Curriculum Sustainable development

Education for sustainable development

"Our biggest challenge in this new century is to take an idea that seems abstract - sustainable development - and turn it into a reality for all the world's people".

Kofi Annan, March 2001.

What is 'sustainable development'?

There are some 300 definitions of sustainable development. The most commonly quoted is from Gro Harlem Bruntland, former Prime Minister of Norway, now Director General of the World Health Organisation:

"development which meets the needs of the past without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs".

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio recognized that the protection of natural environments and human development are part and parcel of each other, therefore 'sustainable development' has a wider remit than environmental concerns. It also embraces social and economic questions such as interdependence, social justice, cultural diversity and equity.

Where do schools fit in?

At the Rio Summit, the role of education in promoting sustainable development was made explicit by Agenda 21, the global action plan for the 21st century:

"Education ... should be recognised as a process by which human beings and societies can reach their fullest potential. Education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address the environment and development issues".

Agenda 21, 1992.

Agenda 21 was signed by 178 countries in Rio. Progress will be reviewed at Earth Summit II (or 'Rio +10'), in Johannesburg, August/September 2002.

What is 'Education for Sustainable Development'?

In assessing ways to re-orientate UK education policy to embrace sustainable development, 'education for sustainable development'

"enables people to develop the knowledge, values and skills to participate in decisions about the way we do things, individually and collectively, locally and globally, that will improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet of the future".

UK Panel for Education for Sustainable Development, 1998.

The key word is education for sustainable development, as opposed to education about sustainable development, a more information-driven concept. In contrast, 'education for sustainable development', like 'citizenship', is a holistic approach for a school's management and the curriculum, not a separate subject. With a clear overlap with the 'citizenship' curriculum, it requires reflection on what to teach, and how to teach in order to:

Action is another key component of 'education for sustainable development' to help young people understand that the responsibility for sustainable development lies with 'me and us' as much as 'them', whoever they are. Therefore, 'education for sustainable development' encourages young people to take action on what they have learned rather than simply absorbing information for regurgitation in exams:

"The creativity, ideals and courage of the youth of the world should be mobilized to forge a global partnership in order to achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all".

Principle 21, Agenda 21, 1992.

Key learning resources for 'education for sustainable development'

Primary Schools
Global Citizenship

Secondary Schools

During his inaugural lecture at the University of Bath in April 2002, Professor William Scott emphasised the imperative of 'education for sustainable development':

"For societies and freely co-operating individuals to be free to choose right actions in relation to sustainability issues, they themselves need to embody the frames of mind, and enjoy the conditions which foster such choice. Thus, schools and universities need to exercise their social responsibility and explore with learners what sustainable development might be - by doing this in ways that make contingent and contextual sense, without presciption or proselytisation".