ESD-based Education

The OPEDUCA Project proposed a new paradigm for ESD in 2004 by basing education on sustainable development, acknowledging the transmissive and realising the transformative value of education.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)
as the foundation of Education and Schooling

The need to bring sustainability to schools has been promoted for a long time, underlining that every student should at least have an understanding of sustainable development (Jansen, 1991) and that such should go beyond a too narrow ‘green focus’, seeking pedagogies to develop agents for change (Elliott & Davis, 2009). Despite efforts by institutions set in place such as UNESCO and the major programs they initiated for nearly 20 years, the promise of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has not lived up to its potential. Since 2004 we observed numerous efforts trying to press ESD into the system, seeking a place under the sun by way of add-on projects, the listing of (ESD-) competencies, a series of playful adaptions of Environmental Education and more recently a revived version of the old 'Whole School Approach'. As we extensively studied in the Netherlands and noted in progressive oriented educations in amongst others Finland and Sweden, ESD is however hardly present in contemporary education, let alone there are schools taking ESD to the heart structurally. Evaluations show that ESD implementation also in Swedish schools is uneven due to the fact it is largely seen as a voluntary activity by municipalities and local school boards, such resulting from a lack of knowledge of ESD and how it can be implemented (Mogren, 2019). Overall and despite good efforts, failing ESD is a most tragic notion since it has the potential to improve education and schooling most profoundly, in ways more far-reaching than any other educational priority. 

Although many years were lost from an overall and formal policy perspective, today the potential of ESD is as substantive and more needed than ever before. Following the effectuation of a multi-disciplinary partnership for ESD as of 2004, the fruitful application of the resulting OPEDUCA Concept in practice and the development of a Learning Continuum for ESD (informing a Whole Student Approach to go beyond the earlier developed Whole School Approach), we found it is possible to base contemporary education on ESD. Looking back, we realized a research- and practice-informed meaningful and applicable concept that delivers on the transformative promise of ESD and education itself - seeing ESD's integrative quality as a foundation instead of a goal.

Building on the OPEDUCA Concept, ESD-based Education seeks to activate students to study future-defining themes through critical inquiry in a regional and global setting. The themes, derived from the Dimensions of (Education for) Sustainable Development, base ongoing learning pathways throughout the formal system of schooling. Students study the themes anytime, with anybody, at any place and through any device, their school thereto re-established as a nexus of learning within the social-demographic region in which the students grow up and build roots for their further development. 

Below we present the outlines of ESD Based Education, several key requirements and some important contemporary blockades.

At present there are differences of opinion … for all people do not agree as to the things that the young ought to learn, either with a view to virtue or with a view to the best life, nor is it clear whether their studies should be regulated more with regard to intellect or character. 

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Outlines of ESD-based Education

The outlines of ESD-based Education logically stem from the original design the OPEDUCA Project brought forth, starting out from a vision on future relevant education in 2004 to then find its way to the world of ESD as of 2007.  

an ongoing tread through the entire educational system

Continuous Learning-pathways

The best way to achieve a more sustainable society is through the continuous development of the young. They should have every chance to learn about those themes that will define a more sustainable future. Therefore we propose the creation and implementation of ongoing learning processes as a thread throughout the formal educational system. We no longer think in a stacked and fragmented structure of schooling, see the line from primary up to and including higher education as an ongoing process, bridging schooling with the world of work and leading to lifelong learning.
In this more-year, ongoing, perspective, students are given (their) time to acquire knowledge, sense the complexity of the natural and social environment and step by step develop transdisciplinary understanding.

on future defining themes

Derived from the Dimensions of Sustainable Development

The Dimensions of (Education for) Sustainable Development offer a not-anthropocentric holistic approach to thematically guide education. The simple embedded model builds on the notion that within a maintainable ecology a fair spread of existential means, well-being, is the only base for accepting differences in welfare (Eussen, 2007). It is seen to prioritize phenomena following their natural chronological sequence and from there their causal relations and inter-dependencies in order to achieve a better understanding of values.

building 'We' through the 'I'

Starting out from the Individual Learner

Following the conviction, it is eventually the individual's behavior from which (un)sustainable development springs (seeing humanity as the constitution of the individuals it comprises) and regarding learning a natural and inalienable process of the person, ESD is essentially a matter of the individual, is personal. Therefore the OPEDUCA concept realizes ESD first (and per definition) as individual learning for sustainable development. Each human, beginning at the youngest age and then holding on to learning as natural to life (despite it being organized through Education and systemized through schooling), should have unlimited opportunity to look at life as it is and unfolds, learn anytime, anyplace, with anybody and through any device about those themes that will most prominently define its own and our common future.
We can feed and stimulate a person's learning through an educational process, then organize and prescribe that education through schooling and further systemize through frames and regulations, but fall short if we consequently believe we can institutionalize ESD. Trying to build ESD from structures and institutions, rules, regulations and listings of competencies, is a strategic error of the academic discourse that too often finds its way to governmental policies and practices thus far. 

connecting sources of education

In a Local-to-Global Learning Reality

The student's understanding of one’s own region as a composing part of global society is essential to ESD. Therefore the concept expands the working of the various instruments to enable students to study the fabric of society from local to global, learning from educational sources beyond one’s own region, gradually growing understanding of global reality and citizenship. 

Understanding that social consensus on what is considered (un-)sustainable and what constitutes progress can differ across cultures, countries and regions, it is an essential component of ESD to have students experience how objective the ‘knowing’ about these is, if (normative) valuations play a role and how people (re-)act towards sustainability.

Today's youth are obviously requested to not only understand the interconnected world in which they live and the complexities of the global challenges faced but also see a way forward and become competent to interact and bring about effective change. A change that can only be realized from a global perspective when the individuals' understanding is deeply rooted in the region, the learning therewith again connected on a personal, human-to-human level in daily reality.  

Requirements for ESD Based Education

Obviously, ESD is much more and can principally not be compared with add-on projects and single activities that mostly characterize Environmental Education, STEM and the like. However, stand-alone initiatives and cuddly if not childish activities also dominated and are still commonplace in ESD due to a lack of vision, transition capacity and instrumentation.
Observing the morefold of Inquiry-Based Learning, it is remarkable that, certainly when one states that sustainable development regards ill-structured problems, ESD is mostly applied by way of Case Based Learning flavored with Project Based pedagogy. We noted a range of ESD practices that honor teachers’ and consultants’ discomfort with less predictable learning processes or strangeness to matters so profoundly, ESD is degraded to choreographed schooling, not even education. Obviously, OPEDUCA differs substantially from shallow unworldly perceptions of ESD that are little more than attempts of Case Based Learning on pre-selected ‘problems’ using artificial simulations of the real.

To effectuate ESD Based Education and therewith improve schooling across the board in a substantial way, certain conditions and requirements must be met. Below some essentials are briefly introduced, to be read as an additional an OPEDUCA Based School.

sacred cows have to be sacrificed

From Cacaphony to Coherence

Thus far loosely mostly separately organized prioritized and (thereto) assembled educations in the realm of STEM, Environment, Entrepreneurship, Languages and Citizenship have to become natural parts of an integrated whole. Consequently, numerous parties now often involved (mostly external advisors, consultants and the like) will no longer be required as add-ons to a school's capacity. Capacity and financial means as then set free will for a part be required to invest in the professionalization of Teachers and modest but fully owned materials and instruments. This shift from outsourcing to internal capacity goes hand in hand with a (re-)positioning of the school in its social demographic area (we speak of its 'OPEDUCA') - the school becoming a nexus of learning in regional society. 
Further to our critical stand as to the use of external capacity, our participatory research has shown also the educational landscape around schools is generally a patched blanket, filled with gaps and dominated if not controlled by commercial parties and politics. Breaking schools free from all these is perhaps the major challenge in realizing ESD Based Education.

empowering schools instead of further policy-development

Power to Practice

Whereas obviously certain aspects of Schooling, including those touching on Education, are decided on and organized in the political realm following a thorough process of policy development, a shift of power back to the fields of practice is called for. 
In the field of ESD we have seen a top-down controlled development since the late '90's; a system of (mostly closely) connected national and international policy development programs (largely involving and building on the same individuals) sought to voice the strategic relevance of ESD. Although the process eventually led to the series of well-known UNESCO programs (DEDS 2005-2014, GAP, ESD for 2030), intended to find their way to the national level and from there affect ESD in daily regular education, progress was not only extremely slow (over 20 years thus far) but sorted little effects in practice thus far, if any at all. In order to provide schools with sufficient maneuvering space and build capacity, this top-down process needs to make way for the intrinsic development of schools themselves; said otherwise, schools should be allowed and encouraged to take their development in their own hands and discover the capacity within them.

The World has Problems
Universities have Departments

from Old Friends in ESD to Contemporary Qualities

A true Multi-disciplinary Partnership

A condition sine qua non for ESD is the formation of a true multi-disciplinary partnership around the school to effectuate the education envisioned. One that manifests the embedment of the school as nexus of learning in the regional landscape and provides a fertile ground for the student's learning process. The formation, quality and operationalization of such a multi-disciplinary partnership is to be understood as existing in a direct ('personal') relationship with a school i.e. a population of schools serving the same social demographic region. 
Although by now also international policy-development documents (such as ESD for 2030) speak of and underline the importance of multi-disciplinary partnerships, mid-2022 there is still little evidence this goes (or was intended to go) beyond the involvement of 'the usual suspects'; a multi-disciplinary partnership providing transdisciplinary qualities is not the same as the gathering of those swarming the field of ESD from early on, in most cases being suppliers of services, educations and series of programs to schools that didn't effectuate ESD yet.

working towards a 'Whole Student Approach'

Students are no Objects, nor Subjects

Although it took many years to finally have policy documents state the Student should be central, education preparing them for lifelong learning, etc., the deeper understanding of what this should mean, the authenticity and true comprehension of claims now finally made, remains questionable and therewith a risk for ESD. Honoring Students beyond subjects and not seeing them as controllable subjects is more, or better something entirely else, than giving youth a voice or a seat in committees of (inter-)national institutions. It is amongst others about understanding that knowledge- and skill development which has to lead to competencies has to be wrought in student-driven Value Development, that students deserve an independent positioning and ownership of their learning so they can actually apply creativity and critical thinking - aspects one cannot command them to carry out. 
Reading between the lines of what is presently considered (or: agreed upon) with regard to Students' 'key-positioning', there is still a (long) pathway to construct towards a 'Whole Student'- instead off a 'Whole School'-approach. 

Students cannot be ‘taught’ a worldview from out an academic ivory tower,
but they can be guided to develop one in their daily educational practice,
a mission however which takes people with personality and understanding,
wrought in life’s practical reality, tried and assessed in the world themselves.
Such qualities cannot be arranged by building further structures, projects and programs,
not by reshuffling eons old insight in new academic papers -
true transition cannot be commanded by research strange to life itself.

Jos Eussen (2021)

The Possibility and Probability
of ESD-based Education

Following the application of the OPEDUCA-instruments in practice over the years, we extensively elaborated on the possibility to base contemporary education on ESD (J. Eussen, 2013). Given an extensive research- and practice-informed evaluation of the concept and thanks to dedicated yet un-orchestrated attempts of over 400 school leaders and teachers to bring their schools in transition on the flight, we can build on duly documented processes that provide relevant insights regarding schools’ transition capacity. Explanatory factors could be deduced from detail, building on first hand observations in daily education practice, were then generalised and jointly reflected on to come to conclusions - also providing a set of factors that risk i.e. degrade the probability of ESB Based Education.

Academics and policy-developers too far from the real

Echo's without Mountains

Despite the perhaps comforting notion that by 2022 principles of OPEDUCA and alike ideas appear to have trickled up to EU- and UNESCO programs, reading between the lines much of what is written there are likely echoes; researchers and policy developers alike heard the clock ticking but don't know when midnight will strike. As then, these policy statements are echoes without mountains, with foothold, nothing to hold on to - what is perceived as a transition will then command action leading to little more than superfluous activities with an innovative ring. A quite critical notion indeed, though one building on direct involvement, first-hand observations and repetitive experience in the world of ESD in numerous settings for nearly two decades. We face the challenge to have an ongoing top-down policy development (even one stating to have consulted the fields of practice) and attempts to direct if not force ESD upon schools, make way for ESD that comes from student-oriented School Leaders and Teachers as well as sources of real-world knowledge and experience around them.

the inward turned quality of the world of Education itself

Lacking Transdisciplinary Understanding

The successful application of the OPEDUCA instruments in daily educational practice made it clear ESD Based Education depends on a thorough transdisciplinary understanding of the world, how it came to what it is and can develop further. In schools' practice, but also during the series of MasterClasses for Teachers and many year-long encounters with researchers in ESD and policy developers alike, we found such understanding is still too meager and often not present at all. What comes logical to for example entrepreneurs and philosophers, appears a major challenge for the world of education, mainly because of its inward-turned character and the mostly single-sided education and experience of those involved in ESD themselves. We concluded this deficit can only be circumvented through a thorough investment in the professionalization of Teachers, a near-dramatic improvement of initial teacher training and by setting students' learning process free for the real world around them without further ado. 

deceiving concepts blocking progress

The Wrong of the Whole School Approach and alike ideas

Partly as a result of the factors described above, it is unfortunate to find that concepts dating back many years, such as the 'Whole School Approach' (WSA), are presented as an insightful or even new way forward - they remain far from our experiences when it comes to effectuating ESD in regular education and are likely more a threat than a solution. A WSA coming from a rather inward-turned population of researchers, consultants and commercial suppliers (too many of whom unwillingly or intentionally obstruct true progress for many years now), appears to remain close to the series of add-on initiatives and cuddly projects with limited effects. Moreover, a WSA when seen as 'the gathering of all in the world of ESD around school' will not only withhold ownership of ESD again and linger in the realm of 'separate waste disposal systems', 'greening universities' and 'having solar panels on the roof'; if not observing the patched blanket then wrapped around schools, they will most likely incur more costs, organizational pressure and a cacophony of activities that eventually degrade and not integrate ESD. 

directive ideas blocking a whole student approach

Ongoing Listings of Competences in stead off Cracking the Curriculum

While the omnipresence of the curriculum still exercises dominance, leaving both teachers and students little space to breathe, its rigidness and particularly the programmed control it exercises contradict with the natural flow of a student's learning process. It requires little argumentation curricula risk being incoherent in time, fragmented, in standstill mode for longer periods, divergent from real-world phenomena and suffering from third-party opinions and judgment. Instead of freeing the educational system and transitioning towards transdisciplinary student-centered learning, initiatives that seek to for example lay 'ESD Competences' on schools further cement this practice. Moreover, if schools can't properly judge the 'kicking in open door' quality of these listings they will distract and delude them - tapping time and capacity of schools they desperately need to transition most profoundly. 

Cracking the Curriculum

For the transition from traditional to ESD Based Education teachers will need to have and exploit a more profound knowledge about the contents and meaning of the curriculum. Since there are no longer amorphous learning plans orchestrated by lesson plans based on textbooks, understanding a student’s whereabouts and progress depends on the teachers’ ability to pinpoint and point out securely when curriculum elements are covered (‘track & trace’). Moreover, teachers will have to anticipate on upcoming content- and competence demands as the students go their way, obliged to take note of the curricula of the next stage. Since the curriculum should no longer obstruct or command the possibility of ESD-based Education, it requires a new sense of mastering that makes it subject to the transition.

  • Although one can see the curriculum as a living thing, multi-faceted and -factorial in nature, such does not mean it changes swiftly. While changes are driven and arrested at the front side of knowledge development (for example at universities and companies’ research departments), curricula for primary and secondary education can justly be seen as relatively solid and constant over time.
  • Practice showed ESD-based education exceeds contemporary curriculum requirements as it involves students in broader perspectives while at the same time requiring a more in-depth understanding of phenomena in order to comprehend their essence. From this perspective, the curriculum even fails students, its constant nature offset by a proactive learning process. Such opens a view on the curriculum as a set of minimum requirements eventually addressed in the natural course of learning.
  • Also since the OPEDUCA Concept sees to ongoing learning pathways as a tread throughout the presently fragmented system of year levels and grades, a curriculum seeking to enforce a restrictive command through an artificial distribution of its elements over an arbitrary number of years will lose relevance.
  • The argument students’ crossing of (former) grades would not align with their development age was countered by teachers as they consider the opposite to be true, acknowledging the present classification in age-years/grades to be arbitrary, the appropriateness of homogenous groups/classes only seemingly so.

Adding ESD to a curriculum is a contra-productive approach. It would be like mending and adding spare parts to machinery no longer of these let alone future times. Mastering the curriculum while protecting it from upcoming outside modernizations is functional for the realization of transdisciplinary learning, frees teacher capacity for personalized education, allows for individual registration, follow-up and assessment of the learning progress and makes way for the proposed ongoing learning pathways. It furthermore allows taking a stand against a too widespread policy focus on curricula, testing and assessment (Lingard, Hayes, & Mills, 2003).   

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For academic reference and publications: Eussen, J. F. G. (2022). ESD-based education - - ISBN 9789464235906