Education for Sustainable Development, Explained!

Education for Sustainable Development, explained below

1. What is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)?

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is an approach to education that emphasizes the importance of humans living in harmony with the earth.

ESD is also sometimes referred to as Education for Sustainability (EfS). To me, they seem to be the same concepts. Hopkins and McKeown (2002) also say the terms are ‘synonymous’. So call it ESD or EfS – it’s all the same.

The United Nations promotes ESD as a global educational goal. The United Nations definition is perhaps the most highly regarded authoritative definition of ESD:

“Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) empowers people to change the way they think and work towards a sustainable future.”

The United Nations also embedded ESD into Goal 4 of its Sustainable Development Goals. These are goals the UN aims to achieve by 2020. Goal 4 (Part 7) includes this text:

“By 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles…”

Sustainability Definition: An ecological balance in which natural resources are not depleted and humans and the environment can live in harmony for the foreseeable future.

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2. Scholarly Definition of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

Regular readers of this website will also know that I believe you should also use scholarly sources when defining terms.

I actually found it quite hard to find definitions of ESD that weren’t wildly, annoyingly, ridiculously ‘academic’ (ugh!).

So, here are a few scholarly definitions that I think were the clearest, so I’d recommend using one of these:

  • Elliott and Davis (2009, p. 71) argue that ESD “is education with a transformative agenda – it is about creating change towards more sustainable ways of living.”
  • Nasibulina (2015, p. 1078) argues that ESD is focused on “the development of environmental consciousness and formation of ecological culture.”

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3. Why not ‘Environmental Education’?

Don’t skip this part.

This information really helped me understand what ESD is all about.

Here’s how it goes:

We used to talk about Environmental Education. You know, teaching students about the environment.

And then people realized all we were doing was teaching about the environment.

People turned around and said that maybe we should be teaching for the environment rather than about it.

In other words, here’s the distinction:

  • Environmental Education: Teaching about the environment in an objective, hands-off manner.
  • Education for Sustainable Development: Teaching people how to strive towards sustainable living.

See the difference there?

And that’s the whole point of ESD.

ESD is about creating change. It wants us to change our habits and the ways we think and talk about the environment.

In other words, ESD is a more activist approach. It acknowledges that sustainability is really important and worth striving towards.

So, ESD is a more empowering way to think about environmental education. It represented a totally new way of thinking about teaching about the environment.

Some of those new ways of thinking are outlined in the next section which outlines the key principles of ESD.

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4. What are the 7 Principles of Education for Sustainable Development?

Below are seven principles of ESD.

There are a lot of principles that are discussed in the literature. And it can all get pretty confusing at times. In fact, I’ve found the literature on ESD / EfS quite shambolic. Not because the concepts are hard. Just because … you know … academics like to torture us and can’t agree on anything ever.

But I did find an organization called the The Australian Research Institute for Environment and Sustainability based out of Macquarie University in Australia.

 These guys put together seven principles of ESD that I think sums up the concept of ESD really well.

Education for Sustainable Development: Principes, Definition and Examples

So here’s their 7 principles:

  1. Transformation and Change: People should be empowered to make changes in the lives of themselves, their schools and their local communities. ESD is not objective. Its goal is to strive towards taking action for a sustainable future.
  2. Lifelong Learning for All: ESD does not just take place in schools. It takes place in formal and informal learning environments all over the place, including in workplaces, community meeting, sporting clubs, and so forth. It is for young, middle aged and old. And learning about it never ends.
  3. Systems Thinking: This is a term that means we are all interconnected. That’s all it means – so don’t overthink it. How are we connected? Well, educators would argue that ecological systems, political systems, economic systems and cultural systems are all connected. We are connected to each other and the environment and we will sink or swim together.
  4. A Better Future: We should be working towards a future in which we can live in balance and harmony with our environment.
  5. Critical Thinking: Things aren’t going too well now. The world is on the path to climate catastrophe. So we need to educate people to think critically and laterally to find new ways of doing things and new solutions to get us back on track to sustainability.
  6. Participation: We need to all be participants in striving to a more sustainable world and a smaller ecological footprint. So, ESD encourages inquiry based and project based learning in which we are empowered to learn by taking action.
  7. Partnerships for Change: We need to work together to create change. Schools need to team up with each other, governments need to partner up with community groups, and we all need to work together with the goal of creating a sustainable future.

I strongly recommend the following two resources which I used to get the above information:

>>> Related Post: What are the Pros of Outdoor Play-Based Learning?

5. How to Teach Education for Sustainable Development

The University of Plymouth argues that there are five key pedagogical strategies that you can use to teach ESD.

These strategies are:

  1. Critical Reflection: Have students think critically about how to achieve a more ecologically balanced and socially just world. Examples include keeping journals about reducing waste to reflect on your actions, or even watching environmental documentaries and reflecting on their insights.
  2. Systemic Thinking: We’ve already discussed this as a key concept. To use systemic thinking in the classroom, make sure you emphasize the interconnectedness of everything around us.
  3. Participatory Learning: Ensure students are not learning about the environment in a boring, objective way. Instead, teaching your students through project-based learning and inquiry learning. Ensure students feel as if they can make a change in their lives or the lives of their community.
  4. Thinking Creatively: I would have called this ‘lateral thinking’. In other words, encourage students to envision a sustainable future and come up with unique strategies to get there.
  5. Collaborative learning: Encourage students to work together (using a sociocultural approach to teaching). Similarly, get students to collaborate with other classes or local environmentalist community groups (see some collaborative learning examples here).

Related Article: Sociocultural Theory of Learning and Teaching

6. Examples, Ideas and Case Studies

The following are some ideas for implementing ESD / EfS in the classroom. Remember, ESD is not just about doing a lesson then walking away. It’s about creating changes in habits. So if you get started on one of these projects, commit to sticking to the project for the full school year:

  1. Create an outdoor garden to teach children in the early years about how they need an environment that is healthy to provide them with food.
  2. Create an indoor hydroponic garden to learn about food year-round.
  3. Create an aquaponic system to learn about the ecosystems of water-grown plants.
  4. Do a waste audit and try to reduce the net weight of waste you put in landfill week-on-week.
  5. Do a biodiversity audit and come up with plans to increase the biodiversity in areas in or adjacent to your school.
  6. Do environmental science experiments like making solar ovens that teach kids how climate change affects the environment.

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7. Opportunities and Challenges of ESD

Key benefits and opportunities of ESD include:

  • Creating systemic change in schools;
  • Helping young people to develop lifelong environmentalist habits;
  • Opportunities for cross-curricular links to lessons on mathematics, literacy, history and science;
  • Developing 21st Century and skills like creativity and lifelong project-based learning;
  • Developing global citizenship skills like cooperation, leadership, negotiation and environmental stewardship.

Key challenges to ESD include:

  • Parents may not be on board with your pro-environmentalist messages;
  • A crowded curriculum may squeeze out time for a sustained environmentalist approach that is time consuming;
  • It can be expensive to put in place new initiatives like a school garden, which requires many supplies.

8. Further Reading and Sources to Cite in your Essay

Regular readers would know I encourage you not to cite this website. Instead, cite scholarly sources. I’ve spaced several scholarly sources throughout this piece to help you out.

But, here’s some more for further reading and for you to cite in an essay if you’re currently writing an essay on this topic:

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Elliott, S. & Davis, J. M. (2009). Exploring the resistance: an Australian perspective on educating for sustainability in early childhood. International Journal of Early Childhood, 41(2). pp. 65-77. Doi:

Government of Australia. (2009). Living Sustainably: the Australian Government’s National Action Plan for Education for Sustainability. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from:

Hopkins, C. & McKeown, R. (2002) Education for sustainable development: an international perspective. In: Tilbury, D., Stevenson, R. B., Fien, J., & Schreuder, D. (Eds.) Education and Sustainability Responding to the Global Challenge. (pp. 13 – 24) Switzerland: Commission on Education and Communication.

Kopnina, H. (2012). Education for sustainable development (ESD): the turn away from ‘environment’in environmental education?. Environmental Education Research18(5), 699-717. Doi:

McKeown, R. (2002). Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit. Retrieved from:

Metcalf et al. (2009). Education for sustainability: the role of education in engaging and equipping people for change. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from:

Nasibulina, A. (2015). Education for sustainable development and environmental ethics. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences214, 1077-1082. Doi:

Shelburne Farms. (2015). The Guide to Education for Sustainability. Retrieved from:

United Nations. (2018). United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 4. Retrieved from:

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability science6(2), 203-218.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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