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Sustainable futures across the curriculum

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Activity 5
  • Reflection


Education for Sustainable Development involves a comprehensive approach to educational reform. It extends beyond the boundaries of individual school subjects and requires the attention of teachers, educational administrators, planners and curriculum agencies.

Integrating the objectives, concepts and learning experiences of Education for Sustainable Development into syllabuses and teaching programmes is an important part of such reform, indeed:

A basic premise of education for sustainability is that just as there is a wholeness and interdependence to life in all its forms, so must there be a unity and wholeness to efforts to understand it and ensure its continuation. This calls for both interdisciplinary inquiry and action. It does not, of course, imply an end to work within traditional disciplines. A disciplinary focus is often helpful, even necessary, in allowing the depth of inquiry needed for major breakthroughs and discoveries.

Source: UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action, paragraph 89.

This module illustrates ways in which Education for Sustainable Development can be integrated into and across twelve different school subjects or areas of the curriculum. It also explores ways in which Education for Sustainable Development is relevant to all educational objectives and how it can be integrated into the celebrations in the school calendar.


  • To appreciate the importance of both the formal and informal curriculum in promoting Education for Sustainable Development;
  • To understand ways in which general educational objectives, interdisciplinary teaching methods, different subjects and various celebrations in the school calendar may be used to help reorient the curriculum of a school towards sustainability; and
  • To promote across-the-curriculum approaches to Education for Sustainable Development.


  1. What is the curriculum?
  2. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning
  3. Integrating through educational objectives
  4. Infusing through learning experiences in all subject areas
  5. Celebrations in the school calendar
  6. Reflection


Breiting, S. and 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).

Dandell, K., Ohman, J and Ostman, L. (2005) Education for Sustainable Development: Nature, School and Democracy, Studentlitteratu, Lund.

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.

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

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.

Wals, A., Shallcross, T., Robinson, J. and Pace, P. (Eds) (2006) Creating Sustainable Environments in Our Schools, Trentham Books, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.


This module was written for UNESCO by Bernard Cox, John Fien and Clayton White from activities and material in Learning for a Sustainable Environment (UNESCO – ACEID). It also draws on the work of the Environmental Education Curriculum Initiative in South Africa and its publication, School Environmental Policy and Management Plan.

What is the curriculum?

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

This module focuses on the different ways in which schools and teachers can ensure that Education for Sustainable Development is integrated across all aspects of the school curriculum.

A Model of Curriculum

The different aspects of school life are illustrated in this model of the school curriculum. All the elements in this curriculum model affect the educational experiences of young people in schools.

Click on the different elements of the school curriculum in this model to investigate how they may contribute towards a sustainable future.

School Curriculum Model

The Curriculum Experience

If the curriculum is defined as ‘the sum of all the formal and informal teaching and learning experiences provided by a school’, then Education for Sustainable Development cannot just be added to the curriculum as a new subject. Rather, it is a dimension to be emphasised in every aspect of school life.

Whether the curriculum actually achieves this goal or not will be affected by many issues. While these often extend beyond the responsibilities of a single school or teacher, there are many things that schools and teachers can do, including the following few activities:

Q1: In your learning journal, identify:

  • Which two of these activities would you find most easy to do? Why?
  • Which two would you find most difficult? Why?

These answers will be used in the concluding activity.

Interdisciplinary learning School Calendar Student clubs Knowledge and values Democratic practices School grounds Teaching and learning methods Resources use Team projects Community knowledge Action projects

Interdisciplinary teaching and learning

Meaningful learning requires students to integrate ideas from many different perspectives rather than compartmentalise what they learn into discrete ‘boxes’ of knowledge. As a result, teachers need to be flexible and skilled in accessing and integrating knowledge from different sources and disciplines.

Solving society’s problems requires inputs from many disciplines or specialisations. Just as a variety of specialists need to work together to solve problems in the world outside the classroom, disciplines should not be separated unnecessarily inside the classroom either.

It is possible for teachers to emphasise interdisciplinary teaching and learning in their own classes, e.g. through the topics and examples they choose. This activity provides an example of how this can be done. However, it is also important that teachers work in a co-ordinated and co-operative way so that students are given the opportunity to integrate knowledge across subjects and across the years of schooling.

An Interdisciplinary Case Study

Consider this case study of a class investigation of local traffic problems.

Traffic had been very bad outside a school for a long time. So, a teacher and her class of 12-year old students carried out an investigation into the need for a pedestrian crossing to make it safer for people to cross the road. The students first decided to carry out a survey to count the numbers of vehicles travelling in both directions. They calculated the average speed of the vehicles, the percentage of those exceeding the speed limit and the percentage of drivers that would have been unable to stop within a reasonable distance. The students also counted the number of pedestrians crossing and identified peak times. The results of the traffic survey were displayed in the form of bar charts and graphs.

The findings were compared with the local authority’s guidelines for the provision of pedestrian crossings. The students then wrote a report on the degree of risk involved in crossing the road to reach the school and the best location for the pedestrian crossing. They included data, figures, photographs and plans in their reports.

The response of the local authority to date has not been encouraging. So, the students are now working with the local neighbourhood association to press their case for action.

Source: Adapted from Gough, N. (1992) Blueprints for Greening Schools, Gould League, Melbourne, pp. 86.

Integrating through educational objectives

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

An over-loaded curriculum is a concern of many teachers. Increasingly, teachers are feeling that there is not enough time to cover all the additional material being put into the curriculum. As a result, many feel that covering the content of key subjects, such as language, mathematics, science and social studies, must come ahead of cross-curriculum themes such as Education for Sustainable Development.

However, there is another way of looking at this problem.

Many educational objectives, especially in the areas of attitudes and skills, are common across most subjects in the curriculum. Teaching about sustainability emphasises critical and creative thinking, problem solving, decision making, analysis, co-operative learning, leadership, and communication skills. As a result, it is a very good way of achieving educational objectives without adding to the problem of curriculum overload.

Examples of across-the-curriculum objectives that can be served by Education for Sustainable Development include:

Attitudes and Values

  • Care for the community.
  • Respect for the beliefs and opinions of others.
  • Respect for evidence and rational argument.
  • Tolerance and open-mindedness.


Communication skills
For example:
  • Expressing views through different media; and
  • Arguing clearly and concisely.
Numeracy skills
For example:
  • Collecting, classifying and analysing data; and
  • Interpreting statistics.
Study skills
For example:
  • Retrieving, analysing, interpreting and evaluating information from a variety of sources; and
  • Organising and planning a project.
Problem solving skills
For example:
  • Identifying causes and consequences of problems; and
  • Forming reasoned opinions and developing balanced judgements.
Personal and social skills
For example:
  • Working co-operatively with others; and
  • Taking individual and group responsibility.
Information technology skills
For example:
  • Collecting information and entering it into a database; and
  • Simulating an investigation using information technology.

Source: Adapted from Monroe, M. and Cappaert, D. (1994) Integrating Environmental Education into the School Curriculum, National Consortium for Environmental Education and Training, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, pp. 3-5.

Analysing the Case Study

Read the case study about the student investigation of local traffic problems again.

Q2: Identify an example in the local traffic teaching unit to illustrate how the skills and attitudes, so important in learning for a sustainable future, were included in the learning experiences of the students.

Q3: What other learning experiences could have been integrated into this unit to enhance student learning?

Infusing through learning experiences in all subject areas

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Ideally, Education for Sustainable Development should permeate the entire school curriculum, with every subject area, at every year level, dealing with aspects of sustainability in some way.

Some subjects, by their very nature, present greater opportunities for such infusion than others, but all subjects have a very important role to play.

The Contributions of Existing School Subjects

This activity illustrates that Education for Sustainable Development can be infused into a wide range of subject areas.

Read examples of the ways in which objectives and themes that promote learning for a sustainable future can be reflected in a wide range of subjects across the curriculum.

  • Agricultural Studies
  • Home Economics
  • The Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Commerce and Business Studies
  • Manual Arts and Technology
  • First Language Studies
  • Religious Education
  • Second Language Studies
  • Science
  • Health and Physical Education
  • Social Studies

Source: Adapted from Gough, N. (1992) Blueprints for Greening Schools, Gould League, Melbourne, pp. 80-81.

Match the learning experiences with the appropriate subject areas where they might be taught.

Q4: Identify three subject areas you like to teach. For each one, list at least three learning experiences that could be developed to infuse learning for a sustainable future.

See a completed table of learning experiences and the twelve subject areas.

Teaching about the Earth Charter

The Earth Charter is a declaration of the interdependence of all living and non-living things on Earth. It is also a statement about the principles and values needed to build a global partnership for sustainable development.

The focus of the Earth Charter is sustainable human development. How might the principles and values in the Earth Charter be taught through different subjects in the school curriculum?

Review a summary of the relevance of the Earth Charter to teaching in the following subject areas:

Celebrations in the school calendar

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

International bodies such as the United Nations have obtained the agreement of governments around the world to designate certain days and weeks as times of celebration and remembrance for particular issues. Education is the key purpose of these days and many provide opportunities to educate for a sustainable future.

A regular programme of celebrations in the School Calendar is a powerful way of promoting interest in a sustainable future.

Q5: Which days are celebrated in your School Calendar? List the days that would be culturally appropriate and locally relevant to include in your School Calendar of celebratory days?

Source: Adapted from A Year of Special Days: Justice, Peace and the Environment, Share-Net, Howick, South Africa, 1999.

Q6: List three skills you have that you could use to encourage others in your school to include the celebrations of these ‘days’ into the School Calendar.

Q7: Identify three colleagues you believe would be willing to join a working party to achieve this. What skills do they bring?

Research other International Days observed by the United Nations system.


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.

Activity 1 illustrated twelve ways in which the objectives and themes of Education for Sustainable Development can be integrated as an across-the-curriculum perspective.

This module has focused on only four of these:

Q8: Which one of these four would be (i) the easiest and (ii) the most difficult to implement in your school? Why?

Developing a School Policy

Integrating education requires a comprehensive school policy and the co-operation of all teachers in the school, as well as students, parents and the wider community.

Six steps could be followed in the policy development process:

  • Appoint a co-ordinator
  • Publish draft policy
  • Convene a policy committee
  • Implement action plans
  • Undertake a school audit process
  • Evaluate and review

Q9: List the steps you would follow in building support for a decision to develop a Policy on Education for Sustainable Development in your school.