Education for sustainable development

Moving forward with ESD

Introducing an Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programme in a school is not always easy.  Peter Milne sets out the crucial steps necessary for success. 

The aim 

The basic aim of ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ is to nurture an individual who is able to solve environmental challenges facing the world and promote the formation of a sustainable society.

ESD in schools

The first challenge is to have an ethos in schools that openly and enthusiastically supports the implementation of ESD. This is partly down to the curriculum the school follows, but is mainly as a result of the interest and effort shown by senior management in promoting integration and whole school engagement, with teacher training a critical element. Building a sustainability curriculum is also down to the expectations that are put upon schools by education authorities.

With trained and motivated teachers, it is far easier to inspire and motivate students. Teachers can often use the environment as a vehicle for teaching certain concepts in their own specific subject and once teachers have decided that this is worthwhile, they will increasingly find ways to use ESD ideas in their work.

Using environmental issues in student learning shows students the bigger picture, which can significantly improve motivation. By letting pupils know why the work they are completing is important, and showing them where it fits in on a local and global scale, you’re enabling them to see its value.

Further challenges – home and school

Another challenge is being able to bridge the gap between what happens at home and what is taught in schools. For example, if a child is learning about recycling at school, but parents are not open to supporting their learning by adopting recycling practices at home then the child, especially at a young age, receives very conflicting messages.

Schools are busy places and there are increasing pressures on teachers within the workplace. These can create additional challenges such as gaps between awareness and understanding, motivation to and knowledge of how to become more sustainable. The process requires a movement from individual to collective empowerment, finding time, overcoming budget restraints, linking infrastructure change to mindset change and whole community engagement.

However, with a more directed focus and commitment towards ESD in schools, children generally need very little motivation to care for their environment. You just have to give them a voice and they are away! The problem often comes from adults not understanding the bigger picture about caring for the long-term future of the planet.

Strategy for promoting change

The change needed to implement ESD effectively can be broken down into three elements:

  1. The need for physical change: looking at how schools, households and businesses can reduce their waste, water and energy and focus on more sustainable resources in general.
  2. The mindset change: this is all about raising environmental understanding, awareness and action programmes throughout the school and business communities through workshops, cross-curricular activities and presentations, so that everybody is on the ‘same page’, as well as giving students and employees a voice. This leads to a fundamental change in attitudes and the choices people make.
  3. Learning to respect others and appreciate the environment, as well as giving back to society: this is focused around the opportunities to learn beyond the workplace and home, and connect to nature, as well as helping communities in need. In a nutshell, it about being more caring.

Partnerships and action-orientated behaviour, within all three aspects, are crucially important to their success. Environmental awareness in itself is not enough because awareness without meaningful action and behaviour change goes nowhere. This approach can be illustrated in the Beyond COP21 Symposium series, currently running globally with the support of Eco-Schools Global and Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots. (“COP 21” refers to the 2015 Paris Summit at which a number of crucial climate action targets were agreed)

A symposium consists of themed high impact presentations from, and discussions with, guest speakers on the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) Agenda 2030 and climate negotiations in and beyond the Paris It also involves individual & community action, pledge-making and practical activities/workshops. Local sustainable companies and organisations are invited to showcase their initiatives and engage with students from a variety of schools, both local and expat, in each city or region.

Successfully run in Dubai twice, in the UK once and most recently in Jordan, at the Ahliyyah School for Girls, a 2018 event, to be held at the Tanglin Trust School in Singapore, is now in preparation. Further interest has also come from schools in Malaysia, Laos, Sri Lanka, UAE and Jordan.

Role of technology and social media

The most important role technology and social media can play is through the spread of information and ideas, as well as the sharing of good practice. Sometimes the hardest thing is to know where to start and how to become motivated! However,  technology can help to source important resources for teachers. The Bee’ah School of Environment, for which I have been developing online resources recently, is a very good example of how well this can work.


Peter Milne is an environmental campaigner, consultant/trainer and former teacher with 25 years experience in ESD.

For more about Peter’s work see his websiteTarget4Green


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