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Dr Charlotte Holland

Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Research, DCU Institute of Education, and Director, RCE Dublin

Redressing the Sustainability Paradox of Education

Infusing education for sustainability in higher education programmes

This article introduces the sustainability paradox of education, highlighting the urgency for reform in the processes and practices of education to address global challenges. It outlines how education for sustainability can be infused in education, with a focus on higher education.

The urgent need to address climate change has been brought to the fore of public consciousness across the globe in 2019, mainly as a result of movements such as Extinction Rebellion and of interjections from the renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough and climate change activist Greta Thunberg. The serious matter of climate change is highlighted in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, alongside interrelated global challenges in its framing of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which outlines specific targets to be attained in reducing problems and inequities across the globe that are contributing to poverty, poor health provision, gender inequalities, overproduction and overconsumption, lack of access to quality education, unemployment, pollution, conflicts, and of course environmental degradation and climate change.

The education sector is a key agent in implementing these SDGs, and many of its stakeholders are already on pathways towards integrating sustainability in their programmes and practices. This article sets the context for infusing education for sustainability in education more generally, and outlines sustainability models and pedagogic approaches to be considered in the reform of higher education programmes and practices.

Relationship between education and wealth

Interesting correlations exist between education and wealth, and between wealth and many of the factors that contribute to the global challenges articulated in the SDGs. Let’s begin by stating what most of us might already expect of the relationship between education and wealth. People with advanced levels of education generally earn more, and a higher-education qualification can increase income even further in what has been termed the ‘college wage premium’ (Wolla and Sullivan, 2017, p. 3), leading to significant increases in the personal wealth of graduates from higher education.

Relationship between wealth and carbon footprint

And what then of the relationship between wealth and those global challenges that propelled the setting of the SDGs? The biggest polluters on our planet are also generally the wealthiest: multiple studies identify income as the dominant determinant of a person’s ecological footprint. Wealthier people tend to buy more, consume more, and travel more, and thus have a significantly larger carbon footprint. A study by Oxfam (2015) found that the world’s richest 10% are responsible for over 50% of global pollutants, and that the poorest half of the global population – who are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions.

Education: a double-edged sword

McKeown (2002, p. 10) concisely expresses the relationship between education, wealth, and resource consumption: ‘generally, more highly educated people, who have higher incomes, consume more resources than poorly educated people, who tend to have lower incomes’. The more educated we become, the less sustainable we are in general. McKeown notes that as a result, the most educated countries in the developed world have the ‘highest per-capita rates of consumption’ and the ‘deepest ecological footprints’ (ibid.). In sum, the dispositions, behaviours, and practices of the educated elite are collectively having severe impacts on our environment, economies, and societies, at local and global levels, and are contributing to and aggravating the sustainability challenges facing our world.

The paradox, then, is that education generally, and higher education specifically, is a double-edged sword: it advances knowledge and innovation, and can contribute positively to sustainable development, but the unsustainable behaviours and practices of the emergent population of graduates can threaten the sustainability of our planet and frustrate efforts to achieve SDG targets. Clearly, our education system needs to change as a matter of urgency.

The important role of education in militating against or alleviating the SDG challenges is articulated as a specific goal (SDG 4: quality education) in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and also in UNESCO’s roadmap for implementing the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development 2014–2020. So there is recognition internationally that education programmes and courses need to be reoriented to enable the development of learners who become sustainability change agents and thus graduates vested with competencies and knowledge that enable them to undertake actions for sustainability.

Here in Ireland, the National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development (2014–2020) specifically calls on education providers, including those in higher education, to integrate sustainability education in curricula and practices. There is renewed interest in, and indeed grounds for, reorienting programmes and practices so that graduates at all levels develop sustainability-related competencies that contribute to enabling equitable and sustainable futures for all.

Attaining core sustainability-oriented competencies

Let’s consider the core sustainability-oriented competencies that our education graduates need to attain, to enable them to respond to the key challenges set out in the sustainable development goals. Core competencies in this sense are the knowledge base, skill set, and specific forms of thinking that graduates would have developed during their study vis-à-vis sustainability.

Graduates need to have developed an understanding of the great challenges facing our planet and the role of human action or inaction in addressing those challenges. They must recognise the interconnectedness of people, planet, peace, and prosperity, and the role of partnership in protecting all living and non-living systems on Earth. This requires developing deeper, transdisciplinary understanding of the integrated nature of global challenges from sociocultural, political, environmental, and economic perspectives, and thus points to the need for integration in education programmes of marginalised or less-heard voices, and for sharing practices from multiple disciplinary, geographic, and political contexts. Graduates will thereby develop deeper knowledge of the context of sustainability, aligning with UNESCO’s first pillar of learning for the twenty-first century: ‘Learning to know’, in this case knowledge about and for sustainability (Delors, 1996).

Need for development of specific forms of thinking

Becoming sustainability (re-)oriented also requires developing specific forms of thinking in the student, including the capacity for anticipatory thinking, systems thinking, strategic thinking, and critical thinking, all in a values orientation that strives to enable sustainable and equitable futures for everyone (UNESCO, 2017). With anticipatory thinking competency, graduates are expected to be able to envision and critically evaluate multiple types of futures, including possible, probable, and desired futures. With systems thinking competency, graduates are expected to be able to recognise the interconnectedness of living and non-living systems on our planet, and to analyse complex systems and deal with uncertainty therein. With strategic thinking competency, graduates are expected to be able to plan and implement innovative actions that address sustainability. With critical thinking competency, graduates are expected to be able to critically reflect on and analyse various contexts in the sustainability discourse, and to be able to articulate their position on these.

‘Learning to do’

Becoming sustainability (re)-oriented also requires developing a skill set that enables students to plan and implement suitable small and large-scale actions that enhance ways of living and being, and to seek to mitigate or prevent the impact of the aforementioned global challenges, aligning with UNESCO’s second pillar of learning for the twenty-first century: ‘Learning to do’ (Delors, 1996). These typically involve developing an integrated complex-problem-solving competency, which requires deep learning facilitated by engagement in authentic, ill-defined, complex-problem-solving activities in the area of sustainability, requiring substantive and sustained investigation at individual and group levels to develop viable and equitable solutions.

Learning to be and to live together

In terms of their values orientation, which speaks to the development of normative competency, graduates will be expected not only to have developed their self-awareness, but also to better understand what influences their norms, values, and thus actions for sustainability. They will be expected to have a deeper understanding of, and to be able to mediate, the tensions that can exist between conflicting values of self and others, thus responding to UNESCO’s third and fourth pillars of learning for the twenty-first century: ‘Learning to be’ and ‘Learning to live together’ (Delors, 1996).

Learning to transform oneself and society

Ultimately, by developing these competencies, graduates will have engaged in ‘Learning to transform oneself and society’. This pillar, recently integrated as UNESCO’s fifth pillar of learning for the twenty-first century, is the one most directly aligned with promoting change agency for sustainability (Combes, 2001). The expectation is that graduates, particularly at higher levels, will have the aspirations, dispositions, knowledge base, and skill set to become change agents for sustainability, and thus they will seek to initiate and engage in behaviours and actions that prevent or alleviate the impacts of global challenges in striving for the SDGs.

Some of the pedagogic approaches recommended for fostering sustainability specifically in higher education include: Experiential learning, Ethical Values-based learning, Constructivist learning, and Transformative learning (Holland et al., 2012; Makrakis et al., 2012; Besong, 2017).

The Experiential learning approach emphasises learning by doing, so is action-oriented, and calls for the integration of authentic activities and experiences that enable higher education students to engage in sustainability actions.

The Ethical Values-based learning approach emphasises the relational approach to learning, which requires educators and students to negotiate and reach consensus on their preferred learning pathways for sustainability, while critically considering and mediating influences of, and on, individual and collective choices and behaviours.

The Constructivist learning approach centres on facilitating activities that enable students to collectively consider multiple perspectives and contexts in developing solutions to sustainability challenges – a key aspect in fostering critically minded, action-oriented learners.

The Transformative learning approach sets out to activate change in self and of self. In the context of education for sustainability, the focus is on reorienting problematic mindsets among students towards becoming more open to being sustainable, with the ultimate aim of enabling action for sustainability. An example is the Visual Cues intervention designed by Tillmanns (2017), where students experience dissonance through encounters with disorienting dilemmas (disruptive visual imagery or media), followed by opportunities for individual reflection and group discourse to critique and consider the self in the context of sustainability.

Programmes and practices in education need to be transformed

Finally, it is clear that programmes and practices in education need to be reformed to foster ethical awareness of sustainability and to enhance students’ capacity to address the complex global challenges articulated in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This reform is already under way across many sectors of education and is visible in higher education institutions in Ireland.

Many and varied models can be invoked to integrate sustainability principles and pedagogic practices in curricula and to foster sustainability competencies among students in higher education settings. Some theorists in educating for sustainability, such as Sterling and Thomas (2006), have argued that an infusion model is much more effective than an integrated model in higher education.

In the infusion model, sustainability is integrated across a programme by including relevant content in a range of modules, and through adoption of active and innovative pedagogic approaches. In the integrated model, a stand-alone module on education for sustainability is added to each programme, and higher education students typically engage in this module early in their programme of study, with little or no follow-up in subsequent years.

Choosing the right model of sustainability education

In practice, the chosen model of sustainability education is very dependent on resources and willingness at an institutional level to engage in whole-system change for sustainability. Historically, the practice in Ireland and elsewhere provides ample evidence that the path of least cost and least disruption usually results in the adoption of the integrated model of sustainability education – more commonly referred to as the ‘bolt-on’ model; regrettably, this type of intervention has typically not facilitated the development of the full range of graduate sustainability competencies.

More enlightened approaches are being trialled in some institutions, such as Dublin City University (DCU), where mapping exercises are under way to ascertain the alignment of existing programmatic and learning outcomes with the aforementioned graduate sustainability competencies. Follow-up interventions are planned with academic staff to address gaps in curricular content across a range of modules and to raise awareness of innovative pedagogic approaches that can be used to develop these competencies among students and enable change agency and action for sustainability.

The model of sustainability being adopted by DCU could be considered a hybrid infusion model, because while sustainability content and practices are being infused within programmes, there is recognition that a standalone education for sustainable development module may also be needed in some programmes.

Fostering sustainability-minded graduates

In sum, the inclusion of education for sustainability must be prioritised as a strategic action to redress the sustainability paradox in education. In doing so, education sectors more generally can foster sustainability-minded graduates who strive to reduce patterns of consumption and unsustainable practices that are frustrating efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals articulated in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Ultimately this would contribute to more equitable and sustainable futures for all.


Besong, F. (2017) ‘Infusing sustainability in higher education in Ireland: The Green Curriculum Model and the Dispositions, Abilities and Behaviours competency framework’. PhD thesis. Dublin City University.

Combes, B. (2001) The Early Years Revolution: Learning to know, to do, to be, to live together and to transform society begins at birth. Congreso Europeo: Aprender a ser, aprender a vivir juntos – Santiago de Compostela, December 2001. Presentation, World Association of Early Childhood Educators.

Delors, J. (1996) Learning: The Treasure Within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century. Paris: UNESCO.

Department of Education and Skills (2014) Education for Sustainability: The National Strategy in Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland, 2014–2020.

Holland, C., Mulcahy, C., Besong, F., and Judge, M. (2012) ‘Ethical-values pedagogical model’, Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 14(2), 41–53.

Makrakis, V. and Kostoulas-Makrakis, N. (2012) ‘Course curricular design and development of the M.Sc. programme in the field of ICT in education for sustainable development’, Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 14(2), 5–40.

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Oxfam. (2015) ‘Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest-emitting and most vulnerable people first’.

Sterling, S. and Thomas, I. (2006) ‘Education for sustainability: The role of capabilities in guiding university curricula’, International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 1, 349–70.

Tillmanns, T. (2017) ‘Disruptive learning: Re-orienting frames of mind towards becoming sustainability change agents’. PhD thesis. Dublin City University.

UNESCO (2014) UNESCO Roadmap for Implementing the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development. Paris: UNESCO.

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United Nations (2015) Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Wolla, S. and Sullivan, S.A. (2017) ‘Education, Income, and Wealth’. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.