Transform curricula with education for sustainable development

Our planet, and humanity in particular, is at a unique moment in world history. The ultimate purpose of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to improve the well-being of humanity and the planet in an equitable way so that all can experience peace and prosperity – a rising tide lifts all boats.

However, the world has become increasingly complex and uncertain, as illustrated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, thus requiring a new vision for how higher education can help promote the common good.

Given the increasing complexity of society, a systems approach is needed to better understand how all the interconnected parts work and a humanistic value system is needed to guide humanity in the right direction.

With the launch of the 2030 Agenda in 2015 by the world community, the world has adopted such an approach and has defined specific objectives and targets to move towards a more healthy, diverse, equitable and prosperous world for present and future generations.

With the 2030 Agenda, the world has entered into a new global paradigm – a paradigm focused on addressing the most intractable and urgent problems facing humanity and the planet. Its launch has not only triggered many new forms of sustainability science and technology, but has also spurred new ways of thinking about humanity’s relationship with the natural environment.

Sustainability refers to the idea that human survival, as well as animal and plant survival, and quality of life depends, in large measure, on humanity’s ability to live in greater harmony with each other and with the natural environment. In short, it is the integration of sustainability principles into the economic, social and environmental spheres.

Core sustainability principles include sustainability leadership, environmental stewardship, sustainability research and innovation, sustainability education, social equity and inclusion, systems thinking, and circular economy.

Education for sustainable development

Education for sustainable development’ (ESD) refers to the integration of sustainability principles and practices into education at all levels. Of primary importance is the integration of sustainability principles throughout the curriculum.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the heart of the 2030 Agenda – address many issues and problems facing humanity and the planet, not just environmental issues like clean energy (SDG 7) and climate change (SDG 13). As such, they inherently touch upon every academic discipline, not just STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

As higher education institutions produce tomorrow’s leaders and professionals, it is important that these institutions not only raise awareness of sustainability in students but also equip students with concrete sustainability knowledge, skills and values that they can apply in their personal and professional lives.

Knowledge includes the theories, models and principles needed to make informed decisions. Skills include the strategic thinking, systems thinking and planning and design thinking needed to solve complex and seemingly intractable problems, collaboratively and contextually. The values provide the necessary ethical reasoning and humanistic principles needed to apply the knowledge and skills humanely and equitably.

Integrating the SDGs across curricula provides higher education a unique opportunity to modernise their curricula to make them more relevant to the needs of society and more meaningful to the lives of students.

Integrating the SDGs can also help cultivate collaboration across disciplines, which is needed to address the multidisciplinary problems the world faces. This interdisciplinary approach also provides a more rigorous learning experience for students.

Given the nature of the problems represented in the SDGs, education for sustainable development therefore focuses on experiential learning through hands-on fieldwork, projects and real-world scenarios. This type of learning tends to make learning more engaging and meaningful to students and allows students to develop more rigorous, fine-tuned higher-order thinking skills – that is, theory to practice.

Redesigning curricula through ESD

There are many ways to integrate the SDGs into the curriculum. A meta-analysis of the relevant academic literature reveals a knowledge gap on how the SDGs have been integrated into curricula at tertiary education institutions. Addressing this gap is key to understanding how best to accelerate this integration to help meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda.

This research shows that the disciplines of engineering, social sciences, the humanities, business and economics have integrated the SDGs into their curricula more often than healthcare and education. In addition, the integration of the SDGs across the disciplines has been more common among high-income countries than low- and middle-income countries. Furthermore, the integration of the SDGs has been more frequent at the bachelor degree level than at the masters or doctoral degree levels.

One way that higher education institutions can integrate the SDGs into the curriculum is by engaging students in sustainability projects. For example, designing more energy efficient and eco-friendly buildings or developing a waste reduction, water conservation and recycling programme where they collaborate with organisations within the community. This would also provide students with opportunities for internships and better career prospects in the emerging green economy.

For instance, clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) could be taught as a course within the ecology and-or city planning disciplines, or its principles could be integrated into existing courses across disciplines. In addition, economic growth (SDG 8) and industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9) could be taught as a course within the economics and business disciplines or its principles could be integrated into existing courses.

Students studying civil engineering, architecture or city planning, for example, would benefit greatly from understanding environmental sustainability of building and construction by learning about clean energy (SDG 7), industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9), and sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), among others.


Integrating SDGs into the curriculum through education for sustainable development can provide an effective way not only to teach students about sustainability but also how to apply disciplinary theory in highly relevant and meaningful ways.

ESD also provides an effective mechanism to better understand interdisciplinary concepts which are important for understanding the complex interconnections and interdependencies between human, animal and environmental activities.

Furthermore, ESD promotes more responsible citizens as students gain a greater appreciation for sustainability values. The nature of education for sustainable development fosters long-term thinking by understanding the long-term impacts of poverty, disease, war, pollution, deforestation, extinctions, illiteracy and unemployment.

As such, college and university classrooms have the potential to become living laboratories where students apply their disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to real-world problems.

This vision requires a long-term commitment from institutional leaders with a sustainability vision for the future.

An important first step would be to incorporate sustainability into the mission, vision and values statements of the institution. Another step would be to form partnerships and join networks with other organisations focused on the SDGs and on ESD in particular. Strategic planning is also necessary in order to operationalise ESD and evaluate its effectiveness.

Finally, ESD requires faculty professional development. Instructors must have a certain level of expertise in sustainability and the SDGs in particular. They then need to know how to integrate this most effectively into their courses to improve the learning experience and achieve the desired learning outcomes.

Knowledge sharing among faculty is key. One way to foster this is through faculty learning communities. Also, providing faculty with the support they need to redesign their courses can be facilitated with the help of learning design specialists.

Developing a comprehensive and holistic approach to implementing education for sustainable development will help to increase the likelihood of its success.

Patrick Blessinger is adjunct associate professor at St John’s University in the United States, and president and chief scientist of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning (HETL) Association.