Why Does Education for Sustainable Development Matter?

Our new Sustainability in the Curriculum Project Officer in the Scotland Team, Lucy Patterson, explains why education for sustainable development matters to her, and why it must be a priority in colleges and universities.

Students seek education to be prepared for their future, a future that will require us to learn to live more sustainably if we want their generation to thrive. Yet, during my time as a secondary science teacher, I witnessed a generation pessimistic about their role in sustainability. The statement “The world is ending, there is nothing we can do about it” highlighted the urgency for effective implementation of education for sustainable development (ESD). This pessimism doesn’t span from lack of awareness, students see evidence of the consequences of unsustainability everyday through the media, but instead from an inability to see the relevance of taking action on sustainability to their day-to-day life. This knowledge without an understanding of their agency and the relevance of issues to their individual lives has led to a sense of fatalism, and is linked to the current prevalence of eco-anxiety in young people today.

Further and Higher education providers are being increasingly encouraged to embed sustainability in the curriculum, for example through the new QAA / Advance HE Guidance, the new Professional Standards for College Lecturers in Scotland, and also directly by students themselves, as shown by SOS-UK’s research (Student Opinion: Climate Change 2021; Sustainability Skills Survey 2019). However, the benefit to institutions spans beyond adhering to policy and keeping students happy. The benefits of ESD overlap with numerous other institution goals, such as student wellbeing, employability, community engagement and, through the critical evaluation skills students develop, numerous other educational benefits.

To appreciate why Education for Sustainable Development matters we need to have a clear view of its scope. ESD comprises environmental, social and economic issues, introducing them in a way relevant to students’ subject of study through critical pedagogy and transformative learning. It prepares students to be responsible citizens by developing competencies for sustainability that in theory contribute to achieving the sustainable development goals. 

In my years as a student studying Zoology, I felt sustainability was well addressed in my curriculum. I believe this is proven by the actions of my course mates and I who partook in climate strikes and continue to consider the environmental cost of our action’s day to day. However, my friends that studied other courses showed markedly less concern for the environment and more for other social causes, and the lack of unity may discourage efforts to act sustainably by those who do understand the importance and relevance of particular actions.

This is where institution-wide embedding of ESD in the curriculum, explicitly linking sustainability to every student’s future path, can help. I feel one of the great things about teaching students about sustainability using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the breadth of social causes they cover – from diversity to gender and more – alongside and linked to environmental goals, showing a clear relevance to all subjects of studies, and all students. By embedding sustainability across all subjects’ curricula, we can unite student bodies with a common goal. This could have an exponential effect on our likelihood of meeting sustainability targets, as ESD should give students the skills to encourage all the communities they become part of during their lives to engage with sustainability.

In summary, embedding ESD in the curriculum for all students could have a profound effect on society’s progress against the sustainable development goals, ultimately improving the quality of life for future generations and safeguarding the planet from further harm. It is vital universities and colleges rise to the occasion, and do so quickly.
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