Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 1–10 | Cite as

Exploring the concept of sustainable development within education for sustainable development: implications for ESD research and practice

  • Eleni SinakouEmail author
  • Jelle Boeve-de Pauw
  • Peter Van Petegem


This paper explores how three major factors in education for sustainable development (ESD) practice view the concept of sustainable development (SD). These are (a) international policy documents which shaped ESD, (b) the academic discourse in the field of ESD and (c) students and teachers. SD is a complex concept, and it can be interpreted in several ways. This paper adopts a holistic approach to SD, according to which SD is considered an integrated concept of three dimensions, namely the environment, the economy and the society. The significance of the holistic approach to the SD concept is emphasized in the recent international policy documents and by the academic discourse, as well. However, teachers and students do not hold yet a holistic understanding of the concept. The purpose of this paper is to discuss this ESD policy–practice gap and to propose implications in ESD practice and research.


Education for sustainable development The concept of sustainable development Holistic approach Policy–practice gap 



The authors acknowledge the financial support of Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, Greece, through a grant awarded to Eleni Sinakou, Ph.D. Candidate (Grant Number F ZL 089-1, 2015–2016).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Unit Edubron, Department of Training and Education Sciences, Faculty of Social SciencesUniversity of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium

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