Find out how to include sustainability knowledge and skills into the curriculum.

Find out: 

What is Education for Sustainable Development?

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is a pedagogical approach that aims to make sustainability relevant to all students, no matter what subject they study. It prioritises active and applied learning and takes a holistic definition of sustainability, incorporating social, economic and environmental concerns, as set out by the UN's Sustainable Development Goals Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Why embed Education for Sustainable Development?

Developing our students’ world readiness demands we support them to engage critically with the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development, while also empowering them to respond positively to the profound global challenges they describe.

Also, in research conducted by NUS and SOS-UK, students surveyed consistently tell us that:

  • 84% of students would like to see sustainable development actively incorporated and promoted through all courses
  • 66% say sustainable development is something they would like to learn more about.

Through this research, students have highlighted they most want to learn about sustainability through applied learning opportunities such as placements, projects, and work experience.

Education for Sustainable Development  requires participatory teaching and learning methods that motivate and empower learners to change behaviours and take action for sustainable development. Consequently, it promotes skills like critical thinking, imagining future scenarios and making decisions in a collaborative way. 

  • What is Sustainable Development? 

    The concept of sustainability is widely used but defies simple definition. Nevertheless, woven through many definitions of, and debates about, sustainability are concerns for the environment and for people.

    Similarly, definitions of sustainable development typically hold in balance concern for social justice and global development, alongside a need for sustainable economies and the preservation of the natural environment. The United Nations definition also considers the needs of people now and in the future:

    “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

    (UN World Commission on Environment and Development 1987).

  • What are the Sustainable Development goals? 

    The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 goals that provide a 15-year global framework for sustainable development up to 2030. Developed over two years of intensive public consultation and engagement with civil society and other stakeholders around the world, the SDGs provide wide ranging targets and indicators linked to each goal, and a call to action for action and collaboration across all sectors and levels of society.

    From an ESD perspective, the SDGs are a means to visualise and understand the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenge of sustainable development. The goals provide a framework for understanding such ‘wicked problems’ and the needs that have to be met to provide a decent life for all while preserving our ability to provide for future generations. The 17 SDGs provide targets linked to all aspects of human and animal life and wellbeing. As such they can resonate with all academic disciplines and subject areas and provide a useful starting point for staff and students.

     Image showing the 17 Sustainable development Goals: , Goal 1 No Poverty, goal 2 zero hunger, goal three good health and wellbeing, goal 4 quality education, goal 5 gender equality, goal 6 clean water and sanitation, goal 7 affordable and clean energy, goal 8 decent work and economic growth, goal 9 industry innovation and infrastructure, goal 10 reduced inequalities, goal 11 sustainable cities and communities, goal 12 responsible consumption and production, goal 13 climate action, goal 14 life in water, goal 15 life on land, goal 16 peace justice and strong institutions, goal 17 partnership towards the goals.

    The SDGs are not without controversy, nor is their use as an educational tool. As such, they also provide a means to engage critically with the socio-political contexts in which these goals were developed and are being responded to, and with the data used to track the impacts of development and progress towards the goals.

Education for Sustainable Development at Sussex

The 2021 University of Sussex Sustainability Strategy commits us to ensuring all students have the opportunity to engage with relevant sustainability content. provided through their chosen degree topic, that matches their existing academic interests and will help their employability and impact in their chosen profession.

A student led curriculum mapping project [PDF 1.1MB], conducted in July 2022, has provided a baseline understanding of the incorporation of SDGs and wider aspects of sustainability learning and ESD methods in modules across the University. This can be used to inform School level action planning. See also examples of sustainability teaching across Sussex curricular, by School.

Our annual Sustainability and Sustainable Development Goals Reports shows how our teaching, research, innovation, and community outreach and impact contribute to work around the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as highlighting areas for improvement.

Learning outcomes for ESD

The (2021) Advance HE ‘Education for Sustainable Development Guidance highlights key competencies for sustainability, set out by UNESCO. The eight competencies, grouped by ways of thinking, of practicing and of being, are summarised below. It is likely there will be significant overlap between these competencies and the learning and skills most courses seek to develop through the curriculum. See the full Advance HE guidance for further detail on each competency, plus a list of aligned Learning Outcomes.

  • Ways of thinking competencies

    Systems thinking

    A student who displays this competency can:

    • recognise and understand relationships
    • analyse complex systems
    • consider how systems are embedded within different domains and scales
    • deal with uncertainty.

    Anticipation (future thinking)

    A student who displays this competency can:

    • understand and evaluate multiple outcomes
    • create their own visions for the future
    • apply the precautionary principle to assess the consequences of actions
    • deal with risks and changes.

    Critical thinking

    A student who displays this competency can:

    • question norms, practices and opinions
    • reflect on their own values, perceptions and actions
    • take a position in the sustainable development discourse.
  • Ways of practicing competencies


    A student who displays this competency can:

    • develop and implement innovative actions that further sustainable development at the local level and further afield.


    A student who displays this competency can:

    • learn from others (including peers, and others inside and outside of their institution)
    • understand and respect the needs, perspectives and actions of others
    • deal with conflicts in a group
    • facilitate collaborative and participatory problem solving.

    Integrated problem-solving

    A student who displays this competency can:

    • apply different problem-solving frameworks to complex sustainable development problems
    • develop viable, inclusive and equitable solutions
    • utilise appropriate competencies to solve problems.
  • Ways of being competencies

    Self awareness

    A student who displays this competency can:

    • reflect on their own values, perceptions and actions
    • reflect on their own role in the local community and global society
    • continually evaluate and further motivate their actions
    • deal with their feelings and desires.

    Understanding of norms and values

    A student who displays this competency can:

    • understand and reflect on the norms and values that underlie actions
    • negotiate sustainable development values, principles, goals and targets, in a context of conflicts of interests and trade-offs, uncertain knowledge and contradictions.

Pedagogical approaches for ESD

There is no ‘correct’ pedagogy for sustainability education. However, there is a broad consensus that active, participative, and experiential learning methods are vital for engaging learners and developing their understanding, thinking and ability to act. As such, ESD intersects with many other educational priorities and models.

Examples of this include:

  • authentic assessment: an approach to curriculum design which promotes assessment for learning and prioritises realism, cognitive challenge and evaluative judgment
  • flexible assessment: where students are provided with opportunities for critical reflection on personal interests and experiences
  • inclusivity and universal design for learning: education for sustainable development approaches have inclusivity and accessibility at their core
  • embedding employability (Canvas): in addition to developing the competencies listed above, an education for sustainable development approach can help students develop insights into how their subject knowledge might be applied to support sustainable futures
  • project and team based learning
  • interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

Learn more and get support

If you’re interested in reviewing your curriculum, and would like to discuss options for support, contact your Academic Developer.

See more from Curriculum design