“Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?” – Greta Thunberg
2019 has seen millions of schoolchildren across the world strike on Fridays because of inaction on climate change. As a teacher, this poses an ethical dilemma. We want our pupils to show exactly the kind of intelligence and integrity that Thunberg does, but we don’t want to see formal education being excluded from the solution. It’s a damning indictment of our profession if pupil empowerment comes from skipping school rather than being in lessons.
At the heart of this is a significant issue that isn’t widely enough acknowledged; the drive for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has singularly failed to improve the sustainability consciousness (SC) of young people. This is despite UNESCO organising an entire decade (the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, or DESD) from 2005 to 2014 on the issue. National programmes of certification of eco schools have been rolled out on different continents, but the research done so far on their efficacy all points to one uncomfortable truth; its impact has been negligible.
There are big questions to answer here. What problems has research into the approach revealed? Why has the approach largely failed? And, crucially, can it be rescued? Let’s begin with the issues that have been thrown up by schools that have followed some form of certified approach which requires standard practices like audits of the curriculum and basic operations. Different research papers have focused on Belgium (Boeve-de Pauw and Van Petegem 2013), Sweden (Olsson et al, 2015), Taiwan (Olsson et al, 2018) and America (Higgs and McMillan, 2006), to name but a few. There are some common themes that emerge:
- Gender gap: girls are more likely to exhibit behaviours and attitudes that show sustainability consciousness than boys. This may even be due to implicit gender stereotyping in how programmes are constructed.
- Age fluctuation: young children (typically up to age 12) show genuine interest in ESD programmes, but by age 14-15 this actually becomes negative – what Olsson calls the ‘adolescent dip’. There is an improvement by age 18, assuming the programmes are continued to that age.
- Socio-economic background: schools in areas with higher levels of income struggle to make any inroads on SC, and in fact the overall effect may be negative.
- Death by Certification: schools that have followed certified programmes show little if any improvements over schools that do not, in terms of the SC of their pupils. Effect sizes where eco programmes are adopted are 0.2 at best. Worryingly, many of these schools think they are making a difference when they are not.
Much of this is due to the limited interpretation of what sustainability really is. When the focus is restricted to environmental issues only, the knowingness, behaviours and attitudes of pupils shows little change. What schools are failing to emphasise are the social and economic dimensions. In his PhD thesis (2018), Olsson goes into depth on his development of this model:
In this context, ‘knowingness’ is defined as a “theory of knowing” about the fundamentals of sustainable development, where critical thinking is an essential component. This addresses a core issue: much of what is going on in ESD-focused classrooms is about imparting knowledge without understanding. For example, pupils may know that eating less meat is good for the environment. Do they know why? And are they able to critically debate the dissonance about environmental sustainability (reduced water consumption) and economic sustainability (the impact on farmers)? This is where ESD is currently falling down: there is an absence of both breadth of the concept and critical thinking about it.
What is emphasised as making a difference is the need for pluralism and holism in teaching methods. What this means is teaching the full range of ESD concepts (not just environmental) from multiple disciplines and angles. This leads to ‘action competence’ in pupils, which means they understand a range of possible options, have confidence that they have agency, and then show willingness to turn this into concrete actions. Research conducted so far suggests that ESD can have an impact if it leads to this, but all too often it is ideologically driven, lacking in solid pedagogy, confined to environmental issues, and the agenda is driven by agencies outside of education.
Back in 2007, Vare and Scott made an important distinction between ESD 1 (education for sustainable development) and ESD 2 (education as sustainable development). ESD 2 offers much more promise, as it focuses on critical thinking (which the authors emphasise is domain specific) and metacognition. This approach appeals to me and I hope that it will be the basis of ESD going forward.
There is no doubt that making all systems that support human life more sustainable is ethical and desirable. What we need to do is make sure that education about these issues is itself sustainable, and that is what bodies like UNESCO and the OECD have yet to get right. The Incheon Declaration of 2015 and the laudable goals it sets out have 15 years to deliver. Four years in, the Greta Thunberg effect suggests that a lot will need to be done in the next 11 years if this is going to make a difference.
Lyons Higgs, A., and McMillan, (2006) V.,‘Teaching Through Modeling: Four Schools’ Experiences in Sustainability Education’, Journal of Environmental Education, Vol. 38, No1
Olsson, D (2018) ‘Student Sustainability Consciousness: Investigating Effects of Education for Sustainable Development in Sweden and Beyond’ Doctoral Thesis, Karlstad University Studies
Olsson, D., N. Gericke, and Chang Rundgren, S.-N. (2016) ‘The effect of implementation of education for sustainable development in Swedish compulsory schools – assessing pupils’ sustainability consciousness’, Environmental Education Research, Vol. 22, No. 2, 176–202,
Olsson, D., Gericke, N., Boeve-de Pauw, J., Berglund T., Chang, T., (2019) ‘Green schools in Taiwan – Effects on student sustainability consciousness’, Global Environmental Change 54, 184–194
Vare, P. and Scott, W. (2007) ‘Learning for a Change: Exploring the Relationship Between Education and Sustainable Development’, Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 1:2, 191–198