development in schools: learning from teachers’ reflections. Environmental Education Research, 18(6), 765–782. doi:10.1080/13504622.2012.665850
Sims, L., & Falkenberg, T. (2013). Developing Competencies for Education for Sustainable Development: A Case Study of Canadian Faculties of Education. International Journal of Higher Education, 2(4), 1–14. doi:10.5430/ijhe.v2n4p1
Ulbrich, K., Settele, J., & Benedict, F. (Eds.). (2010). Biodiversity in Education for Sustainable Development – Reflection on School-Research Cooperation. Sofia-Moscow: Pensoft Publishers.
UNESCO. (2014). Roadmap for Implementing the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development. Paris, France. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002305/230514e.pdf
UNESCO. (2015a). Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action: Towards inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all (Final draft for adoption).
UNESCO. (2015b). Education for Sustainable Development. Retrieved June 25, 2015, from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/education-for-sustainable-development/
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2015). Post 2015 Process. Retrieved June 26, 2015, from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015
Wals, A. E. J. (2009). Review of Contexts and Structures for Education for Sustainable Development. Paris, France. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/education/justpublished_desd2009.pdf
Wals, A. E. J., & Kieft, G. (2010). Education for Sustainable Development: Research Overview. Sida Review 2010:13. Stockholm. Retrieved from http://wwf.staging.deltawebsolutions.se/source.php/1299424/Sida ESD rapport feb 2010.pdf