Sustainability Education: A Brief Introduction by Susan Brown

A warm welcome to this sustainability education blog written in association with the Ragged Project.  In the spirit of Ragged the main aspiration is to share emerging understandings/ideas/expertise in the field of sustainability education from a broad range of perspectives. My name is Susan and for me the question of how to approach sustainability education is a crucial one.


Oak leaves

It is fundamental to the way we negotiate the global challenges we now face.  It needs to be roundly and richly responded to and that is where I hope this blog will play a role. I work in a higher education context, where the question of how to effectively teach sustainability education is receiving increasing consideration.


This is also the case in secondary and primary education, and in a variety of formal and informal learning contexts in community, business and governmental sectors, both in the UK and around the globe. The greater the cross-pollination of understanding/ideas on sustainability education across sectors and cultural contexts, the better will be our educational response to the complex challenges we face.  I hope this blog will act as a conduit for such cross-pollination and welcome contributions to the blog in this endeavour.


I hope the blog will be exploratory and reflective, these approaches needed for the complex challenges we face. In the spirit of exploration and reflection below are a few questions that  people may have thoughts on (the list is not exhaustive and others are welcome to suggest more or alternative questions):


Broad approaches:

  • What are our current conceptions of sustainability education (in different educational/training context)?
  • Should there be a focus on sustainability in all learning context, for example in history tuition, in work apprenticeships, in community projects?
  • Interdisciplinary education is increasingly viewed as a beneficial route for sustainability education. What are the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches? How might those approaches be facilitated?
  • Given the global nature of sustainability challenges should sustainability education have international dimensions?
  • Should the growing influence of the digital in shaping our views of sustainability be accounted for in sustainability education ? If so, how?
  • How can people teach each other about sustainability in day-to-day life?

Thinking and Skills:

  • What ways of thinking are we trying to foster in sustainability education?
  • What skills should be fostered in order to help people live more sustainably?
  • How might we best foster these ways of thinking and skills?
  • Should ways of thinking and skills be taught in integrated ways or are there contexts where one should be privileged over the other?


  • How can we increase access to sustainability education in the work place, in communities, in formal education, in areas of the World with little current access to any type of education?


Contributions to the blog (from around the globe) are warmly received. If you wish to contribute posts please let us know via the ‘Contact’ link on the top menu.


Ragged Sustainability

In this post I explore the term ‘sustainability education’ and introduce a few notions underpinning the term. This is a brief  introduction and all the notions mentioned here will benefit from greater  discussion in future posts. The more discussion of these notions, the more they are expanded on or challenged the better!


Sustainability education is one of a number of loosely analogous terms which include Education for Sustainability (ES) and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). I have chosen the term sustainability education because it is short and I feel the word ‘development’ adds unnecessary layers of meaning.


Sustainability education tends to be associated with specific subject areas, e.g.: ecology; environmental science etc. Notions of sustainability education have broadened however, as concern at the rate at which we are degrading the environment which sustains us has increased (see Rockström et al, 2009 ).


Given that this degradation touches all of us in varying measure and implicates the majority of us, we all need greater understandings of sustainability issues; these can no longer be confined to a few experts who are perceived to look after the environment for the rest of us.  Sustainability education, therefore, needs to be accessible to everyone, for example via training and discussion in the workplace or via informal community based educational projects. In formal education that accessibility might relate to sustainability being taught across a range of subject areas or via interdisciplinary programmes.


Alongside the perceived need to extend the scope of sustainability education we need to consider a) the aims of sustainability education- what thinking and skills should it help  foster, and  b) the approaches that facilitate that development, e.g. experiential and problem-based learning.


There is a growing body of thinking and research in relation to the aims of sustainability education with much of it  emphasising:

  • holistic thinking (see Sterling, 2004) which refers to the capacity to view sustainability challenges from multiple perspectives. Holistic thinking allows us to build complex pictures of sustainability challenges and to respond from an informed position to these. If, for example, we look at the decline in seabird populations only in terms of climate change, we might ignore another potentially key contributor to that decline: overfishing.‘
  • the notions of ‘action competency’ which stresses the importance of individuals considering why they perform an action, the motives behind it and what  they hope it may achieve. Such actions are distinct from behaviours, not necessarily led by conscious, reflexive processes (see Mogenson & Schnack, 2010). Learning new ways of behaving is not, from an action competency viewpoint, as powerful as learning how to critically reflect on one’s actions. Such critical reflection is needed when there are competing ways of acting to address issues; where buying fair-trade food produced abroad competes with buying food from a local source, for example.
  • skills needed to engage in sustainability action (e.g. installing a solar panel or  knowing how to keep a computer functioning for longer).
Learning as Transformation Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress Jack Mezirow

Experiential and enquiry-based approaches to learning are seen as consonant at least with the first two aims listed above. These encourage autonomous thinking and a capacity to take ownership of  problems. The approaches can be related to the broader notion of ‘transformative learning’ that is to say critically reflective and exploratory learning which  enables us to ‘gain greater control over our lives as socially responsible, clear thinking decision makers’ (Mezirow, 2000).


There is much to discuss in the above- significantly more than should be dealt with in a single post, and much else to say. Also people may not agree that this encapsulates what sustainability education is about. Feel free to comment here or write your own posts- use the ‘Contact’ link to do so.


Mezirow, J. 2000. Learning to think like an adult: Core conceptions of Transformation Theory, in J. Mezirow et al (Eds). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mezirow is widely credited as having founded the concept of transformative learning.

Rockström, J.  et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461: 472-475.

Sterling, S. (2004). Whole systems thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education: Explorations in the context of sustainability. Unpublished doctoral thesis: University of Bath.

This blog was orginally published on: