Sustainability Science

, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 103–119 | Cite as

Learning for change: an educational contribution to sustainability science

  • Matthias Barth
  • Gerd Michelsen
Overview Article


Transition to sustainability is a search for ways to improve the social capacity to guide interactions between nature and society toward a more sustainable future and, thus, a process of social learning in its broadest sense. Accordingly, it is not only learning that is at issue but education and educational science, of which the latter is about exploring the preconditions of and opportunities for learning and education—whether individual or social, in formal or informal settings. Analyzing how educational science deals with the challenge of sustainability leads to two complementary approaches: the ‘outside-in’ approach sees the idea of sustainability influencing educational practice and the way the relationship of learning and teaching is reviewed, theoretically as well as within the social context. In an ‘inside-out’ approach, an overview is given of how educational science can contribute to the field of sustainability science. An examination of the literature on education and sustainability shows that, while sustainability features prominently in one form or another across all sectors, only little work can be found dealing with the contributions of educational science within sustainability science. However, as sustainability is a concept that not only influences educational practices but also invites disciplinary contributions to foster inter- and transdisciplinary research within the sustainability discourse, the question remains as to how and to what extent educational science in particular can contribute to sustainability science in terms of an ‘inside-out’ approach. In this paper, we reconstruct the emergence of education for sustainable development as a distinctive field of educational science and introduce and discuss three areas of sustainability research and throw into relief the unique contribution that educational science can make to individual action and behavior change, to organizational change and social learning, and, finally, to inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration.


Educational science Learning Education for sustainable development Competence Social learning Communities of practice Interdisciplinarity 



The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier draft of the article. The writing of the article was supported for the corresponding author by a fellowship in the Postdoc Programme of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).


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© Springer 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Global, Urban and Social StudiesRoyal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University)MelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.Institute for Environmental and Sustainability Communication (INFU)Leuphana UniversityLüneburgGermany

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