You are viewing an archived web page, collected at the request of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) using Archive-It. This page was captured on 07:57:35 Dec 15, 2015, and is part of the UNESCO collection. The information on this web page may be out of date. See All versions of this archived page.
Loading media information hide

Reorienting education for a sustainable future

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Reflection


Modules 1, 2 and 3 established a vision of education as a force for the future in developing the knowledge, commitment and skills needed to address the downward spiral of unsustainable development. This module builds on the ideas for reorienting education towards a sustainable future introduced in these earlier modules.

The module reviews the development of the concept of Education for Sustainable Development and illustrates various strategies for reorienting education in the school sector as a key part of the broader process of building a sustainable future.

The ideas developed in this module are developed further in Module 5.


  • To explore the holistic nature of the concepts of ‘environment’, ‘sustainable futures’ and ‘education for sustainable development’;
  • To clarify the emerging concept of Education for Sustainable Development;
  • To appreciate the range of knowledge, value and skill objectives of Education for Sustainable Development; and
  • To understand the broad scope of actions needed to reorient Education for Sustainable Development.


  1. An holistic vision
  2. Education for Sustainable Development
  3. Reorienting education
  4. The objectives of education for a sustainable future
  5. Reflection


Breiting, S., Meyer, M. and Morgensen, F. (2005) Quality Criteria for ESD-Schools: Guidelines to Enhance the Quality of Education for Sustainable Development, EU-COMENIUS 3 network ‘School Development through Environmental Education’ (SEED).

Fien, J. (ed) (1993) Environmental Education: A Pathway to Sustainability, Deakin University Press, Geelong.

Fien, J. (2002) Education and Sustainability: Reorienting Australian Schools for a Sustainable Future, Tela Papers, No. 8. Australian Conservation Foundation, Melbourne.

Hren, B. and Birney, A. (2004) Pathways: A Development Framework for School Sustainability, WWF, Godalming, Surrey.

Huckle, J. (2008) ‘Sustainable development’, in Arthur, J., Davies, I. and Hahn, C. (eds) The Sage Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Democracy, Sage Publications, London, Chapter 26.

Reid, A. et al. (2008) Participation and Learning: Perspectives on Education and the Environment, Health and Sustainability, Springer, Dortrecht.

Scott, W. and Gough, S. (eds) (2003) Key Issues in Sustainable Development and Learning: A Critical Review, Routledge Falmer, London.

Scott, W. and Gough, S. (2003) Sustainable Development and Learning, Framing the Issues, Routledge Falmer, London.

Sterling, S. (2002) Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change, Green Books, Bristol.

Sterling, S. et al (2005) Linking Thinking: New Perspectives on Thinking and Learning for Sustainability, WWF Scotland.

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992) Promoting education and public awareness and training, in Agenda 21, Chapter 36.

UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action.

UNESCO (2002) Education for Sustainability – From Rio to Johannesburg: Lessons learnt from a decade of commitment.


This module was written for UNESCO by John Fien from materials and activities in Teaching for a Sustainable World (UNESCO – UNEP International Environmental Education Programme) and Learning for a Sustainable Environment (UNESCO – ACEID).

An holistic vision

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Modules 1, 2 and 3 introduced many ideas about the nature and meaning of sustainable development, including the need to go beyond the conservation of nature – ecological sustainability – to also include cultural, social, economic and political sustainability. This activity synthesises these ideas into a vision of the values and principles that can help frame a sustainable future.

The activity is based on the word ‘environment’ and shows that it encompasses four systems – natural, social, economic and political systems.

This holistic view of the ‘environment’ is a reflection of what is called ‘systems thinking’ – a way of thinking that sees all aspects of the world inter-related through patterns of interdependent systems.

Holistic view of the environment

Click for full-size image.

An holistic view of ‘environment’ includes:

  • Natural systems that provide the resources – air, water, soil, food, etc. – that support all life – human and non-human;
  • Social and cultural systems that provide family, community and wider support for people to live together in ways that are culturally appropriate.
  • Economic systems that provide a means of livelihood (jobs and income) for people.
  • Political systems through which social power is exercised to make policies and decisions about the way social and economic systems use resources in the natural environment.

Q1: Describe what the interlocking nature of the jigsaw pieces in the diagram represent.

This holistic view of ‘environment’ is sometimes called the ‘sustainability compass’.

Click for full-size image.

Sadly, as the exploration of global realities in Module 1 illustrated, the ‘sustainability compass’ has not always been well used – and many processes of development are not pointing to a sustainable future.

A sustainable future will require fundamental changes in people’s values and in the way society operates. As the UNESCO paper states:

Achieving sustainability will depend ultimately on changes in behavior and lifestyles, changes which will need to be motivated by a shift in values and rooted in the cultural and moral precepts upon which behavior is predicated. Without change of this kind, even the most enlightened legislation, the cleanest technology, the most sophisticated research will not succeed in steering society towards the long-term goal of sustainability.

Source: UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action, paragraph 103.

Some of the values or principles that can help lead us to a more sustainable future include:

- which is needed to ensure that natural systems can continue to provide life support systems for all living things, including the resources that sustain the economic system.
Peace and equity
- which results when people are able to live co-operatively and in harmony with each other and have their basic needs satisfied in a fair and equitable way.
Appropriate development
- which is needed for people to be able support themselves in a long-term way. Inappropriate development ignores the links between the economy and the other systems in the environment.
- which provides ways for people to be able to have a fair and equal say over how natural, social and economic systems should be managed.

Four Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Click for full-size image.

Some groups emphasise only three principles – which they call the ‘Three Es of Sustainable Development’: Equity, Ecology and Economy. These principles are also sometimes represented in a ‘triple bottom line’ report or account that will measure the sustainability of an organisation or project in accordance with the values of social sustainability, ecological sustainability and economic sustainability – or what some call the “People-Planet-Profit” principle. Other groups tease out these three principles to lists of six or even eight principles, as can be seen in Modules 21 and 22, respectively.

The important point here, of course, is not the exact number of principles. These will vary greatly between different countries and communities because sustainable development goals are not the same in all parts of the world and different societies have different priorities and visions of what a sustainable future could be like.

The important point is that a sustainable future – whatever form or forms it takes – will be decided by people in relation to their cultural traditions and values.

However, we must be aware that patterns of un-sustainable development are presently dominant because the principles of democracy and equity are not as widely practised as they could be. This means that the power to contribute to decisions about the future is not distributed fairly around the world, or even within individual countries.

The power to choose, and to participate and contribute, is a precious one. This is why considerable international efforts are being made to support reforms in local, national and international governance. These efforts include:

  • The development of democratic institutions around the world, especially in countries where they have not had a chance to flourish until recently;
  • Capacity building for Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), professional associations (including ones for teachers), and other elements of a vibrant civil society;
  • The eradication of corruption in government and business; and
  • Decentralisation of decision making to appropriate local levels of government.

Education: A Force for the Future

Education has a major role to play as a force for the future also. As UNESCO states:

It is widely agreed that education is the most effective means that society possesses for confronting the challenges of the future. Indeed, education will shape the world of tomorrow. Progress increasingly depends upon the products of educated minds: upon research, invention, innovation and adaptation. Of course, educated minds and instincts are needed not only in laboratories and research institutes, but in every walk of life. Indeed, access to education is the sine qua non for effective participation in the life of the modern world at all levels. Education, to be certain, is not the whole answer to every problem. But education, in its broadest sense, must be a vital part of all efforts to imagine and create new relations among people and to foster greater respect for the needs of the environment.

Source: UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action, paragraph 38.

Education can ensure that all citizens, young and old, are knowledgeable about the changes that are needed, capable of envisioning alternative futures, committed to democratic ways of achieving them, and sufficiently skilled and motivated to work actively for change. This is Education for Sustainable Development.

Education for Sustainable Development

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Modules 1, 2 and 3 invited you to reflect on definitions of Education for Sustainable Development in your learning journal.

Q2: Think back to your ideas and reflections in these modules (e.g. from Q9 in Module 1) and write a definition to show your evolving understanding of what Education for Sustainable Development means to you.

Q3: To analyse your definition, identify key words and phrases from your definition that refer to (i) education and (ii) sustainable futures.

Consider the degree of balance in your definition in the light of the following caution to teachers by Karsten Schnack, a philosopher of education from Denmark:

It is not and cannot be the task of the school to solve the political problems of society. It is not the task to improve the world with the help of the pupils’ activities. These must be assessed on the basis of their formative value and, thus, according to educational criteria. A school, regarded as a school, does not become ‘green’ by conserving energy, collecting batteries or sorting waste. The crucial factor must be what the pupils are learning from participating in such activities.

Source: Schnack, K. (1996) Internationalisation, democracy and environmental education, in S. Breiting and K. Nielsen (eds), Environmental Education Research in the Nordic Countries, The Royal Danish School of Educational Studies, Copenhagen, p. 11.

Q4: What sort of emphasis do you think Schnack would like to see in any definition of Education for Sustainable Development? To what extent do you agree with him? Why?

View a sample answer to this question.

Q5: Analyse the following two definitions of Education for Sustainable Development (or similar term) to give your opinion of the balance of emphasis on the desired educational and sustainability outcomes of each one.

Definition 1

Education for Sustainability is a lifelong learning process that leads to an informed and involved citizenry having the creative problem solving skills, scientific and social literacy, and commitment to engage in responsible individual and co-operative actions. These actions will help ensure an environmentally sound and economically prosperous future. Education for Sustainability has the potential to serve as a tool for building stronger bridges between the classroom and business, and between schools and communities.

Source: Second Nature – An educational NGO in the USA.

Definition 2

Solving environmental problems and preventing new ones from arising will require an understanding and appreciation of the linkages between environmental well-being and human well-being. However, many of these linkages are not apparent at the first instance.

This is where education is crucial. To bring environment and development concerns to people’s notice, to enable them to understand the linkages between the two, to encourage them to take appropriate action, and to equip them with the skills necessary for taking the required action – education is necessary for all this.

Source: Towards a Green Future: A Trainer’s Manual on Education for Sustainable Development, Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabhad, India.

Q6: Copy your definition of Education for Sustainable Development in Question 2. Edit it in the light of your studies in this activity to make it the best possible definition you can.

Additional Dimensions

Two additional points can be made about aspects or dimensions of Education for Sustainable Development from these definitions. The next questions in your learning journal explore these additional dimensions.

Q7: What other names have been used to refer to Education for Sustainable Development? Do you think the differences in the names matter? Why?

Q8: Besides school students, what sections of the community do you think need – or at least would benefit from – Education for Sustainable Development?

The Issue of Terminology

‘Education for sustainable development’, ‘education for sustainability’ and ‘education for a sustainable future’ can be largely interchangeable terms, although some communities do make distinctions.

The lack of any one fixed term is a sign of how relatively new this emphasis is in contemporary educational thinking. This variety of terms should be seen as a positive development as it means that schools, colleges, universities, education systems, teachers, indeed anyone, can feel free to develop their own definition to suit local priorities and needs.

The Issue of Audience

The definitions also indicate that education is not just a matter for schools or formal education institutions. Education for Sustainable Development is important for everyone, including adults in the community, and people who work in business, industry and government.

While the importance of these diverse audiences is recognised, the focus of Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future is on the school sector of education.

For additional information on Education for Sustainable Development in other sectors visit the following Internet sites:

Reorienting education

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

From Four to Five Pillars of Learning

Education can play a major role in supporting national development and meeting the needs and aspirations of a society. While the relationship between education and sustainable development is complex, education is the key to a nation’s ability to develop and achieve sustainable development, especially when it is directed to improving agricultural productivity, providing skills for work in new industries, enhancing the status of women, promoting environmental protection, developing capacities for informed and ethical decision-making, and improving the quality of life for all.

In the introduction to Learning: The Treasure Within, Jacques Delors, the Chairperson of the UNESCO Commission on Education in the 21st Century, identified many ways in which education is contributing to such goals. However, he also noted that economic and social progress has been uneven and often brought with it a widespread sense of disillusionment over the prospects for future generations.

Delors described addressing the challenge of finding alternative pathways to social and economic development as “one of the major intellectual and political challenges” of the new century and asked, “How could these great challenges not be a cause for concern in educational policy-making?” He continued:

It is essential that all people with a sense of responsibility turn their attention to both the aims and the means of education … [to develop] ways in which educational policies can help to create a better world, by contributing to sustainable human development, mutual understanding among peoples and a renewal of practical democracy.

Source: Education: The Necessary Utopia (Introduction of the Delors Report).

As a result, Delors argued that the aims of education need to balance and integrate several tensions:

The tension between the global and the local
Education should help young people become world citizens as well as play an active part in the life of their own country and community.
The tension between the universal and the individual
Education should help young people learn how balance the promises of globalisation and its risks as well as choose their own future and achieve their full potential within their own cultures.
The tension between tradition and modernity
Education should help young people appreciate and value history and cultural traditions, balancing these with the ethical discernment and cooperative skills to appreciate where change and innovation are necessary and worthwhile.
The tension between long-term and short-term considerations
Education should help young people learn how to balance short- and long-term goals, in the full realization that the solutions to many problems call for patience and a consideration of the needs of future generations.
The tension between competition and cooperation
Education should help young people strive for excellence in all they do whilst balancing the principles of “competition, which provides incentives; co-operation, which gives strength; and solidarity, which unites”.
The tension between the spiritual and the material
Education should help young people act in accordance with their cultural traditions and convictions while paying full respect to pluralism and concern for the well-being of others.
The tension between the existing curriculum and important new areas of knowledge
This means that the aims of education must balance the best of traditional curriculum content with important new areas of learning “such as self-knowledge, ways to ensure physical and psychological well-being [and] ways to an improved understanding of the natural environment and to preserving it better”.

Q9: Use the description of Delors’ seven tensions to write a list of seven aims of education.

Q10: In your learning journal, tick the aims that you believe apply to Education for Sustainable Development.

The Delors Report argued the aims of education need to respond to and accommodate these tensions – and if it does this successfully, then education will be central to personal, community and national development, enabling all young people to reach their potential, be responsible for our own lives, care for family, friends and neighbours, engage in productive and sustainable employment, contribute to social, cultural and community well-being, minimize the impacts of their lifestyle choices upon the natural world, and engage with others as informed and active citizens in local, national and global contexts.

As a result, Learning the Treasure Within proposed that the aims of education be built on four pillars of learning:

  • Learning to know – knowledge, values and skills for respecting and searching for knowledge and wisdom
  • Learning to do – knowledge, values and skills for active engagement in productive employment and recreation
  • Learning to live together – knowledge, values and skills for international, intercultural and community cooperation and peace
  • Learning to be – knowledge, values and skills for personal and family well-being

Considering the all encompassing scope of Education for Sustainable Development, and its aim to equip individuals with skills and capacities to transform attitudes and lifestyles, we could consider adding a fifth pillar of learning:

  • Learning to transform oneself and society – knowledge, values and skills for self-reflection and active citizenship

Q11: In your learning journal, draw a diagram to represent the five pillars of learning.

These five pillars offer a foundation for education to provide both essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning. These outcomes of education were identified in World Declaration on Education for All, Jomtien, 1990.

Q12: Analyse these strategies using the following questions:

  • Which of these strategies do you believe should receive greatest importance in schools in your country? Why?
  • Identify some of the projects or initiatives being used (or that you believe are needed) to implement such a strategy in your country.
  • Then do the same for a strategy you believe should receive greatest importance in schools (i) in the South and (ii) in the North.

The objectives of Education for Sustainable Development

The long term goals of Education for Sustainable Development include:

  • To promote understanding of the interdependence of natural, socio-economic and political systems at local, national and global levels.
  • To encourage critical reflection and decision making that is reflected in personal lifestyles.
  • To engage the active participation of the citizenry in building sustainable development.

Source: Lopez, G. (1997) Putting new bite into knowledge, in I. Serageldin et al. (eds), Organising Knowledge for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, The World Bank, Washington DC, p. 10.

In order to achieve these objectives, Education for Sustainable Development:

… complements a number of other fields such as environmental education, global education, economics education, development education, multicultural education, conservation education, outdoor education, global change education and others. Education for sustainability is considerably broader and encompasses many aspects of these respected and established fields of study. It may embrace components from traditional disciplines such as civics, science, geography and others.

Source: Second Nature.

Teachers and schools make a special contribution to Education for Sustainable Development through the educational objectives they emphasise when selecting the content and learning experiences for students to study. The content chosen influences the areas of knowledge to be learnt while the learning experiences chosen determine the skills and attitudes that students will develop.

Several organisations have developed lists of knowledge, skills and attitudinal objectives of Education for Sustainable Development. Here are three examples:

A non-government organisation: One of the earliest sets was proposed by the Canadian educational group, Learning for a Sustainable Future.

A local school district: The Dorset Local Education Authority in England identified the following aims and objectives of Education for Sustainable Development:

Education should achieve changes in the community which:
  • Lead to changes in work, lifestyle and consumption patterns.
  • Encourage people to consider alternatives.
  • Enable people to take part in decision making.
  • Enable people to find information.
  • Give people opportunities to participate.
  • Encourage principles leading to a fairer society.
  • Help people to understand the links between issues.
Achieving these aims mean that education should help students towards the following objectives:
Knowledge Values Skills
How natural processes work A commitment to all living things Co-operative working
How our lives connect with others A desire for social justice
Empathy and awareness
Critical thinking
The planet earth as a finite resource Understanding of quality of life
Rights and responsibilities
Reasoned debate
Problem solving
How to make decisions
How we provide for human needs
A global perspective and loyalty to the world community Creative ability
Research & data handling
Communication skills

A government committee: The English Panel on Education for Sustainable Development organised its proposed objectives around seven key themes:

  • Interdependence of society, economy and the natural environment, from local to global
  • Citizenship and stewardship – rights and responsibilities, participation, and co-operation
  • Needs and rights of future generations
  • Diversity – cultural, social, economic and biological
  • Quality of life, equity and justice
  • Sustainable change – development and carrying capacity
  • Uncertainty and precaution in action.

These seven themes could be seen as central to Education for Sustainable Development. Theme 1 concerns the interdependent nature of the world. This gives rise to Theme 2 – the need for participation and action through the exercise of citizenship and stewardship.

Themes 3-6 focus on key dimensions of sustainable development: (i) the needs and rights of future generations, (ii) respect for diversity, (iii) quality of life issues, and (iv) sustainable change. The final theme is a logical consequence of all the preceding themes and is concerned with the limits of knowledge and exercise of the precautionary principle.

Classifying Knowledge, Skills and Values Objectives

Note: The focus on the English Panel of Education for Sustainable Development in this activity does not imply that these are a definitive set of objectives. Rather, it invites analysis of proposals from one country’s education system in order to encourage reflection on what would be an appropriate set of objectives of Education for Sustainable Development in other education systems.

The English Panel on Education for Sustainable Development prepared three sets of objectives – knowledge, skills and values – for each of these seven themes.

Classify the objectives into these three categories.

Prioritising Uncertainty and Precaution

You now have a well-developed understanding of the knowledge, skill and values objectives of Education for Sustainable Development. The first six themes – interdependence, citizenship and stewardship, future generations, diversity, quality of life and equity, development and carrying capacity and change – contain concepts that are familiar to many teachers.

The seventh one – uncertainty and precaution – may not be so familiar. However, it is extremely important that young people develop a clear understanding of this theme. This is because the future is uncertain; it is not possible to be certain about future trends or the effects of different human decisions.

Often, we do not have all the scientific information available to make a definite decision about a social, economic or environmental problem. Sometimes, scientists do not agree about the accuracy or relative significance of the information that is available. The lack of certainty about the causes and possible results of the Greenhouse Effect is a good example of this type of problem.

This is where the ‘Precautionary Principle’ needs to become a key guideline for both personal decisions and wider policy making. The Precautionary Principle says that thoughtful preventative action should be taken to address a problem when there is reasonable evidence to indicate the situation could get worse.

Topics such as climate change and many others in Education for Sustainable Development require students to appreciate the importance of the uncertainty and precaution.

The following list is a set of nine educational benefits of teaching students about the importance of uncertainty and precaution in human affairs.

  • Appreciate cultural change
  • Ability to listen carefully
  • Ability to think creatively
  • Understand cultural diversity
  • Appreciate different views
  • Ability to think critically
  • A positive sense of urgency
  • Appreciate alternative pathways
  • Understand the precautionary principle.

These are very important learning outcomes for students and will benefit them enormously as they grow into adulthood. Which ones do you think are the most important? Rank the relative importance of these benefits.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q13: Describe how relevant and/or useful you find the objectives of Education for Sustainable Development, suggested by the English Panel on Education for Sustainable Development, for your teaching. Then give a reason for your opinions.

Q14: Imagine that objectives of education similar to the Dorset ones are introduced into your education system.

  • Describe how you would feel – personally – about the challenges facing you in adapting to this reorientation of education.
  • What sort of a challenge would it be for your school as a whole?

These perceptions will be explored further in Activity 1 and Activity 3 of Module 5.