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Author's note

What is E S D?
Reorienting Education
Localizing the Global Initiative
Challenges and Barriers to E S D
Community Sustainability Goals
Case Study: Toronto, Canada Board of Education
Managing Change
Public Participation
Concluding remarks
Tools to Introduce the Concept of Sustainable Development
Tools to Create Community Goals
Tools to Reorient Education to Address Sustainability
Tools for Managing Change
Web resources

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While many delegates at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) meeting in 1998 enthusiastically agreed that ESD was essential for achieving sustainable development, they were stymied about how to implement it. Progressing from the global concepts of ESD to locally relevant curriculum is a difficult process. Many decisions, assumptions about the future, and examinations of local cultures have to be made. Creating ESD curriculums will require knowledge of the present and foretelling of the future. Although the resulting ESD programs may be well- or poorly targeted, the consequences of doing nothing are unacceptably high. Therefore, even if it is not precisely targeted, creating an ESD program is imperative.

To create an ESD curriculum, educational communities will need to identify knowledge, issues, perspectives, skills, and values central to sustainable development in each of the three components - environment, economy, and society. Figure 1 is an example of what one community may select. However, many possible combinations of knowledge, issues, skills, perspectives, and values for ESD curriculums exist. The program should be tailored to fit community situations and needs.

Figure 1.

environment economy society
Knowledge* hydrologic cycle supply and demand conflict
Issues protecting and managing freshwater; managing hazardous wastes combating poverty changing consumption patterns
Skills the ability to acquire, manage, and analyze data the ability to identify components of full-cost accounting the ability to think critically about value issues

* The integration of knowledge in the three sectors is important to show human-environmental interactions and impacts.

Strengths Model

The cost of reorienting education to address sustainability is so great that nations cannot afford to rely on a remediation model to retrain the world's 59,000,000 teachers. Rather than primarily retraining inservice teachers to teach sustainability, we need to design new approaches to pre-service and inservice teacher education to address sustainability. One such innovative approach is the "strengths model." In this approach, every discipline and every teacher can contribute to sustainability education.

Many topics inherent in ESD are already part of the formal education curriculum, but these topics are not identified or seen to contribute to the larger concept of sustainability. Identifying and recognizing components of ESD is key to moving forward. Fortunately this step is easy and affordable.

To implement the strengths model, begin by ensuring that educators and administrators understand the concept of sustainability and are familiar with its principles. Once they understand the concept of sustainability, educators from each discipline can examine the curriculum and school activities for existing contributions to ESD. Next, educators can identify potential areas of the existing curriculum in which to insert examples that illustrate sustainability or additional knowledge, issues, perspective, skills or values related to sustainability.

After identifying existing and potential contributions, leaders can create awareness among the educational community of these contributions to the larger ESD picture. Then, these contributions can be woven together to create ESD programs that are taught overtly to pupils and students. In this approach, the synergistic strengths of combined educational disciplines can convey the knowledge, issues, skills, perceptions, and values associated with ESD.

No one discipline can or should claim ownership of ESD. In fact, ESD poses such broad and encompassing challenges that it requires contributions from many disciplines. For example, consider these disciplinary contributions to ESD:

  • Mathematics helps students understand extremely small numbers (e.g., parts per hundred, thousand, or million), which allows them to interpret pollution data.
  • Language Arts, especially media literacy, creates knowledgeable consumers who can analyze the messages of corporate advertisers and see beyond "green wash."
  • History teaches the concept of global change, while helping students to recognize that change has occurred for centuries.
  • Reading develops the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion and helps students become critical readers of political campaign literature.
  • Social Studies helps students to understand ethnocentrism, racism, and gender inequity as well as to recognize how these are expressed in the surrounding community and nations worldwide.

Each discipline also has associated pedagogical techniques. The combined pedagogical techniques and strategies of each discipline contribute to an expanded vision of how to teach for creativity, critical thinking, and a desire for life-long learning - all mental habits that support sustainable societies.

The contributions of the environmental education and science education communities to the environmental strand of ESD have been well-documented in the literature; however, equal attention has not been focused on the social and economic strands. Yet, the efforts of schools to create more just, peaceable, and equitable societies suggest that the social strand appears to be well-developed in many countries. In fact, schools that have programs in multicultural education, anti-racist education, gender equity, anti-bullying, and peace education contribute substantially to the social strand of ESD.

Use of this strengths model requires that a cadre of educators and administrators, who are sufficiently well-versed in the transdisciplinary concepts inherent in ESD, pull together the disciplinary and pedagogical pieces to form a comprehensive ESD program. The integration process will prevent omissions and duplication. In order to create a generation of educators and administrators who understand the strengths model, it must be employed by institutions of teacher education and overtly taught to pre-service professionals.

ESD, an Evolving Concept

In reorienting education to address sustainability, it is important for educators not to lock the definition, content, scope, and methodology of ESD into a static time frame. The temptation exists to use Agenda 21 to define ESD curriculums; however, the global discussion and understanding of sustainability has grown greatly since the 1992 Earth Summit. Educational efforts must reflect this broader understanding and its evolving nature.

While Agenda 21 clearly identifies critical issues that governments around the world need to address, the concept of sustainability continues to evolve as societies change and as our awareness and perceptions of Earth, humanity, and human-environmental interactions correspondingly change. Subtle changes, such as a shift in focus or emphasis, will of course be regional in nature and reflect the conditions of local ecosystems and cultures. As a result of the maturing nature of sustainability issues, those educating for sustainability should continually adapt the content, scope, and methodology within geographic and temporal contexts. This constant adaptation will require flexibility on the part of educators as they work together on local and international projects. Definitions and practices that are admirably effective in one part of the world can be ineffective or inappropriate in another.

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