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Education for sustainable development

What is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)?

Education for Sustainable Development (hereafter referred to as ‘ESD’) is an interdisciplinary approach to learning that covers the integrated social economic and environmental dimensions of the formal and informal curriculum. ESD is a pedagogical approach that can help staff assist graduates who wish to develop the skills knowledge and experience to contribute to an environmentally and ethically responsible society and pursue a career that reflects those values.

Where did ESD come from?

The term ESD refers to the pedagogical approach of learning about and developing skills for ‘sustainable development’.  The principle of sustainable development originates from the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm 1972 where the interrelated nature of human activities and the environment was officially recognised by the international community.  It is generally accepted that sustainable development is fundamentally about trying to achieve a balance between the economy society (people) and the environment. 

The concept of sustainable development has gained notable popularity since the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (Our Common Future) Report of 1987 and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development of 1992 (otherwise known as the Rio Earth Summit) that gave rise to the most recognised and referred to definition of:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED 1987)

It is important to recognise that the definition of sustainable development is contested as it can be viewed as too ambiguous and as a result is open to misinterpretation. However the flexible nature of the definition can also be seen as its strength as it can be embraced and adapted by a range of relevant pedagogical economic and industrial actors. Equally the term ‘sustainable development’ itself is contested as it can be interpreted to have a presumption towards development and is therefore too focused on the economic dimension.  As a result it is likely to frequently come across the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘Education for Sustainability (EfS)’ in any further reading or viewing about this interdisciplinary subject area.  It is not the purpose of this ‘guide’ to debate the term or definition of sustainable development and the terms sustainable development or sustainability and ESD or EfS can be used interchangeably within this guide.

Regardless of the debates surrounding the term ‘sustainable development’ or ‘sustainability’ and the disputes over the definition the necessity of a balance between the economy society and the environment has been consistently accepted and reinforced by many other United Nations meetings and bodies.  This focus has also been consistently applied to the practice of learning and teaching for sustainable development the pedagogical practice of ESD.

In order to provide a common approach to the interdisciplinary practice of ESD the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and HEA (2014) developed a guidance document to assist HEI staff seeking to incorporate ESD within the curricula. Produced by a sector and discipline-wide expert group the document aims to support students from any discipline to acquire knowledge understanding and skills relevant to sustainable development. This document offers the following definition for ESD:

“Education for sustainable development is the process of equipping students with the knowledge and understanding skills and attributes needed to work and live in a way that safeguards environmental social and economic wellbeing both in the present and for future generations.” (QAA & HEA 2014)

How does ESD work?

As would be expected with an interdisciplinary pedagogical approach there are a variety of approaches towards ESD.  Many theoretical approaches exist and there is a great deal of supporting material held on sites such as UNESCO and the recently completed Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.  Please refer to the References section for useful guides on how ESD works in theory and in practice.

ESD works with a primary focus on equipping students with sustainability knowledge understanding skills and attributes and as a result is very much practice-led. The QAA & HEA guidance refers to this as ‘sustainability literacy’ where staff and students work together on concepts of ‘global citizenship’ and ‘environmental stewardship’ whilst considering issues of social justice and retaining a view towards the future.  ESD can offer an operational framework of working with students to:

  • consider what the concept of global citizenship means in the context of their own discipline and in their future professional and personal lives
  • consider what the concept of environmental stewardship means in the context of their own discipline and in their future professional and personal lives
  • think about issues of social justice ethics and wellbeing and how these relate to ecological and economic factors
  • develop a future-facing outlook; learning to think about the consequences of actions and how systems and societies can be adapted to ensure sustainable futures.

(QAA & HEA 2014)

It is worth considering that many universities have engaged in sustainability activities for many years but historically the majority have used the term from an operational perspective and focused on reducing the environmental impacts of the institution through waste management campus greening and carbon management.  Although ESD differs from this actively engaging in university environmental management and community projects is a very powerful mechanism for learning about sustainable development whilst enhancing the operations of the institution.

Sector Snapshot

Where is ESD currently being used and how?

ESD is applied successfully across many universities throughout the world with many UK institutions providing strong case studies of practice of varying maturity and an excellent international reputation as leaders in this field.  As ESD is interdisciplinary in nature it follows that the work of an institution reflects the specificity and diversity of its curriculum and the work of one university might not necessarily be entirely appropriate or relevant for another.

Arguably the UK institution with the richest heritage in ESD is Plymouth University where it has been applied across teaching activities through the work of the Centre for Sustainable Futures led by Professor Stephen Sterling author of the Future Fit Framework.  The University of Gloucestershire has engaged in ESD across the curriculum for a number of years and has a range of valuable resources documenting its work through its Sustainability Education pages.  A further example of an institution working to embed sustainable development across all activities including teaching is the University of Bradford with their ‘Ecoversity’ programme.

In recent years a more student-led approach to ESD has evolved where students and staff work in closer partnership on sustainability learning in both the taught curriculum and the informal curriculum through volunteering within the university and the wider community.  The work of the University of Southampton Sustainability Action Programme the University of the West of England ESD programme and the University of Wales Trinity of Saint David award-winning INSPIRE programme offer examples of this approach from the perspectives of different types of universities in different parts of the country.

The HEA has supported universities seeking to embed sustainable development in their curriculum and the student experience through the Green Academy programme.  A diverse range of 18 universities have taken part across two programmes with a useful evaluation document of the lessons learnt from the following participants in the first programme the University of Bristol Keele University University of Worcester Canterbury Christ Church University University of Wales Trinity of Saint David University of Nottingham and the University of Southampton.

On the international stage the work of the University of British Columbia  is widely regarded as world-leading with over 500 sustainability-related courses integrated with globally renowned research and operational work. 

Getting Started

How do I get started with ESD?

An important starting position is the recognition that ESD and the principle of sustainable development is not solely about the environment as is the common misconception. It is about trying to achieve a balance between the economy society (people) and the environment through supporting students from any discipline in acquiring knowledge understanding and skills relevant to sustainable development.

As previously stated /referred to earlier there is a wide range of ESD resources available and many of them provide a useful starting point.  The following resources are likely to be of great use in beginning and implementing ESD :

What should I expect if I try this approach?

One of the first issues to be resolved when engaging with ESD is the expectation from many colleagues and students that all content should only be about the environment. Incorporating the social and economic dimension from the outset is an important first step.

It is likely that many students will be familiar with the concepts behind ESD but might not be familiar with that precise term itself.  That should not prove to be a barrier as there is no requirement to adopt the term in the classroom or supporting learning resources.  Students will likely be familiar with the term ‘Sustainable Development’ but if not they will probably have encountered terms such as ‘Global Citizenship’ ‘Social Justice’ ‘Globalization’ ‘Inequality’ and ‘Resource Consumption’. 

It is also likely that many will have fairly strong personal views on issues such as inequality of wealth poverty marine pollution health care biodiversity loss climate change animal welfare universal access to education gender equality and nuclear power. This is as these are some of the complex issues that are likely to arise and not surprisingly elicit passionate responses. 

What are the potential benefits of ESD?

Introducing or extending ESD in the curriculum and student experience offers a range of benefits to students academics and the university.  Students can engage in interdisciplinary practices working and learning with students from other academic disciplines they might not normally be exposed to. In addition to the intellectual gain there is an expectation from employers that graduates will work with colleagues of different areas of expertise as part of wider professional teams. ESD offers students this valuable experience and can enhance their curriculum vitae especially in terms of practical skills and experience. 

Academic colleagues have the opportunity to work with colleagues from other disciplines to develop innovative new approaches to teaching.  This can offer the potential to develop new collaborative research projects in previously unexplored partnerships.  The practical experience dimension of ESD and its natural alliance with the employability agenda may result in the opportunity to work with external community groups and industrial organisations on multi-partner projects that seek to address sustainability issues.

Universities can reduce their environmental impact and improve their community relations by engaging in the student and staff partnership dimension of ESD where students learn about sustainability through participation in practical project work.  A four year annual HEA and National Union of Students longitudinal study incorporating 21 304 university student responses has consistently demonstrated that over 80% of students believe that sustainable development should be actively incorporated and promoted by universities and that over two-thirds believe it should be incorporated into all university courses.  Engagement with ESD as means of demonstrating commitment to sustainable development to their current and prospective students can only be of advantage to universities. 

Next Steps

What HEA resources should I take a look at?

Where can I learn more about ESD?

The leading Community of Practice for ESD is the Sustainability in Higher Education Developers (SHED) Group.  This community comprises hundreds of ESD experts who are always keen to help colleagues embarking on this journey.  It is possible to join Shed through the following link:

The HEA has a wealth of ESD resources.  The key documents are listed in the resources section  above.  A range of useful online resources and introductory books can be found in  the ‘other resources’ section.

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The materials published on this page were originally created by the Higher Education Academy.