The world is facing many interrelated issues -- financial instability, social and economic inequity, threats to food and energy security, increased health risks, climate change, shrinking biodiversity and declining water and fossil fuel resources and others. This has led to an understanding of the need for ‘sustainable development’: development that recognises the interlinked nature of society, economy and environment that can ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED, 1987).

According to UNESCO (n.d.), Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) empowers learners to take informed decisions and responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity. It is about lifelong learning and is an integral part of quality education. ESD is holistic and transformational education that addresses learning content and outcomes, pedagogy and the learning environment.

ESD is more than just providing students with information about sustainability. It is about providing opportunities to work collaboratively, to appreciate multiple perspectives, to be reflective, to think critically and creatively, and act constructively. In post-secondary institutions this requires developing ‘curricula and pedagogy that will give students the skills and knowledge to live and work sustainably’ (HEFCE, 2009:21).

There are good reasons to get involved with ESD at our university. Our University Plan 2025: Strategic Framework aims to “contribute to a sustainable future by fulfilling our Mission of leading interdisciplinary and collaborative approached to discover, teaching and outreach.  Further, our Campus Sustainability Plan includes the goal that the “U of S is recognized for leadership in environment and sustainability education,” to make a meaningful contribution to long-term local and global sustainability through ESD.  At the same time, both students and employers are calling for a greater presence of sustainability in higher education curricula.

First Steps

A good first step is to familiarise yourself with the key principles of sustainability.  One place to start learning about sustainability is Sustainability 101 on the Office of Sustainability website. Other possibilities are Plymouth University’s ‘Introduction to Sustainability’ or the ColumbiaLearn MOOC ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is about the education, teaching and learning needed to ensure social, economic and ecological wellbeing, now and into the future.  Because of the complex nature of sustainability issues, ESD is interdisciplinary, holistic, values-driven, and locally relevant. It is characterised by critical thinking and problem solving.

A useful starting point is to think about key issues in your discipline and how they link with sustainability themes.  ESD is trans-disciplinary so every discipline has something to contribute. For examples on how specific disciplines can link to sustainability check out the Higher Education Academy’s Future Fit Framework. UNESCOs Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework that breaks sustainability into issue areas that might provide clues to links with key issues in your discipline.  The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education also has Sustainability Curriculum Resources  which, among other things, provides access to sustainability-focused syllabi from other universities. The University of Saskatchewan is a member of AASHE, but to gain access to these resources you will need to set up an account.

There is ongoing debate about the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to support more sustainable ways of living and working and how this is relevant to both educators and students. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe resource ‘Learning for the Future’ outlines educator competencies in ESD.  Higher Education Academy’s Sustainable Development in Higher Education  suggests a framework for ‘sustainability literacy’ which includes problem solving using systemic approaches, making critical judgements on authentic issues and working collaboratively and in interdisciplinary teams. ACPA’s Presidential Taskforce on Sustainability defined the Change Agent Abilities Required to Create a Sustainable Future .  The Sustainability Curriculum Consortium provides webinars, cohorts and conferences to support ESD in post-secondary institutions.

However we define them, sustainability knowledge, skills and attributes can be encouraged through both what is taught and how material is taught.

The complexity of sustainability invites approaches to teaching and learning which involve participatory and inclusive learning processes, trans-disciplinary collaborations, experiential learning and the use of local environment and community as learning resources. Sustainability pedagogies include role play, simulations, stimulus activities, debates, reflexive accounts, personal development planning and problem-based learning. Consider material you already deliver and explore how making changes to its delivery might enhance sustainability skills in students. There are a number of online resources to help you do this, including Problem-Based Learning: A Case Study of Sustainability Education and the Te Kete Ipurangi Website.

Universities can be excellent examples of organisations working towards greater sustainability. Using university business, facilities and campus as teaching resources can help to raise the profile of sustainability issues and enhance student learning.  Examples include using university environmental performance data in the teaching of statistics, considering institutional procurement policies and practices as a case study for sustainable procurement in a Business class, or exploring food security issues in a Nutrition Class.  The Sustainability Living Lab (USOS, no date) at the University of Saskatchewan can help support this approach by providing assistance and suggesting potential student projects. 

There have also been a number of successful green “Dragon’s Den” competitions used to foster innovation and solutions in this field.

Link informal learning to the formal curriculum through co-curricular activities that bridge the formal and informal spheres (Winter et al, 2012). It is useful to link subject content with initiatives run by the Students’ Union, like its Sustainability Committee or through U of S sustainability student groups or student volunteer opportunities. Other opportunities include work-based learning and independent study modules.

Use your own developing expertise in this area to engage and help others by becoming part of the University of Saskatchewan’s sustainability community. There are a number of ways that you can do this.  For instance, you could register for the sustainability specialization of the Gwenna Moss Centre’s annual Course Design Institute.  Keep an eye on the Office of Sustainability’s Facebook and web pages to stay up-to-date on upcoming sustainability seminars, presentations and events.  For those who prefer a ‘hands-on’ approach, Work Green (USOS) is a network of campus workplaces committed to sustainability and a Green Labs program is currently under development.  To keep abreast of wider ESD developments, the Sustainability and Education Policy Network, an international sustainability education policy and practice network coordinated by the University of Saskatchewan’s Sustainability Education Research Institute is a good resource.


Content on this page has been adapted from: Winter, J, Sterling, S. and Cotton (2015).  7 Steps to Embedding Sustainability into Student Learning.  Educational Development, Plymouth University.

Getting Help

For additional questions or assistance, please visit the Office of Sustainability's webpage or contact Margret Asmuss, Sustainability Co-ordinator.