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Goal 4:
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality
education and promote lifelong learning
opportunities for all




Overcoming the major global challenges facing humanity today requires profound reform efforts in all areas of society. The guiding principle of sustainable development offers an orientation for the necessary transformation processes.

Education plays a central role in the implementation and support of a more sustainable way of thinking, working and living. At the Institute for Educational Leadership PH Ludwigsburg, University of Education, we are considering the opportunities and tasks of leaders to anchor sustainability and education for sustainable development in educational institutions and in departments for personnel development and training human in companies.

Global challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, degeneration of soil and water, hunger, poverty, migration, human rights, wars, terrorism, etc., call for determined, shared and cooperative action by the international community and individual countries. However, states and municipalities, business enterprises, associations and all other organizations also are in demand - and every individual as a citizen and a consumer.

What is Sustainable Development?

The term "sustainable development" in its todays meaning goes back to the World Commission on Environment and Development. In its final report, the Brundtland Report, the Commission defines development as sustainable if it meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and choose their own lifestyle (see UNESCO Weltkommission 1987) . As a result, the concept of sustainable development has gained increasing support and is now acknowledged worldwide as a superior guiding principle, even if there are still major difficulties in its implementation.

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, government officials from more than 170 countries agreed on the guiding principle of "Sustainable Development". Various follow-up conferences have been struggling to agree on specific steps and measures since then.

In 2015, the international community again committed itself to sustainable development and identified seventeen worldwide goals in the Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, see United Nations 2015).

Figure: United Nations - 17 Goals for Sustainable Development

Fig. 1: 17 Globale Development Goals. Source: UN in cooperation with Project Everyone

The UN document presents all 17 goals side by side. Critical voices are in favor of an alternative form of presentation that assigns the goals to the respective areas such as economic, social and environmental. Among other things, they stress the contradictory nature of objectives such as permanent growth and protection of resources.

Figure: Alternative presentation of the Goals for Sustainable Development

Fig. 2: 17 Sustainable Development Goals, alternative presentation. Quelle: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre. Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Germany, too, has set sustainability as a vision and mission for social development and, in 2002, launched a national sustainability strategy. The new and revised edition of the German sustainability strategy from 2016 is based on the 17 SDGs of the UN (see Bundesregierung 2016).

Many municipalities, public institutions and companies now also refer to the SDGs:

However, despite the high-level anchoring and the central importance for social development, both the 17 sustainability goals, the Federal Government's commitment to these goals and the sustainability strategy are not yet known to large sections of the population. Around 60% of citizens had not yet heard of them in a survey in summer 2017, and only around 10% knew the term and stated that they knew what it meant (Deutsches Evaluationsinstitut der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit 2018).

There is widespread agreement that education plays a crucial role in the development of sustainable societies and economic systems.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) empowers people to think and act for the future in a positive way. It enables each individual to understand the effects of their own actions on the world and encourages them to make responsible decisions.
(Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e.V. 2019)

Political efforts to strengthen Education for Sustainable Development are taking place at international and national level: In 2002, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to begin the UN World Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. This program ran from 2005-2015 and has been continued in a Global Action Program. A large number of projects have emerged in this context. In Germany, the National Action Plan on ESD (NAP) was adopted in 2017 to anchor Education for Sustainable Development in all areas of the education system (see Nationale Plattform für Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung 2017, p. 8).

According to the latest large-scale study by the Free University of Berlin (Institut Futur), young people ( 14 to 24 years old) showed a high level of interest in sustainability in their educational settings, but nearly half of the respondents said that they did not see any connection to sustainability and sustainable development in their respective institutions (see Grund/Brock 2018, p. 3) . This coincides with the knowledge gained in the context of the national monitoring of ESD that only 9% of the time spent teaching and attending seminars has clear references to sustainability (see Grund/Brock 2018, p. 4) and that it is predominantly committed individuals who implement ESD. A curricular anchoring of ESD has so far taken place, if at all, mainly in the natural and social sciences such as geography and biology, followed by politics and economics (Landorf et al. 2008; Michelsen et al. 2011; Buddeberg 2014; Bagoly-Simó 2014; Arnold et al. 2016) . Large differences can also be observed between the different federal states. Baden-Württemberg, for example, has integrated Education for sustainable development as a guiding principle across all subjects in its new education plans (ZSL 2019) . Such curricular anchoring of ESD requires scientifically founded, theoretical models and viable pedagogical concepts.

A holistic approach to ESD is also considered to be particularly beneficial in educational organizations such as day-care centres, universities, clubs and businesses. The so-called "Whole Institution Approach" goes beyond the idea of teaching and training on the subject of "sustainability" by also adapting methods and learning processes. In addition, the institution as a whole, in the sense of a "green economy", is guided in its actions and management by the principles of sustainability and thus operates profitably and in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. For the successful implementation of this approach, comprehensive training measures and the best possible participation of all members in decision-making processes are necessary. Cooperation and the establishment of a network can also effectively support the "Whole Institution Approach" (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e. V. 2019) .

The concept and the design of ESD

The concept of ESD describes a holistic approach to education, which "takes into account learning content and outcomes, as well as pedagogy and the learning environment" (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e. V. 2019) , and always refers to current research results. Although the learning subjects are wide-ranging, they can be clearly derived from the guiding principle of sustainable development and aim to show consequences "for ecological, social and economic processes" and to discuss value attitudes (Deutsche UNESCO-Kommission e.V. 2012, p. 9). The methodological-didactical approach is usually based on the active participation of the learners by using participative methods that allow a critical examination of the learning objects and promote reflexivity, problem-solving skills, teamwork and an open mind for new experiences. Research-based learning is also increasingly becoming the focus of ESD (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e. V. 2019) . A wide range of suggestions for implementation in the extracurricular sector can be found in UNESCO publications on the implementation of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e. V. 2019, p. 9).

Although various theoretical models for ESD are being discussed and tested both in and out of school (e.g. Künzli David 2007; KMK/BMZ 2016; de Haan 2008; Rieckmann 2010; Lude/Overwien 2014) , only two of the concepts have become well-known in Germany so far: “Gestaltungskompetenz” (shaping competence) and Global Learning (see UNECE 2006, p. 57).

The concept of "Gestaltungskompetenz" (shaping competence) goes back to Gerhard de Haan and Dorothee Harenberg (de Haan/Harenberg 1999; de Haan 2008) and is based on the OECD's International Framework of Key Competences (2005). This refers to the "ability (...) to apply knowledge about sustainable development and to identify problems of unsustainable development" in order to be able to "make, understand and implement decisions with which sustainable development processes can be realized” (De Haan 2008, p. 31). The concept of “Gestaltungskompetenz” has been used for numerous implementations in Germany (e.g. BLK 21, Transfer 21, UN Decade Project ESD Award).

In contrast, the educational concept of global learning pursues a less environment-oriented approach and wants to promote openness to the world and empathy. The concept aims to make politics, globalisation and development processes understandable for students. It is explained in more detail in the Orientation Framework for the Learning Area Global Development (KMK/BMZ 2016) In particular, the principles of justice, between the current world population, the genders and generations, and the principles of participation and cooperation in the forms of involvement, negotiation, understanding and interdisciplinarity of action are common starting points for these and other concepts of Education for Sustainable Development.

Through the respective preceding and follow-up comparison with the quality criteria, it should be made sure whether the objectives of an educational event in the field of ESD have been satisfactorily achieved.

ESD and lifelong learning

The concept of ESD focuses on the learning of people at all ages. Thus all areas of education are addressed, from early education, school, extracurricular youth education, vocational training and higher education to adult education and senior citizens' education. All groups of the population should be reached. In all these areas of education, there are also various efforts to integrate sustainability issues. In practice-oriented writings and scientific publications, however, the school sector dominates.

At the Institute for Education Management we teach according to the two mottos "Learning by Difference" and "We move Education". Leaders, junior executives, and specialists from all areas of education learn from and with each other. We are therefore also taking the issue of sustainability into the focus of lifelong learning and life-wide education.

Sustainable Development Goals

Objectives play a pivotal role in the national context as well as in the global view of Education for Sustainable Development. In 2015 the United Nations endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These represent the key objectives for achieving a peaceful and sustainable society. Education for sustainable development is part of the fourth objective "Quality Education" and is explicitly mentioned in point 4.7. The idea is to ensure that by 2030, "all learners acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to promote sustainable development, including through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, a culture of peace and non-violence, world citizenship and the appreciation of cultural diversity and the contribution of culture to sustainable development" (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e.V. 2019).
Education for sustainable development is thus always the key to the further objectives of Agenda 2030, which cannot be achieved without the appropriate educational background.

Current developments and sample projects

The current report on the international implementation of ESD and Global Citizenship Education (GCED) was published in December 2018 with the title "Progress on Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship Education". The report covers the period 2012 to 2016 and, with information from a total of 83 countries, it is the most comprehensive report up until now.

The analysis of the current survey shows that in most countries (98%) the basic principles mentioned are part of national law and educational policy. In addition, 81 out of 83 countries confirmed that the main issues have been incorporated into their education plans. Meanwhile, the situation is different in the area of the development of teachers' skills: 23% of those surveyed stated that the basic principles were "in no way" anchored in the initial and continuing education and training of teachers, 75% spoke of only "slightly" anchoring (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e.V. 2019) . For this reason, efforts must be intensified to train educational staff, and especially managers.

In addition to strategic and political efforts, the World Action Program also includes practical measures on ESD (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e.V. 2000, p. 33) . Networks, municipalities and learning locations that set a good example are thereby honored by the BMBF (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and DUK (German UNESCO Commission) for "a particularly successful implementation and sustainable anchoring of ESD". Between 2016 and 2018, a total of 219 campaigns and projects received an award for the outstanding implementation of Agenda 2030.

One example is the chocolate museum of the Lindt company in Cologne, which has developed in recent years into a real learning centre for ESD. By committing itself to "making the social, economic and ecological aspects of the chocolate supply chain understandable for its visitors", the museum has set a strong example in terms of ESD. "Every year 3,500 guided tours, seminars and courses are held to encourage target groups to reflect on aspects of sustainability" (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e.V. 2019).

In the category "Municipality", the city of Aalen was recently honoured for the exemplary expansion and consolidation of ESD. All city offices are involved in ESD activities through the Agenda Office. The municipal council has made education for sustainable development an official part of the city's guiding principles. The Local Agenda 21 Aalen has been realizing education and work for sustainable development in the city of Aalen for 20 years. In addition to established topics such as energy, Europe, biodiversity, mobility and schools, a new focus will be placed on youth and Smart Future City. Through the structure of the Agenda with its Agenda Groups, Agenda Parliament, Agenda Council and Agenda Office, the municipality has continuously developed and has created effective citizen participation and networking of the stakeholders in the city" (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e.V. 2019).

The regional network "Umwelt macht Schule" (UmS) managed by the Goethe-Institut Moscow is another example of successful implementation of ESD. With 800 schools and 52 trained ESD teachers' instructors, the Goethe-Institut's regional project in Eastern Europe and Central Asia with inter-regional connections pursues the goal of "creating an educational network of schools across sometimes hostile and sometimes even warlike borders. ESD serves in this context as a common roof" (Deutsche UNESCO Kommission e.V. 2019).

All winners of the four award sessions so far are published on the homepage of the German ESD Commission e.V. bne-portal.de.

Did we spark your interest?

As a part of our Master's Program International Education Management (INEMA) we also offer a module on "Leadership for Education for Sustainable Development". You can find the module description by following this link.

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Grund, Julius; Brock, Antje  (2018): Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung in Lehr-Lern-Settings. Quantitative Studie des nationalen Monitorings. Befragung junger Menschen.

Grundmann, Diana  (2017): Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung in Schulen verankern. Handlungsfel-der, Strategien und Rahmenbedingungen der Schulentwicklung. Wiesbaden: Springer.

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Künzli David, Christine  (2007): Zukunft mitgestalten: Bildung für eine nachhaltige Entwicklung – Didaktisches Konzept und Umsetzung in der Grundschule. Bern: Haupt Verlag.

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Michelsen, Gerd; Adomßent, Maik; Bormann, Inka; Burandt, Simon; Fischbach, Robert  (2011): Indikatoren der Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung. Bad Homburg: VAS-Verlag.

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Rieckmann, Marco  (2010): Die globale Perspektive der Bildung für eine nachhaltige Entwicklung. Eine europäisch-lateinamerikanische Studie zu Schlüsselkompetenzen für Denken und Handeln in der Weltgesellschaft. Berlin: Berliner Wissenschaftsverlag.

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The module Lead4ESD is being developed as part of the project Center Prodev-Edu by the Institut für Bildungsmanagement in collaboration with the Zentrum für wissenschaftliche Weiterbildung/Center for Lifelong Professional Development.


The establishment of the ZWW is funded by the Ministerium für Soziales und Integration Baden Württemberg using financial means of the European Social Fund as well as by the Ministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kunst Baden-Württemberg.

Institut für Bildungsmanagement > Abteilung Bildungsmanagement > Leadership for Education for Sustainable Development > Introduction
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