Education for Sustainability:
Definition and Goals
What Is Education for Sustainability?
The President's Council on Sustainable Development identified education
as an integral part of its long-term strategy for rebuilding communities
and the country for the 21st century. Together with its Public Linkage,
Dialogue, and Education Task Force, the Council defined the following
Ensure that all Americans have equal access to education and lifelong
learning opportunities that will prepare them for meaningful work, a
high quality of life, and an understanding of the concepts involved in
Education for sustainability is the continual refinement of
the knowledge and skills that lead to an informed citizenry
that is committed to responsible individual and collaborative
actions that will result in an ecologically sound, economically
prosperous, and equitable society for present and future
generations. The principles underlying education for
sustainability include, but are not limited to, strong
core academics, understanding the relationships between
disciplines, systems thinking, lifelong learning, hands-on
experiential learning, community-based learning, technology,
partnerships, family involvement, and personal responsibility.
-- President's Council on Sustainable Development
It also identified the following indicators to measure achievement of
the education goal.
- Information access: larger number of communities with
infrastructure in place that allows easy access to government
information, public and private research, and community right-to-know
- Curriculum development: increased number of curricula, material,
and training opportunities that teach the principles of sustainable
- National standards: larger number of school systems that have
adopted K-12 voluntary standards for learning about sustainable
development similar to the standards developed under the National Goals
- Community participation: larger number of school systems and
communities with programs for lifelong learning through both formal and
nonformal learning institutions.
- National achievement: improved skill performance of U.S.
students as measured by standardized achievement tests.
- Graduation rates: increased high school graduation rates and
number of students going on to college, vocational training, or other
What Are Its Objectives?
Three objectives underlie the Council's education for sustainability goal.
Ensure that awareness, knowledge, and understanding of sustainability
become part of the mainstream consciousness, both nationally and
Awareness and concern about environmental, economic,
and equity issues must become firmly rooted in public consciousness.
Also needed is an in-depth understanding of the short- and long-term
implications of decisions and choices. To produce that understanding,
students and adults need to know how natural systems work and appreciate
natural cycles. But such knowledge is only the beginning. Also needed is
an understanding of the interdependence of economic, social, political,
and ecological conditions -- in rural and urban areas as well as
locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
In addition to formal classroom education, this objective can be
implemented through various kinds of nonformal education, such as a
multifaceted public awareness campaign. Advances in computer
technologies and other information and communication technologies will
help in this effort by broadening awareness of sustainability and
helping bridge cultures and continents in ways never before possible.
Engage key domestic constituencies in a dialogue about sustainability to
The recommendations offered in this document are
directed toward fostering a dialogue on sustainability. Since the aim is
to work toward consensus, stakeholders must work together to articulate
an action agenda that enjoys broad support to ensure implementation.
The next step is widening the initial consensus by continually
involving new partners.
Implementation of this objective requires engaging in all forms of
dialogue. Potential mechanisms range from town or neighborhood meetings
to roundtable discussions, conferences and workshops, task forces and
commissions, and community and group "visioning" sessions. Other venues
could include electronic mechanisms such as the Internet; radio and
television talk shows; and feature articles, op-ed articles, and letters
to the editor in newspapers, magazines, and newsletters.
Foster the skills, attitudes, motivation, and values that will redirect
action to sustainable practices and produce the commitment to work
individually and collectively toward a sustainable world.
Individuals must bring their actions into accord with a sustainable
future. Practical citizenship skills must be applied to organize groups
to act on issues related to sustainability. Conflict resolution
techniques can be used to find ways to negotiate divergent interests. An
understanding of the economic incentives that drive people's decisions
and the other values that affect decision making can help develop a
sense of how values interact and how they can change behavior.1
Implementation of this objective depends on formal education and various
forms of nonformal public outreach. Mobilizing the level of action
needed to bring about a sustainable world requires a paradigm shift
regarding humanity's attitude toward the environment and an increased
ability to integrate divergent disciplines so environmental, economic,
and social conditions are treated as interconnected systems.
How Can Education for Sustainability Be
Education for sustainability can give people the tools, skills, and
experience they need to understand, process, and use information about
sustainable development. It will help them make individual and
collective decisions that both benefit themselves and promote the
development of sustainable communities. And it will provide a means for
creating a more highly skilled and globally competitive workforce and
developing a more informed, active, and responsible citizenry.
But how can it be accomplished? The following are key principles about
education for sustainability that the Task Force identified.
Education for sustainability must involve everyone.
Education on any topic, but particularly on sustainability, should flow
from school to community and back again. Educators at all levels should
reach beyond school walls, as many successful programs already do, to
involve parents, industry, communities, and government in the education
process. Colleges and universities should work with other schools and
communities -- to deliver information, identify questions for research,
and provide direct services to help solve community problems. For their
part, communities should take a stronger interest in educating their
citizens for sustainability, recognizing that current and future
generations will need to be well-educated on this topic in order to
bring about a sustainable future.
Education for sustainability emphasizes relationships between formal and
It thrives in all types of classrooms, exposing students to local,
state, national, and international issues through hands-on, experiential
learning in alternative educational environments -- such as wading
through streams to do water quality testing, volunteering in the
community, or participating in school-to-work programs. Because
sustainability is all-encompassing, learning about it cannot and should
not be confined to formal settings such as schools, universities,
colleges, and training institutions. Nonformal education settings, such
as museums, zoos, extension programs, libraries, parks, and mass media,
provide significant opportunities to complement and build on classroom
learning. This means that formal and nonformal educators should work
together to produce an educated citizenry.
Education for sustainability is about connections.
Educating for sustainability does not follow academic theories according
to a single discipline but rather emphasizes connections among all
subject areas, as well as geographic and cultural relationships. Rather
than weaken the rigor of individual disciplines, education for
sustainability offers an opportunity to strengthen
them by demonstrating vital interrelationships. For example, Dartmouth
College requires students to take an international leadership course
stressing business and environmental components. Students must strive to
achieve high standards within the core disciplines, even as they develop
an understanding of the connections across these disciplines. Further,
education for sustainability involves consideration of diverse
perspectives, including those of ethnic groups, businesses, citizens,
workers, government entities, and other countries.
Education for sustainability is practical.
While delving into many disciplines, education for sustainability helps
students apply what they learn to their daily lives. It engenders a
sense of efficacy. Part of sustainability education is learning
citizenship skills and understanding that citizens have the power to
shape their lives and their communities in light of their vision of a
healthy and prosperous future.
Education for sustainability is lifelong.
Continual efforts should be made to institute programs about
sustainability in a variety of arenas, including the workplace and
community centers and through the media. A citizenry knowledgeable about
the benefits of sustainable living will have the capacity to create and
maintain lasting change. Benefits to the individual include an
understanding of and ability to participate in the social and economic
changes that will affect their lives. For example, many communities have
used planning processes that engage citizens in defining a desired
future plan for their community. Using their plan, citizens work to
achieve a sustainable future for themselves, their children, and their
Environmental Education and Education for
Sustainability: The Debate Among Educators
At this point, many readers will be asking themselves how environmental
education and education for sustainability differ. Many educators have
been asking the same question. Among some educators there is a debate
about the relationship between environmental education and education for
sustainability. Some say that education for sustainability is a subset
of environmental education; others say vice versa.
The field of environmental education dates back at least to the 1972
Stockholm conference on the environment. Two subsequent U.N. conferences
defined the new field. A charter adopted at the Belgrade conference held
in 1975 defined the goal of environmental education; "...to develop a
world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment
and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills,
attitudes, motivations, and commitment to work individually and
collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of
Thus, environmental education departed from ecology or science education
by calling for a strong social component. Not only would students
acquire knowledge about the environment but also the skills, attitudes,
motivations, and commitments to work on problems. A second U.N.
conference held in Tbilisi in 1978 built on this charter and laid out
five categories of objectives for environmental education: awareness,
knowledge, attitudes, skills, and participation. These objectives have
provided the field's new framework for the past 18 years.
The Tbilisi Declaration pushed environmental education past strictly
environmental concerns to:
prepare the individual for life through understanding of the major
problems of the contemporary world, and the provision of skills and
attitudes needed to play a productive role towards improving life and
protecting the environment with due regard to ethical values. By
adopting a holistic approach, rooted in a broad interdisciplinary base,
it recreates an overall perspective which acknowledges the fact that
natural environment and man-made environment are profoundly
interdependent. It helps reveal the enduring continuity which links the
acts of today to the consequences for tomorrow.
These words foreshadow the thinking that became known as the concept of
sustainable development in the early 1990s.
In the 1990s, the Brundtland Commission report and the Earth Summit
Conference popularized the concept of sustainable development, which
bound concerns about economic prosperity and social equity with
environmental protection. The field of environmental education largely
embraced this concept. At the same time, a few other academic
disciplines, attracted to the concept of sustainable development, began
developing their own networks and curriculum.
Gus Medina, a past President of the North American Association for
Environmental Education (NAAEE), the professional association of
environmental educators, says that environmental education essentially
is education for sustainability. He maintains that efforts should go
into strengthening the network of environmental educators, rather than
confusing the public with a new concept of education for sustainability.
Environmental education, Medina says, "should increase its efforts and
ensure that concepts of education for sustainability are incorporated
"Sustainability education is an attempt to articulate and implement a
specific vision of environmental education," Bora Simmons, current NAAEE
President, and Ed McCrea, NAAEE Executive Director, note in a review of
a report on education for sustainability. They ask "why a new field of
education for sustainability is needed -- as opposed to putting a
similar amount of energy and resources into enhancing and extending
existing environmental education efforts." They suggest that
sustainability educators "become integral partners with a network of
thousands of environmental educators who have the experience, materials,
and dedication to help achieve shared goals."
On the other hand, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a recent report issued by the U.N.
Secretariat, maintains that the forward-looking vision of Tbilisi was not
fully implemented: ". . . efforts everywhere focused more on
environmental concerns than on human or economics development."
The report commits UNESCO to promoting development of the concept of
education for sustainable development and anticipates that environmental
educators will provide the base from which it can grow.
The report also recognized that it will also be important to seek out
and engage professionals from related areas such as population
education, economics, religion, and other social sciences, including
human rights and values education. While each profession or discipline
had been exploring its own singular contribution to sustainable
development, it is now time to bring together lateral thinkers from
these related fields to explore the potential synergy that could be
unleashed by creative interdisciplinary thinking.
As this dialogue on educating for sustainability and environmental
education continues, one thing is clear: these two areas need to work
cooperatively rather than separately.
The Public Linkage, Dialogue, and Education Task Force has tried to do
just that -- work cooperatively with representatives from all
disciplines to come to a consensus on education policy for this nation.
The PLTF frames their policies under the rubric of educating for
sustainability. This is not to say that one side of the debate is right
or that one side is wrong. Rather it is to acknowledge that a paradigm
shift needs to take place in this country to emphasize the important
role that education must play in advancing sustainability.
Task Force POLICY Recommendations and
Although a number of individuals, businesses, government entities, and
communities across the nation have taken the first steps toward
sustainability, much more can be done to nurture a sustainable society.
To foster awareness, dialogue, and action for sustainability, the Task
Force proposes three policy recommendations. These recommendations
address both formal and nonformal educational settings and acknowledge
the lifelong nature of education. They also address an array of
crosscutting issues that relate to formal and nonformal education alike
-- such as technology, partnerships, cultural, and international
contexts. Each recommendation is accompanied by specific actions that
articulate the necessary partnerships and activities needed for
implementation at local, state, national, and international levels. By
exploring successful case studies in which challenges were faced and
barriers overcome, strategies and initiatives for implementing action
are offered. Together, these suggested recommendations and actions form
a comprehensive educational strategy that promises to help lead the
nation to a more sustainable future.
The Task Force's three policy recommendations and related actions are
listed on the next three pages, concluding this Chapter. Then, in
Chapters 3, 4 and 5, each policy recommendation is reviewed in further
detail, with examples cited throughout the discussions.
POLICY RECOMMENDATION 1
Formal Education Reform
Encourage changes in the formal education system to help all
students (kindergarten through higher education), educators,
and education administrators learn about the environment, the
economy, and social equity as they relate to all academic
disciplines and to their daily lives.
Action 1. Parents and representatives from states, schools,
educational organizations, community groups, businesses, and
other education stakeholders should identify the essential
skills and knowledge that all students should have at specified
benchmark grades for a basic understanding of the
interrelationships among environmental, economic, and social
equity issues. This set of voluntary standards could serve
as a model for states and communities to use in setting their
own requirements for academic performance.
Action 2. State officials, school administrators, and other
educators and stakeholders should continue to support education
reform; emphasize systems thinking and interdisciplinary
approaches; and pursue experiential, hands-on learning at
all levels, from elementary and secondary schools to
universities, colleges, community colleges, and technical
Action 3. Colleges and universities should incorporate education
about sustainability into pre-service training and in-service
professional development for educators of all types, at all
levels, and in all institutions.
Action 4. Schools, colleges, and universities should promote
curriculum and community awareness about sustainable development
and should follow sustainable practices in school and on
POLICY RECOMMENDATION 2
Nonformal Education and Outreach
Encourage nonformal access to information on, and opportunities to learn
and make informed decisions about, sustainability as it relates to
citizens' personal, work, and community lives.
Action 1. Nonformal educators should encourage lifelong learning
about sustainability through adult education programs, community and civic
organizations, and nonformal education programs -- such as those
sponsored by museums, zoos, nature centers, and 4-H clubs -- so that
individuals can make well-informed decisions.
Action 2. Media strategists and sustainable development experts
should develop an integrated approach for raising public awareness of and
support for sustainability goals, conveying information on indicators of
sustainable development, and encouraging people to adopt sustainable
decision making in their daily lives.
Action 3. A new or expanded national extension network should be
developed to provide needed information to enhance the capacity of
individuals and communities to exist sustainably.
Action 4. Local and state governments should continue to extend their
partnerships with community organizations and other levels of government
to support community sustainability planning processes and periodic
Action 5. Employers -- in partnership with all levels of government,
community organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and others
-- should develop training programs to create a workforce with the skills
and abilities needed to adapt to changes brought on by the national and
global transition to sustainability.
POLICY RECOMMENDATION 3
Strengthened Education for Sustainability
Institute policy changes at the federal, state, and local levels to
encourage equitable education for sustainability; develop, use, and
expand access to information technologies in all educational settings;
and encourage understanding about how local issues fit into state,
national, and international contexts.
Action 1. Federal, state, and local governments should form
partnerships with private sector organizations, businesses, professional societies,
educational institutions, and community groups to develop and implement
coordinated strategies supporting education for sustainability.
Action 2. The public and private sectors should support the
development of and equitable access to enhanced multimedia telecommunications
technologies and improved clearinghouse capabilities that promote an
understanding of sustainability.
Action 3. Educators in both formal and nonformal learning programs
should help students understand the international factors that affect the
nation's transition to a sustainable society.
Action 4. Formal and nonformal educators should ensure that education
for sustainability invites and involves diverse viewpoints, and that everyone
-- regardless of background and origin -- has opportunities to
participate in all aspects of the learning process. This will ensure that
education for sustainability is enriched by, and relevant to, all points