Chapter 2
Education for Sustainability:
Definition and Goals

What Is Education for Sustainability?

The President's Council on Sustainable Development identified education as an integral part of its long-term strategy for rebuilding communities and the country for the 21st century. Together with its Public Linkage, Dialogue, and Education Task Force, the Council defined the following education goal:

    Ensure that all Americans have equal access to education and lifelong learning opportunities that will prepare them for meaningful work, a high quality of life, and an understanding of the concepts involved in sustainable development.
Education for sustainability is the continual refinement of the knowledge and skills that lead to an informed citizenry that is committed to responsible individual and collaborative actions that will result in an ecologically sound, economically prosperous, and equitable society for present and future generations. The principles underlying education for sustainability include, but are not limited to, strong core academics, understanding the relationships between disciplines, systems thinking, lifelong learning, hands-on experiential learning, community-based learning, technology, partnerships, family involvement, and personal responsibility.

-- President's Council on Sustainable Development

It also identified the following indicators to measure achievement of the education goal.

  • Information access: larger number of communities with infrastructure in place that allows easy access to government information, public and private research, and community right-to-know documents.

  • Curriculum development: increased number of curricula, material, and training opportunities that teach the principles of sustainable development.

  • National standards: larger number of school systems that have adopted K-12 voluntary standards for learning about sustainable development similar to the standards developed under the National Goals 2000 initiative.

  • Community participation: larger number of school systems and communities with programs for lifelong learning through both formal and nonformal learning institutions.

  • National achievement: improved skill performance of U.S. students as measured by standardized achievement tests.

  • Graduation rates: increased high school graduation rates and number of students going on to college, vocational training, or other advanced training.

What Are Its Objectives?

Three objectives underlie the Council's education for sustainability goal.

Ensure that awareness, knowledge, and understanding of sustainability become part of the mainstream consciousness, both nationally and internationally.
Awareness and concern about environmental, economic, and equity issues must become firmly rooted in public consciousness. Also needed is an in-depth understanding of the short- and long-term implications of decisions and choices. To produce that understanding, students and adults need to know how natural systems work and appreciate natural cycles. But such knowledge is only the beginning. Also needed is an understanding of the interdependence of economic, social, political, and ecological conditions -- in rural and urban areas as well as locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.

In addition to formal classroom education, this objective can be implemented through various kinds of nonformal education, such as a multifaceted public awareness campaign. Advances in computer technologies and other information and communication technologies will help in this effort by broadening awareness of sustainability and helping bridge cultures and continents in ways never before possible.

Engage key domestic constituencies in a dialogue about sustainability to produce consensus.
The recommendations offered in this document are directed toward fostering a dialogue on sustainability. Since the aim is to work toward consensus, stakeholders must work together to articulate an action agenda that enjoys broad support to ensure implementation. The next step is widening the initial consensus by continually involving new partners.

Implementation of this objective requires engaging in all forms of dialogue. Potential mechanisms range from town or neighborhood meetings to roundtable discussions, conferences and workshops, task forces and commissions, and community and group "visioning" sessions. Other venues could include electronic mechanisms such as the Internet; radio and television talk shows; and feature articles, op-ed articles, and letters to the editor in newspapers, magazines, and newsletters.

Foster the skills, attitudes, motivation, and values that will redirect action to sustainable practices and produce the commitment to work individually and collectively toward a sustainable world.
Individuals must bring their actions into accord with a sustainable future. Practical citizenship skills must be applied to organize groups to act on issues related to sustainability. Conflict resolution techniques can be used to find ways to negotiate divergent interests. An understanding of the economic incentives that drive people's decisions and the other values that affect decision making can help develop a sense of how values interact and how they can change behavior.1

Implementation of this objective depends on formal education and various forms of nonformal public outreach. Mobilizing the level of action needed to bring about a sustainable world requires a paradigm shift regarding humanity's attitude toward the environment and an increased ability to integrate divergent disciplines so environmental, economic, and social conditions are treated as interconnected systems.

How Can Education for Sustainability Be Accomplished?

Education for sustainability can give people the tools, skills, and experience they need to understand, process, and use information about sustainable development. It will help them make individual and collective decisions that both benefit themselves and promote the development of sustainable communities. And it will provide a means for creating a more highly skilled and globally competitive workforce and developing a more informed, active, and responsible citizenry.

But how can it be accomplished? The following are key principles about education for sustainability that the Task Force identified.

Education for sustainability must involve everyone.
Education on any topic, but particularly on sustainability, should flow from school to community and back again. Educators at all levels should reach beyond school walls, as many successful programs already do, to involve parents, industry, communities, and government in the education process. Colleges and universities should work with other schools and communities -- to deliver information, identify questions for research, and provide direct services to help solve community problems. For their part, communities should take a stronger interest in educating their citizens for sustainability, recognizing that current and future generations will need to be well-educated on this topic in order to bring about a sustainable future.

Education for sustainability emphasizes relationships between formal and nonformal education.
It thrives in all types of classrooms, exposing students to local, state, national, and international issues through hands-on, experiential learning in alternative educational environments -- such as wading through streams to do water quality testing, volunteering in the community, or participating in school-to-work programs. Because sustainability is all-encompassing, learning about it cannot and should not be confined to formal settings such as schools, universities, colleges, and training institutions. Nonformal education settings, such as museums, zoos, extension programs, libraries, parks, and mass media, provide significant opportunities to complement and build on classroom learning. This means that formal and nonformal educators should work together to produce an educated citizenry.

Education for sustainability is about connections.
Educating for sustainability does not follow academic theories according to a single discipline but rather emphasizes connections among all subject areas, as well as geographic and cultural relationships. Rather than weaken the rigor of individual disciplines, education for sustainability offers an opportunity to strengthen them by demonstrating vital interrelationships. For example, Dartmouth College requires students to take an international leadership course stressing business and environmental components. Students must strive to achieve high standards within the core disciplines, even as they develop an understanding of the connections across these disciplines. Further, education for sustainability involves consideration of diverse perspectives, including those of ethnic groups, businesses, citizens, workers, government entities, and other countries.

Education for sustainability is practical.
While delving into many disciplines, education for sustainability helps students apply what they learn to their daily lives. It engenders a sense of efficacy. Part of sustainability education is learning citizenship skills and understanding that citizens have the power to shape their lives and their communities in light of their vision of a healthy and prosperous future.

Education for sustainability is lifelong.
Continual efforts should be made to institute programs about sustainability in a variety of arenas, including the workplace and community centers and through the media. A citizenry knowledgeable about the benefits of sustainable living will have the capacity to create and maintain lasting change. Benefits to the individual include an understanding of and ability to participate in the social and economic changes that will affect their lives. For example, many communities have used planning processes that engage citizens in defining a desired future plan for their community. Using their plan, citizens work to achieve a sustainable future for themselves, their children, and their community.

Environmental Education and Education for Sustainability: The Debate Among Educators

At this point, many readers will be asking themselves how environmental education and education for sustainability differ. Many educators have been asking the same question. Among some educators there is a debate about the relationship between environmental education and education for sustainability. Some say that education for sustainability is a subset of environmental education; others say vice versa.

The field of environmental education dates back at least to the 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment. Two subsequent U.N. conferences defined the new field. A charter adopted at the Belgrade conference held in 1975 defined the goal of environmental education; " develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations, and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones."

Thus, environmental education departed from ecology or science education by calling for a strong social component. Not only would students acquire knowledge about the environment but also the skills, attitudes, motivations, and commitments to work on problems. A second U.N. conference held in Tbilisi in 1978 built on this charter and laid out five categories of objectives for environmental education: awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills, and participation. These objectives have provided the field's new framework for the past 18 years. The Tbilisi Declaration pushed environmental education past strictly environmental concerns to:

prepare the individual for life through understanding of the major problems of the contemporary world, and the provision of skills and attitudes needed to play a productive role towards improving life and protecting the environment with due regard to ethical values. By adopting a holistic approach, rooted in a broad interdisciplinary base, it recreates an overall perspective which acknowledges the fact that natural environment and man-made environment are profoundly interdependent. It helps reveal the enduring continuity which links the acts of today to the consequences for tomorrow.

These words foreshadow the thinking that became known as the concept of sustainable development in the early 1990s.

In the 1990s, the Brundtland Commission report and the Earth Summit Conference popularized the concept of sustainable development, which bound concerns about economic prosperity and social equity with environmental protection. The field of environmental education largely embraced this concept. At the same time, a few other academic disciplines, attracted to the concept of sustainable development, began developing their own networks and curriculum.

Gus Medina, a past President of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), the professional association of environmental educators, says that environmental education essentially is education for sustainability. He maintains that efforts should go into strengthening the network of environmental educators, rather than confusing the public with a new concept of education for sustainability. Environmental education, Medina says, "should increase its efforts and ensure that concepts of education for sustainability are incorporated and promoted."

"Sustainability education is an attempt to articulate and implement a specific vision of environmental education," Bora Simmons, current NAAEE President, and Ed McCrea, NAAEE Executive Director, note in a review of a report on education for sustainability. They ask "why a new field of education for sustainability is needed -- as opposed to putting a similar amount of energy and resources into enhancing and extending existing environmental education efforts." They suggest that sustainability educators "become integral partners with a network of thousands of environmental educators who have the experience, materials, and dedication to help achieve shared goals."

On the other hand, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a recent report issued by the U.N. Secretariat, maintains that the forward-looking vision of Tbilisi was not fully implemented: ". . . efforts everywhere focused more on environmental concerns than on human or economics development." The report commits UNESCO to promoting development of the concept of education for sustainable development and anticipates that environmental educators will provide the base from which it can grow.

The report also recognized that it will also be important to seek out and engage professionals from related areas such as population education, economics, religion, and other social sciences, including human rights and values education. While each profession or discipline had been exploring its own singular contribution to sustainable development, it is now time to bring together lateral thinkers from these related fields to explore the potential synergy that could be unleashed by creative interdisciplinary thinking.

As this dialogue on educating for sustainability and environmental education continues, one thing is clear: these two areas need to work cooperatively rather than separately.

The Public Linkage, Dialogue, and Education Task Force has tried to do just that -- work cooperatively with representatives from all disciplines to come to a consensus on education policy for this nation. The PLTF frames their policies under the rubric of educating for sustainability. This is not to say that one side of the debate is right or that one side is wrong. Rather it is to acknowledge that a paradigm shift needs to take place in this country to emphasize the important role that education must play in advancing sustainability.

Task Force POLICY Recommendations and Actions

Although a number of individuals, businesses, government entities, and communities across the nation have taken the first steps toward sustainability, much more can be done to nurture a sustainable society. To foster awareness, dialogue, and action for sustainability, the Task Force proposes three policy recommendations. These recommendations address both formal and nonformal educational settings and acknowledge the lifelong nature of education. They also address an array of crosscutting issues that relate to formal and nonformal education alike -- such as technology, partnerships, cultural, and international contexts. Each recommendation is accompanied by specific actions that articulate the necessary partnerships and activities needed for implementation at local, state, national, and international levels. By exploring successful case studies in which challenges were faced and barriers overcome, strategies and initiatives for implementing action are offered. Together, these suggested recommendations and actions form a comprehensive educational strategy that promises to help lead the nation to a more sustainable future.

The Task Force's three policy recommendations and related actions are listed on the next three pages, concluding this Chapter. Then, in Chapters 3, 4 and 5, each policy recommendation is reviewed in further detail, with examples cited throughout the discussions.


Formal Education Reform
Encourage changes in the formal education system to help all students (kindergarten through higher education), educators, and education administrators learn about the environment, the economy, and social equity as they relate to all academic disciplines and to their daily lives.
Action 1. Parents and representatives from states, schools, educational organizations, community groups, businesses, and other education stakeholders should identify the essential skills and knowledge that all students should have at specified benchmark grades for a basic understanding of the interrelationships among environmental, economic, and social equity issues. This set of voluntary standards could serve as a model for states and communities to use in setting their own requirements for academic performance.

Action 2. State officials, school administrators, and other educators and stakeholders should continue to support education reform; emphasize systems thinking and interdisciplinary approaches; and pursue experiential, hands-on learning at all levels, from elementary and secondary schools to universities, colleges, community colleges, and technical schools.

Action 3. Colleges and universities should incorporate education about sustainability into pre-service training and in-service professional development for educators of all types, at all levels, and in all institutions.

Action 4. Schools, colleges, and universities should promote curriculum and community awareness about sustainable development and should follow sustainable practices in school and on campus.


Nonformal Education and Outreach
Encourage nonformal access to information on, and opportunities to learn and make informed decisions about, sustainability as it relates to citizens' personal, work, and community lives.
Action 1. Nonformal educators should encourage lifelong learning about sustainability through adult education programs, community and civic organizations, and nonformal education programs -- such as those sponsored by museums, zoos, nature centers, and 4-H clubs -- so that individuals can make well-informed decisions.

Action 2. Media strategists and sustainable development experts should develop an integrated approach for raising public awareness of and support for sustainability goals, conveying information on indicators of sustainable development, and encouraging people to adopt sustainable decision making in their daily lives.

Action 3. A new or expanded national extension network should be developed to provide needed information to enhance the capacity of individuals and communities to exist sustainably.

Action 4. Local and state governments should continue to extend their partnerships with community organizations and other levels of government to support community sustainability planning processes and periodic assessments.

Action 5. Employers -- in partnership with all levels of government, community organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and others -- should develop training programs to create a workforce with the skills and abilities needed to adapt to changes brought on by the national and global transition to sustainability.


Strengthened Education for Sustainability
Institute policy changes at the federal, state, and local levels to encourage equitable education for sustainability; develop, use, and expand access to information technologies in all educational settings; and encourage understanding about how local issues fit into state, national, and international contexts.
Action 1. Federal, state, and local governments should form partnerships with private sector organizations, businesses, professional societies, educational institutions, and community groups to develop and implement coordinated strategies supporting education for sustainability.

Action 2. The public and private sectors should support the development of and equitable access to enhanced multimedia telecommunications technologies and improved clearinghouse capabilities that promote an understanding of sustainability.

Action 3. Educators in both formal and nonformal learning programs should help students understand the international factors that affect the nation's transition to a sustainable society.

Action 4. Formal and nonformal educators should ensure that education for sustainability invites and involves diverse viewpoints, and that everyone -- regardless of background and origin -- has opportunities to participate in all aspects of the learning process. This will ensure that education for sustainability is enriched by, and relevant to, all points of view.

Chapter 3
Table of Contents