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Key elements of ESD

What are the key elements of education for sustainable development? Read this short article for an introduction.

As you will have seen in the video and as we have also discussed in other previous steps, there are a variety of ways of framing education for sustainable development and deciding on its core priorities. How we do this might depend on which term or theoretical approach we focus on (e.g. ESD vs climate change education, etc.), as well as national education priorities, international agendas, or what we want from ESD in our own practice.

However, underpinning these various approaches and understandings are at least four core elements: 

Knowledge and understanding – This relates to the areas of content and thematic knowledge we want learners to develop knowledge about and understand in order to critically engage with. Examples might include, for instance, topics such as climate change, biodiversity and the SDGs, as well as themes such as interconnectedness and cultural diversity. It is not just about learning facts and information – it is also about critically examining bodies of knowledge and assumptions, and recognising a range of different perspectives and positions. 

Skills and Competencies – This might include a range of ‘life’ skills and competencies such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, research, systems thinking, reflection and analysis which support learners to see issues from different perspectives, to think and to challenge perceptions where necessary. It might also include more practical skills related to a specific topic area or discipline (e.g. sustainable design or agriculture, recycling, sustainable production and consumption). 

Values – These relate to how people interact with each other and the world around them. Values can be taught, but also embedded within educational practises and the ethos of the school or institution. Key values in ESD could include those which promote sustainability (the economic, social and environmental dimensions) through an attention to social justice, fairness, and compassion. It is also important that learning in ESD supports learners to explore the links between the global and the local, as well as between what we do in the present and how this might impact the future. 

Action – In broad terms, action might describe students engaging in an activity which supports sustainability, either in their own school/ university, the local community or elsewhere in the world. The nature of the action will vary depending on the age of the students, the topic area being explored, and the school/ institution in which they are based, but might include establishing recycling programmes or school gardens, building a partnership with a school or university elsewhere in the world, getting involved in campaigns or discussions with policy makers, among many others. The role of the educator in facilitating the action will also vary – they might, for example, be more present with younger children as opposed to university students. In all cases, action should encourage critical engagement with the root causes of unsustainability and ask us to reflect on our own role and the power relations that maintain it.

These elements won’t necessarily be given equal emphasis at all times in all contexts, but it is likely they will all be present in some form in ESD (or EE or CCE) initiatives.  

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Educating for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Schools and Universities

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