In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Education for Sustainable Development

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Learning Outcomes
  • Learning Processes
  • Learning Environments
  • Learning Contexts
  • Critique
  • Emerging Strands

Education Education for Sustainable Development
Arjen Wals
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0280


Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is a concept referring to all teaching, learning and capacity building that seeks to develop a citizenry that can live more sustainably on the Earth. It focuses on learning processes and learning environments that can foster the qualities and competencies people need to contribute to more sustainable forms of being. Typically these qualities and related competencies include being caring, mindful, respectful, compassionate, and critical in the way we relate to each other to people elsewhere and future generations, but also to other species; systems thinking; dealing with uncertainty and (eco)anxiety; moral reasoning; anticipatory thinking; and the ability to make change. Within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, ESD became a component of one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SDG 4 ‘Quality Education.’ Newly emerging strands in the context of ESD, also seeking to transcend ESD, include a critical transgressive strand emphasizing the important of not just developing agency and competence that citizens need to learn to live equitably and meaningfully within planetary boundaries, but also helping learners in critiquing and changing or even disrupting structures and systems that normalize unsustainability. Another emerging strand is a posthuman, relational strand that emphasizes the importance of decentering the human and becoming aware of our inevitable entanglement with nature and other species. While receiving much attention in international governance and policy contexts, enactment of ESD in practice lags behind, in part due to different priorities in education at the country level and a lack of understanding of its meaning and its potential significance in reforming education and learning in times of global sustainability challenges. At the same time some scholars critique ESD for being overly instrumental, anthropocentric, and having colonizing tendencies that ignore Indigenous and local perspectives on both education and sustainability.

General Overviews

Historically ESD can be seen as connected to environmental education (EE) which emerged well before the concept of sustainable development was introduced in the international policy scene in the Our Common Future Report, also referred to as the Brundtland-report, in 1987. ESD emerged as a concept in Agenda 21 which came out of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Essentially it builds upon EE but in addition to emphasizing the importance of ecology and environment, it also draws attention to economy, ethics, and related issues of inequality, social justice, and good health and well-being across the globe. As such ESD also connects to peace education, development education, nature conservation education, citizenship education, and health education. Within the framework of UNESCO 2014 ESD is seen as an aim of education at all levels, from early childhood education through higher education, but also increasingly as a catalyst of educational innovation as can be read in its 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, which focuses on the role of education in balancing people and planet. ESD is not confined to formal education but also can be part of community-based or organization-based learning and lifelong learning as Wals and Benavot 2017 points out. Wals 2019 argues that since dealing with highly complex and even wicked sustainability challenges, such as climate urgency and increasing wealth inequality, requires the consideration of a range of perspectives and values, ESD is increasingly is best conceived of as being a part of a wider learning ecology. The concept of a learning ecology, as Barnett and Jackson 2019 (cited in Learning Environments) points out, spans different forms of intertwined levels and contexts of learning that invite boundary crossing between disciplines, topics, and sectors in society. UNESCO 2012, a review of the UNESCO Decade of ESD (2005–2014), shows there are differences between those who see ESD as a tool to influence and shape human behavior and those who see it a means of capacity building for enabling people to determine for themselves what, given who they are and where they are, is the most sustainable way of being and acting. Whereas the former is referred to in the report as an instrumental approach, the latter is referred to as an emancipatory approach. In this regard, as Biesta 2006 and Sterling 2009 point out, at least three functions of education can be distinguished: socialization, qualification, and transformative subjectification. The first two reflect mainly instrumental views whereas the transformative subjectification function of education is both instrumental and emancipatory, as it recognizes that education can support changes and transitions toward a more sustainable world, but also acknowledges the autonomous learners’ right to self-determine their own future. Öhman 2007 makes a distinction in this regard between fact-based, normative, and pluralistic ESD, while Scott and Gough 2003 speaks of Mode 1 ESD and Mode 2 ESD.

  • Biesta, G. 2006. Beyond learning: Democratic education for a human future. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

    This book provides a way of understanding and approaching education which focuses on the ways in which human beings come into the world as unique individuals through responsible responses to what and who is other and different. The book raises questions about pedagogy, community, and educational responsibility through a lens of democracy, autonomy, and self-determination.

  • Öhman, J. 2007. The ethical dimension of ESD – navigating between the pitfalls of indoctrination and relativism. In Drivers and barriers for learning for sustainable development in pre‐school through high school and teacher education. Edited by I. Bjorneloo and E. Nyberg, 43–47. Paris, France: UNESCO Education Sector.

    This paper discusses how to deal with the ethical dimension of sustainable development in educational practice in the light of the democratic role of public education.

  • Scott, W. A. H., and S. Gough. 2003. Sustainable development and learning: Framing the issues. London: Routledge/Falmer.

    In this book the authors distinguish between mode 1 ESD and mode 2 ESD. Mode 1 refers to facilitating changes in what we do and promoting behaviors and ways of thinking, where the need for this is clearly identified and agreed, and to learning as a mechanism that can foster sustainable development. Mode 2 refers to building capacity to think critically about (and beyond) what experts say and to testing sustainable development ideas, as well as exploring the contradictions inherent in sustainable living, and views learning itself as sustainable development.

  • Sterling, S. 2009. Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Foxhole, UK: Green Books.

    The author argues that while environmental education and education for sustainable development are important, they are not sufficient to transform education as a whole. He critiques the prevailing managerial and mechanistic paradigm in education, and argues that an ecological view of educational theory, practice, and policy is necessary to assist the sustainability transition. The author speaks of “sustainable education” which contributes to a systemic change of educational culture toward the realization of human potential and simultaneous social, economic, and ecological well-being.

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 2012. Shaping the education of tomorrow: 2012 full-length Report on the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable DevelopmentDESD Monitoring & Evaluation 2012. Paris: UNESCO.

    This is the second report of the UN decade of ESD, focusing specifically on processes and learning in the context of ESD and answering questions like: What kinds of learning processes have emerged in the course of the UN Decade? What is the role of ESD in supporting them? What changes in ESD have occurred during the Decade? The report was informed by a broad consultation process that included input from policymakers, scholars, and practitioners from around the world.

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 2014. Shaping the future we want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014)Final Report. Paris: UNESCO.

    Final Global Monitoring and Evaluation Report of UNESCO’s Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (DESD). The report provides an assessment of progress towards embedding Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) into education systems and into sustainable development efforts and maps the achievements and challenges of the DESD at the global, regional, national and local levels – and within all areas and levels of education.

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 2016. Education for people and planet: Creating sustainable futures for all. Paris: UNESCO.

    The Global Education Monitoring Report provides an authoritative account of how education is a most vital input for every aspect of sustainable development. This 2016 edition focuses entirely on the role of education in creating a more sustainable world. The report provides an overview of the different approaches, policy arrangements, and regional perspectives and is supported by a vast amount of data and graphics to provide an evidence-based account of ESD and its global reach.

  • Wals, Arjen E. J, and Aaron Benavot. 2017. Can we meet the sustainability challenges? The role of education and lifelong learning. In Special issue: Education for people, prosperity and planet: Can we meet the sustainability challenges? Edited by Aaron Benavot. European Journal of Education 52.4: 404–413.

    DOI: 10.1111/ejed.12250

    Education and lifelong learning are mobilized to address global sustainability challenges. This article discusses the many roles of ESD, drawing on evidence and arguments put forward in the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, Education for People and Planet. It highlights specific viewpoints, values, and ways of thinking that best characterize effective learning for sustainability, and points at the importance of a ‘whole school’ approach to education for sustainability.

  • Wals, A. E. J. 2019. Sustainability-oriented ecologies of learning. In Ecologies for learning and practice: Sightings, possibilities, and emerging practices. Edited by Ronald Barnett and Norman Jackson, 61–78. London: Routledge.

    This chapter introduces key characteristics of sustainability-oriented education and learning and stresses the importance of a more relational approach to such learning by creating ecologies of learning that encompass multiple forms of learning, perspectives, outcomes, and levers. The chapter introduces a whole school approach to sustainability as an example of such a learning ecology.

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