Defining Sustainability Education

This is an excerpt from the paper Sustainability Education: The What and How for Mathematics by Jason Hamilton and Thomas J. Pfaff, published in PRIMUS (2014).

We propose that it is more useful to cast sustainability into a short set of key declarative statements (an axiomatized theory) that can serve as a starting point for agreement, and as a basis for developing mutually agreed upon courses of actions and education initiatives. Recognizing that the concept of sustainability serves more as a compass showing a direction for change, rather than serving as an aspirational goal or stopping point, we start with the following four statements:

  • The current state of people is not a morally acceptable endpoint of societal development.
  • Humans have reached a state where we are negatively impacting the ability of future generations to meet their needs and aspirations.
  • The major types of problems facing humanity have to be addressed simultaneously: there is no ranking of importance.
  • Our complex social-ecological system requires fundamental changes.

From this we derive five educational goals for sustainability education. A course or a module within a course should have at least one of the following attributes:

  • Teach in context. Include sustainability-oriented content, or in other words, introduction of "global realities."
  • Include real-life place-based examples.
  • Emphasize "designing the future." Teach the tools of complexity, systems thinking, and design thinking.
  • Explicitly recognize the ethical and affective (moods, feelings, attitudes, etc.) aspects of the issues that are raised.
  • Teach specific skills that empower students to become catalysts and leaders of change.

The paper provides numerous examples and it is important to sate explicitly that based on these criteria sustainability isn't just about the environment.