In the middle of the global crisis, no-one dares to refute the fact that we are living in a changing and challenging world, especially concerning our relation with the environment. It is not only the Greens who say this – so does the Council of the European Union: “The European Union faces a considerable number of interlinked challenges in the early 21st century, including the economic and social consequences of the global financial crisis, climate change, declining water and energy resources, shrinking biodiversity, threats to food security and health risks.”

An important point is whether citizens are equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes to understand and tackle the challenges we are facing as a society. The complexity of our world, which includes cultural, social, economic and environmental aspects, leads us to question the concept of literacy itself. Are writing and reading skills sufficient for this challenging world? Obviously not. Among a large range of skills and competences that can be claimed as essential to understand our world, we would like to highlight two of them: critical literacy, which underpins the ability to think out of the box, to break the rules and to tease out taken-for-granted assumptions about our world; and environmental and scientific literacy: it is not only about understanding what scientists study as matters of fact, but also about what politicians should do about it and matters of concern.

What is Education for Sustainability?

In this sense, we have seen over the last decade how the concept of Education for Sustainability or Education for a Sustainable Development (EDS) has been widespread. The UN declared 2005-2014 The Decade of EDS, most of the national curricula cover the sustainability concept, and worldwide there is a large amount of non-formal education and awareness raising programmes on this issue. But, are these efforts and initiatives effective? In other words, is the current Education for Sustainability having an impact in changing behaviours? Are people becoming more concerned about the climate change challenge? And overall, are they achieving an increased awareness of the need for a new economic and social model to face such challenges?

These questions should be answered under the light of another important question: what is the purpose of education? What are we trying to accomplish by educating people? Given the importance of the challenges we are facing, education should be considered as an agent of socio-cultural transformation and not just a driver of the economy or a transmitter of cultural values. The idea of critical pedagogy, funded by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, sees education as an emancipation tool, in opposition to the “banking” concept of education. In the latter view, the learner is considered to be an empty box to be filled with knowledge by the teacher. Critical education encourages us to show that change is possible and that the social realities in which we live do not have to be as they are.

From this analytical and critical thinking approach, pedagogy has moved a step forward with so-called transformative learning. Initially, it was created to make learners question or reframe his/her assumptions or habits of thought. Nevertheless, this concept is nowadays linked to the big challenges of social change and sustainability. Based on the concept of transformative learning, three orders of ESD have been identified by some authors:

  1. ESD type 1: Promoting and facilitating changes in what we do and how we live. We learn for sustainable development. It involves raising awareness on the necessity for change or reducing the ecological footprint of our activities. It is based on a conductist approach: learners are taught the facts of climate change and the actions to be undertaken. It seeks to show how to do things better.
  2. ESD type 2:  Enabling/realising sustainable living: this builds the capacity to think critically about and beyond what experts say. It also encourages people to explore the contradictions of the model and to question its values. It does not seek to have an environmental impact but to empower people to take responsibility for making sound choices for change. It is concerned about doing better things.
  3. ESD type 3: Transforming worldviews: this leads us to see things differently. Learners question paradigms and deconstruct our values and assumptions to create a new worldview.


Most of the Education for Sustainability delivered in the world corresponds to the first model. It is UNESCO’s view, the one driving the UN Decade of ESD and it is the main approach for authorities when designing formal education, as well as the view of most NGO. It has been proved that this approach rarely changes behaviour. Learners understand the rationale and acknowledge the solution proposed (matter of facts), but they do not find the motivation to turn this into action; nor do they enquire further on the reasons to do so (a matter of concern).

ESD 2 asks learners to think for themselves, to analyse alternatives and make their decisions accordingly. This approach is more relevant to our future, as it will depend more in our capability to analyse and build alternatives than in our acceptance in being told what to do.

Finally, EDS 3 leads to paradigm change. The three types of ESD are neither opposite nor mutually exclusive -they complement each other. The three all them bring benefits and have a role to play in a building a more sustainable world.

Room for improvement?

Nevertheless, we acknowledge that reducing ESD to a simple explanation of facts and actions will not be sufficient to positively face the environmental challenges. What are the aspects that should be included in ESD in order to succeed in equipping people with the knowledge and skills to understand and build up an alternative to the present ecological crisis?

The above-mentioned document of the Council of the European Union points out some aspects that could really improve the impact of the ESD, in both, environment and values change:

  • A lifelong learning perspective – to include ESD in all levels of formal education and training, as well as in non-formal learning.
  • Value-based learning, such as justice, equity, tolerance, sufficiency and responsibility towards future generations.
  • Systems thinking – a necessary approach to understanding the complexity of the world, in which everything is connected to other things.
  • Calls for action – it is not only about understanding, but taking action.


Regarding the last point, it is important learners find a motivation for the action. Knowledge and skills are better acquired through personal experience (when learning is relevant and meaningful). In this sense we suggest other aspects to include in ESD:

  • A constructivist approach in which the learners build their own learning and play and active role in the process (versus the conductist approach, i.e. telling what to do and what to learn)
  • To use a positive tone, running away from pessimist and catastrophic messages and asking learners to propose their own actions (creative and innovation thinking)
  • To introduce the local dimension of global challenges, stressing the role of communities and people in finding solutions to climate change.


From an educational point of view, such an ESD will meet the main elements that innovative didactics point out as the future for education: student centered approaches, relevant topics and contexts for learners, a focus on critical thinking and problem solving skills, creativity, etc. With regards to sustainability, we would increase awareness on the consequences of climate change by addressing local questions and providing learners a motivation to act directly linked to their feelings and identity.

An example of such ESD is Schools for Resilience, an on-going project, funded by the Longlife Learning Programme of the EU. Led by the Aranzadi Society of Sciences (based in the Basque Country, Spain), it involves different ESD actors from United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Italy and Latvia.

The aim is to develop school materials to deliver a transformative ESD:

• which focuses on understanding and positively responding to global challenges with local solutions
• through which students build up their own contribution to sustainability according to their community needs

The project relies on three core pillars: systemic thinking, personal and community resilience and values –

  • Creating communities that are compatible with nature’s processes for sustaining life requires basic ecological knowledge.
  • Acting resiliently in any context or situation requires personal, team community building and sustainability knowledge and skills.
  • Values are essential to promote sustainable ways of thinking. The project aims to raise-up three main values: respect for nature and care for the state of our planet, equal opportunities for all people to shape their lives and respect for future generations.

Small beginnings but a strong direction

This is a pilot project which is working now on developing the materials for school formal education, but it points out a good direction for a holistic and transformative ESD based on innovative didactic approaches (e.g. outdoor learning). But, do such programmes already exist across Europe? They do in some countries. Nevertheless, there is great variation at the national level, relying upon the sustainability awareness they have as society, but also upon the educational culture and tradition of each system.

Certainly, it would be most interesting to look at the different ways each country approaches ESD and compare it with their social attitudes and values regarding sustainability and climate change. People’s awareness, understanding and perception on the climate change and the ecological crisis should not be disregarded in the global action for sustainability and social and environmental justice. Education for sustainability works on such aspects. Let’s not disregard education as driver of the global change.

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