• ciesesdsig

Towards sustainable futures through education

Exploring diverse perspectives and possibilities for sustainability education at CIES 2021

Jordan King, Daniel Fischer, Molly Cashion


What is the role of education in facilitating sustainable futures? This seemingly straightforward question belies a simple answer. Instead, reflecting upon the relationship between education and sustainability raises complex issues that challenge us to think critically about the how and why of educational practices.

Considering the complexities, tensions, and possibilities that emerge in orienting education towards sustainable futures was the goal of our recent session at the 2021 Comparative & International Education Society (CIES) conference. Through an interactive workshop, we engaged with the diversity of approaches to ESD in order to explore the implications that arise from the range of perspectives on the purposes and processes of education in the context of sustainability.

Recognizing the diversity of perspectives on ESD, we framed our exploration as taking a multifaceted approach, seeking to negotiate a pluralism beyond relativism in ESD purposes and processes. We define a multifaceted approach as embracing the plurality of perspectives and practices in ESD, recognizing that the field invites diversity yet retains essential features shaped by context. Crucially, these features are complex and dynamic, situating ESD not as a unified approach, but as a malleable and manifold set of practices and possibilities.

Our approach was inspired in response to a 2019 piece by Ann-Katrin Holfelder entitled “Towards a sustainable future with education?”. In this piece, Holfelder questioned the efficacy of ESD to support learners in shaping sustainable futures, critiquing ESD as being instrumental in ways that limit the agency of learners and reproduce problematic socio-economic structures. Instead, Holfelder argued that education should cultivate the subjectification of the learner, which means fostering their personal emancipation through the emergence of their uniqueness as an individual human being (Biesta, 2015).

Holfelder’s critical appraisal of ESD was insightful, yet it obscured fundamental dimensions and discourses in the ESD literature. Thus, we used Holfelder’s work as a jumping-off point to explore themes, tensions, trends, and trajectories in ESD. We hoped that this process would cultivate a multifaceted approach to ESD in order to understand how the field has navigated theoretical and practical complexities in orienting education towards sustainable futures.

In our session, we collaborated with participants to deliberate fundamental questions in ESD and elaborate on the possibilities and challenges of taking a multifaceted approach to ESD. Specifically, we asked them to consider features, tensions, and lingering questions related to the three areas of the constructive alignment model of education: objectives, pedagogies, and assessment. After providing some background on our project, as well as salient examples from our own work, we facilitated an interactive discussion and collected ideas via Google Jamboard. This blog post summarizes the insights that emerged from this process and reflects on their meaning for multifaceted ESD and sustainable futures.


Participants identified a host of relevant objectives for a multifaceted approach to ESD. Though there can be conflict in seeking to reconcile these different objectives, participants argued that different purposes for ESD are not necessarily in opposition. For example, supporting personal development can be aligned with cultivating collective action. The specific features of objectives identified by participants described ESD as: futures- and action-oriented to situate learners as emerging change agents, aiming to engage values and attitudes in addition to knowledge and skill development, supporting the development of critical thinking and problem-solving capacities, and seeking to be transformative.

Despite some consensus on the aims of ESD, participants also clarified several tensions that highlight the complexity of the purposes that we articulate for education. An overarching tension existed between instrumental and emancipatory aims. Due to the urgency of the sustainability challenge and the need for behavior change, instrumental goals can be appealing in ESD. Yet emancipatory goals are seen to be a necessary complement in their pursuit to liberate learners from unsustainable structures and enable personal fulfillment potentially aligned with more sustainable ways of living. Tensions between these two objectives manifest in issues with openness, ownership, the efficacy of education, and the role of self-determination in learning and sustainability action, as well as in potentially opposing emphases between process and outcomes.


From the complexity of objectives for ESD follows the challenge of defining the features of its pedagogies. Participants highlighted a diverse set of pedagogies in ESD, suggesting not only the value of a multifaceted approach, but also how practice is uniquely shaped by context and values. However, several themes emerged regarding common pedagogies. Experiences shared by participants surfaced different pedagogical features, such as: experiential and tangible through real-world engagement, inter- and trans-disciplinary, and place-based. According to participants, ESD pedagogies also commonly aim to be culturally relevant and humanizing, situating the learner as a co-creator of knowledge. Participants highlighted that this process requires a critical sensitivity to power issues and structures, as well as pedagogies that elevate multiple perspectives in, as one participant described it, the “un-learning of un-sustainability”.

Implementing this variety of pedagogies can raise practical challenges that surface tensions in what ESD aims to achieve and how it aims to do so. Participants emphasized that pedagogies in ESD often entail trade-offs between content and experience, as well as product and process. Discussions in our session focused on how educators often are aware of strategies in ESD that cultivate meaningful learning experiences oriented towards the creation of sustainable futures, yet other factors complicate their ability to see those strategies through to their full capacity. These external factors include: competition in the curriculum for time, the pressures of standards and testing, the expectations of administrators or other stakeholders, and the vocational focus of education. Participants also noted how socio-economic influences and broad educational norms influence pedagogies, creating, for example, tensions between individual student-centered approaches and pedagogies that emphasize engaging the collective.


Conceptualizing and practicing relevant assessment in ESD remains a major challenge for the field. Thus, participants described existing assessment approaches as inadequate to understand dynamic, sustainability-oriented learning, as well as insufficient in contextualizing the potential impact of learning for broader sustainability efforts. Potential advances for assessment features included the need to shift the focus beyond knowledge comprehension and develop tools commensurate to evaluating complex learning such as competency development or affective change. One possible solution offered by participants was to move assessment beyond the classroom into the observation of real-world performance, including having stakeholders such as community members, business leaders, or policy makers contribute to the assessment process.

Our discussion also noted that current approaches to assessment both embody and enable the tensions that complicate ESD’s transformational capacity. Perhaps foremost among these is the challenge of assessing ability versus assessing willingness. As ESD relies upon learners to put their learning into practice in order to achieve its broader goals of change towards sustainability, both elements are essential to cultivate and assess. Yet how ability and willingness are measured, and thus how the effectiveness of ESD is judged, presents different normative options that raise important implications for how and why we teach, learn, and assess. These difficult decisions are also observed in tensions between the assessment of performance versus impact, application of learning versus innovation in learning, and summative versus formative approaches.


The table below represents the features and tensions of objectives, pedagogies, and assessments in ESD as explored by the participants in our session. While we don’t provide a definitive perspective on the features or attempt to reconcile the tensions, we do feel comfortable in setting aside both of these tasks to instead recognize the field’s multifaceted nature. As the diversity of the theoretical and practical considerations described in this piece suggests, ESD is not a singular, straightforward force. If we instead take a multifaceted approach to ESD, recognizing its complex, dynamic, and context-dependent purposes and processes, we might be better capable of navigating the field’s tensions in order to negotiate its potential functions in generating sustainable futures.

Challenges & Possibilities

Building from the tensions and features that participants explored, they also described broader challenges and possibilities in orienting education towards sustainable futures. Examining these reflections and aspirations can offer insights into not only what sustainable futures might look like, but how education can contribute to imagining and achieving them.

The challenges faced in facilitating sustainable futures through education include:

  1. Resistance to change, including prioritizing reform over transformation, exemplified by inflexible decision-makers, resilient social-ecological structures and behaviors, and a focus on disciplinary content in teaching and learning;

  2. Making sustainability tangible, understandable, and meaningful to enable it to progress from the abstract to the concrete;

  3. Learning from and with historically marginalized communities, while centering their voices and experiences in the pursuit of sustainable futures; and,

  4. Putting ESD into action in classrooms and communities.

The possibilities to overcome these challenges include:

  1. Building communities of practice to share good ideas, resources, and examples as inspiration for innovation;

  2. Positioning ESD as built-in to educational experiences, rather than as a bolt-on;

  3. Leveraging synergies with STEM and civic education to advance implementation opportunities;

  4. Integrating local and global perspectives and efforts;

  5. Situate ESD as a versatile solution that can be adopted to meet the needs of policy makers and administrators in a variety of ways; and,

  6. Mobilizing social action to push back against dominant, oppressive educational practices and social systems.


The educational pathways towards sustainable futures are diverse and dynamic. Yet, we hope that we have demonstrated some of the possibilities to facilitate these pathways through a multifaceted approach to ESD. Certainly, there are complexities, tensions, and challenges that we must grapple with in the present and the future. These tensions have informed rich traditions of thought in the ESD discourse, yet the responses that have accumulated over time should not represent a static outcome. Instead, as the challenges of sustainability and approaches to education evolve, the fundamental questions that define the prospect of ESD should be revisited, deliberated, and reimagined. Our conference session, and this piece, serve as an attempt at creating a space to explore these questions and the possibilities that emerge in orienting education towards sustainable futures. By embracing the plurality of theoretical and practical perspectives on ESD, we might enable our capacity to reconcile the field’s tensions beyond relativism towards learning, action, and transformation. Through dialogue, collaboration, and a blend of diligence and daring, we might discover not just a single way for education to facilitate sustainable futures, but a diverse range of perspectives and possibilities.


Biesta, G. J. (2015). Good education in an age of measurement: Ethics, politics, democracy. Routledge.

Holfelder, A. K. (2019). Towards a sustainable future with education?. Sustainability Science, 14(4), 943-952.