Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Sustainability and Education

  • Arjen E. J. Wals
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_445



In this entry, we consider how the transition to a healthy society existing on an ecologically viable Earth requires committed, critical, and competent citizens whose education enables them to aspire to values that are not purely based on the material side of their existence but also on care for fellow human beings and, indeed, other species, here and elsewhere, now and in the future. From this perspective, sustainability is primarily viewed as a driver of educational innovation, and education as a driver of sustainability. More specifically, sustainability is held to be an emerging property of an ongoing learning process, rather than an agreed upon outcome that can be comfortably and authoritatively prescribed, transferred, or taught. Examples of the possibilities and limitations of education and learning in addressing the key sustainability issues of our time are also introduced, highlighting the significance of Bildung, wicked problems, and whole-of-institution approaches.

Sustainability: What Does Education Have to Do with It?

Despite over 40 years of effort to promote and develop environmental education (EE), and over 20 years of the equivalent for education for sustainable development (ESD), educational philosophy, theory, policy, or practice has not been sufficiently reoriented to serve the well-being of people and planet. Unsurprisingly, forces to ensure that education services economic needs prevail, e.g., by positioning young people as flexible workers who switch jobs in line with changing economic demands (Nussbaum 2010). As a result, education has, in many instances, been governed by the global economic climate, rather than become a field of activity that also addresses the ecological climate, that is, fosters the means to become more human and more sustainable.

This is despite the growing recognition in society that sustainability concerns need to come into focus in education, even if it is not so clear how to do this. In part, this is a result of what we might call the nature of sustainability and associated challenges. On the one hand, sustainability is urgent, yet on the other, it is inevitably unknown and unknowable. Furthermore, it remains a contested concept both normatively and scientifically (although there is increased consensus within the scientific community about the rapidly declining state of the planet). This is compounded in the case of sustainable development, as some groups in society consider the suggestion that we must always develop to be highly problematic and inherently unsustainable. Equally, the relationship between education and development is a continuous subject of debate (McCowan and Unterhalter 2015). So key questions to be asked include: Should education always lead to development? And are all forms of development appropriate for all, including all species?

Within the field of educational philosophy and theory, leading scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, Michael Apple, and Gert Biesta, who paid little attention to global sustainability challenges early on in their careers, are beginning to address such questions. They are now strong advocates for strengthening the role of education in co-creating more equitable, democratic, responsible, and meaningful ways of living (see Apple 2010; Biesta 2014, and Nussbaum 2010). In this essay, we consider key parameters for these and other responses.

Sustainable Development and Sustainability: Hopelessly Ill-Defined or Attractively Vague?

While there is very little reasonable doubt about the seriousness of the global socio-ecological challenges threatening our planet, there is a lot of unreasonable doubt around such topics as climate change, intentionally created by interest groups seeking to maintain current unhealthy systems. Citizens and, indeed, many educators and policy-makers, among them, can find themselves confused and caught in the middle, often defaulting to the everyday routines and systems they are accustomed to in their personal and professional lives.

Nonetheless, the existence of diverse definitions and interpretations of various sustainability-related notions in different contexts may be inevitable and furthermore desirable. From the perspective of education, the view that sustainable development is something that requires continuous learning in order to find out what works best within a given context and given with what we know today is an interesting one: sustainable development as a journey, rather than a destination (Scott and Gough 2004). However, the ill-definedness, contestation, and confusion connected with such terms can easily become an excuse to not engage with sustainability in education. This might be a risky response as emerging sustainability challenges are too important to be ignored by educators, most recently and forcefully expressed in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. For those who do want to engage, there are a number of educational challenges to grapple with.

First, the growing urgency may require quick instrumental responses to change people’s lifestyles and behaviors. In the extreme, these could lead to an eco-totalitarian society where education is one of several “tools” to be used instrumentally. This instrumental response might be considered problematic when education is seen as Bildung (Biesta 2014). Bildung usually refers to semiautonomous learning processes that enable people to become human through their own exploration, discovery, and interaction with and in the world, mindful of its possibilities and constraints (physically, socially, morally, ecologically, economically, culturally). In EE, and more recently in ESD, such a perspective is referred to as an emancipatory perspective, where the nature of the sustainability crisis calls for a rethinking of values, reconnecting people with places, and leading meaningful, ethical, morally defensible, and globally responsible lives. Here education is about enabling people to deal with, among other things, complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, and loss of identity and sense of place, in a meaningful, ethical, and caring way (on the latter, see Noddings 2005). From an emancipatory point of view, education is not an instrument to be used to prescribe certain behaviors or inculcate certain values, but rather a means for meaningful engagement, making deliberate choices, and for relating and connecting with the world on both human and more-than-human grounds.

At the same time, there are more socio-critical perspectives that call for critique, disruption, and transformation, and developing people’s capacities to contribute to all three. Education, it is argued, needs to enable and empower people to question and even disrupt unsustainable patterns (abuse of power, exploitation, marginalization) and systems (capitalism with built-in inequities and a focus on growth and expansion), while simultaneously exploring new ones that are based on healthier relations between people and between people and planet.

Perhaps from an “educative” point of view, it may be more generative to consider sustainability as an emergent and continuously redefined and recalibrated property. This reconceptualization needs to occur within and is a function of the physical boundaries (e.g., the Earth’s “biocapacity”) and social boundaries (e.g., limits of democracy and participation). In fact, Biesta (2014) argues that we cannot always focus on personal growth and development as if this is an infinite possibility: we must also learn to live with constraints and within boundaries and learn to live meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives within inevitable limitations. In a sense, the seminal “Limits to Growth” warning from the Club of Rome in the early 1970s not only applies to economic development but also to human development, and perhaps, any form of development. This position does not match well with prevailing innovation, development, and growth discourse.

The Difficulty of Reorienting Education

That educational systems have hardly engaged with sustainability is hardly surprising when considering the everyday reality of schooling (Wals and Dillon 2015). Three widely reported global trends are particularly unhelpful:
  1. 1.

    Teachers are held accountable for the performance of their students in international comparisons such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which focus on literacy, numeracy, and science, making it difficult for them to engage in something as ill-defined as “sustainability.”

  2. 2.

    People, including pupils and students, spend many waking hours gazing at an electronic screen looking for instant gratification and quick responses, even during school hours. This makes it hard to develop a sense of place and to connect more deeply with the complex issues of sustainability affecting our world.

  3. 3.

    Although, not officially and often subliminally, educational institutions are increasingly seen as the manufacturing sites for the “human capital” needed to serve the economy. They are also treated as places where the seeds of consumerism can be planted from an early age, as seen in the growing influence of commercial interests shaping education systems.

Nonetheless, there are parts of the world where there is space for teaching and learning in a more sustainability-oriented education system. Several factors, often in combination, seem to be critical for such an education to occur, including (Wals and Dillon 2015):
  • Space for a localized curriculum;

  • A school ethos conducive to connectivity and place-based learning

  • A culture of reflexivity as opposed to a culture of accountability

  • A local community concerned about sustainability

  • The vision, leadership, and capacities of key educators

It may come as a surprise to find there are countries where the entire school system has adapted to the challenges of teaching for sustainability while also doing well on international comparisons. Finland is one such example where schools are permitted to develop their own localized curricula working on existentially relevant issues without losing sight of the so-called basics. It helps, of course, that in Finland, teachers have a high status in society, are well paid, and are encouraged to research their own practice. A key question then is whether the nature of sustainability, both conceptually and empirically, calls for a particular pedagogical and didactical orientation, and a particular way of schooling.

Sustainability Pedagogy

Sustainability pedagogy is hardly referred to in current discourses on education and learning. But in linking with the earlier referred to as a Bildung orientation as an appropriate orientation to emancipatory education, it is useful to reflect on what sustainability pedagogy might entail. Pedagogy in general refers to the creation of spaces (emotional, social, and physical) that are conducive for learners to develop, become, and be in the world. Sustainability pedagogy adds to this a normative orientation that presupposes a certain way of developing, becoming, and being in the world in light of certain expectations (e.g., about living together, what is fair, just and democratic) and inevitable constraints (e.g., the fragility of eco-systems and limits to the carrying capacity of the Earth). There are some clues available about what such pedagogy might entail, based on critical pedagogy and place-based pedagogy, but also on earlier work done in the field of environmental education. These suggest that such pedagogy would need to be:
  • Relational (allowing for caring for and connecting with people, places, other species, etc.), critical (allowing for critique and questioning),

  • “Actional” (allowing for agency and creating change), ethical (opening up spaces for ethical considerations and moral dilemmas),

  • Political (confrontational, transgressive and disruptive of routines, systems and structures when deemed appropriate).

Sustainability Didactics

Sustainability, as an inevitably ill-defined and ill-structured concept, poses didactical challenges too. Sustainability represents what some refer to as wicked problems. These defy definition, have no single solution that works always and everywhere, are marinated in ambiguity, and are submerged in conflicts of interest among multiple stakeholders. Sustainability, in a sense, cannot be taught. At best, teachers can create environments that are conducive to the exploration of sustainability issues around climate change, poverty, food security, biodiversity, and so on. As such, teaching about as well as for sustainability also becomes an educational design challenge.

Given this, there is a need to develop a new didactical orientation that enables learners to grapple with wicked problems. It requires teaching and learning and the design of learning environments or spaces that enable learners to:
  • See the world more holistically through, for instance, systems thinking

  • See the local manifestations of global phenomena but also the global manifestations of their own choices and actions

  • Consider different perspectives (e.g., past-present-future but also to consider short- and long-term effects, through the eyes of others, other species and the more-then-human world)

  • Deal with complexity and uncertainty, not with the aim of to reducing them but rather with the aim of making it generative for reflection and continuous learning

  • Navigate socio-scientific disputes, anticipate probable futures, and imagine and articulate more desirable ones

  • Move beyond awareness and the threat of paralysis by actively involving them in change and transformation

  • Reflect on and discuss values, ethics, and moral dilemmas

Sustainability didactics can be developed within distinct traditional subject areas (e.g., within Mathematics) or can become a cross-cutting approach that integrates or transcends specific approaches that align with the traditional academic disciplines.

Schooling for Sustainability: Boundary Crossing and Whole School Approaches

One way to work on sustainability competencies and outcomes in a meaningful and integrated way is to take existential or “real” sustainability issues as a starting point for teaching and learning, advancing more reflective ways of thinking while also engaging learners in change and transformation. A so-called whole-of-institution approach to sustainability is a good example of simultaneously creating more responsive and responsible teaching and learning, improving health and environment in and around the school, strengthening school-community relationships, and creating space for participation and transformation. Such an approach implies a different way of designing spaces for learning, in that it allows for boundary crossing between different disciplines, perspectives, interests, and values. Research on the impact of whole-of-institution approaches in the UK suggests that such an approach has the potential to improve the school ethos, the quality of both health, and students’ learning and reduces the school’s ecological footprint (Barratt Hacking et al. 2010). However, a recent Australian study points out a range of problematic aspects, such as when impact is foregrounded over educational priorities and concerns, and factors that bring about influence on sustainability and educational outcomes are not understood transparently and ethically (Rickinson et al. 2016).

Nevertheless, sustainability education can be seen as a mechanism for capacity-building and the creation of so-called vital coalitions or partnerships to enable citizens, young and old, to determine together what it takes to move from their current ways of living. These typically rely on consumption, continuous growth, and technology, at the expense of more sustainable ways of living that not only meet economic needs but also and foremost, address the needs of people and planet (Noddings 2005). Multiple actors are brought together in the context of addressing a common sustainability challenge, using a blend of learning processes (for instance, discovery learning, joint fact finding, problem-based learning, social learning, interdisciplinary learning, place-based learning) in order to bring about real, meaningful, and responsible change, with people and planet in mind (Biesta 2014).

Concluding Remarks

At its heart, sustainability has something to do with an ability to sustain. But what to sustain? what for? and how? are critical questions that are not easily answered, particularly as the world changes rapidly. Knowledge quickly becomes obsolete and values and interests shift, as do the powers that drive them – through, as well as despite, education. The indeterminacy of sustainability, coupled with the normative position of having a moral responsibility of taking care of people and planet in a way that enables quality and dignified lives for all – including nonhuman species – now and in the future, calls for new and renewed forms of learning, learning spaces, and learning environments. When sustainability is considered an emerging property of an ongoing learning process, a key focus needs to be on the spaces (physical, social, cultural, and psychological) and the conditions (levers, barriers, support mechanisms) that allow for such learning to take place in the first instance. These learning spaces and conditions should allow for the critique and even subversion and disruption of existing frameworks, frames, institutions, rules of the game, procedures, and patterns that have been established over time, particularly in recognizing that these may have been useful in the times they were conceived but may turn out to be inherently sustainable.

Thus by stressing disruptive capacity-building and transgressive learning (see also Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2015), the focus of education can shift away from learning to cope with the negative and disempowering effects of the current hegemonic ways of “producing,” “consuming,” and “living,” towards addressing root causes of unsustainability as part of the wider quest for morally defensible, ethical, and meaningful lives. As such, sustainability can become a driver of educational innovation in education, while simultaneously education and learning can become drivers of sustainability.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.University of GothenburgGothenburgSweden