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Recent protests by Extinction Rebellion, worldwide Fridays for Future strikes by young people and the UN Climate Summit show a growth in global awareness of, and concern about, the climate crisis. Scientific evidence shows human actions are responsible for rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, increasing average global temperatures and expanding wildlife habitat loss (see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The impact of this is immense, and includes melting icecaps, rising sea levels, more extreme weather conditions and biodiversity loss (see NASA’s climate change website).

Research indicates young people find such issues a source of anxiety (Corner et al., 2015). However, they also want to know what they can do to instigate change. It could be argued that our current education system is failing them. Curricula primarily focused on meeting targets, passing exams and encouraging pupils to aspire to ‘good’ jobs are predicated on a maintenance of the status quo and assumptions that economic models based on continued growth and consumption can and will continue.

Consequently, if we are to solve these crises, a different kind of society is needed: one that is cognisant of the dangers facing us, is open to alternative ways of being, and is empowered to achieve real change. Education must contribute by providing the knowledge and skills necessary to work towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and creating a brighter, fairer and sustainable future.

‘If we are to solve these crises, a different kind of society is needed: one that is cognisant of the dangers facing us, is open to alternative ways of being, and is empowered to achieve real change.’

Schumacher (1997) stated, ‘The volume of education has increased and continues to increase, yet so do pollution, exhaustion of resources, and the dangers of ecological catastrophe. If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind.’

To achieve a different kind of education, educators need to be equipped with the ability to view their practice through a sustainable development lens. An Erasmus-funded project (Vare et al., 2019) has been working to identify the competences educators might need in order to approach their work in this way. The ‘A Rounder Sense of Purpose’ project highlights the need to embrace a broader focus that engenders in learners a critical awareness of the world, along with the creativity and confidence to imagine and work towards change.

The project built on existing work, including Learning for the future: Competences in education for sustainable development (UNECE, 2011) and produced a set of 12 competences grouped into three columns of ‘Thinking Holistically’ (systems, attentiveness, transdisciplinarity, criticality), ‘Envisioning Change’ (futures, empathy, innovation, responsibility) and ‘Achieving Transformation’ (participation, values, action, decisiveness).

The framework is undergoing further testing and will be linked to the SDGs with example classroom activities. Partners will endeavour to use the competences as the basis of a qualification to feed into initial teacher education and continuous professional development for informal and formal education.

The project recognises that the issues we are presented with do not have easy solutions and acknowledges that no one has the blueprint for a sustainable future. Consequently, the intention is not for learners to just be told what to do, ESD1, but encouraged to engage with the issues critically and holistically, and to try to envisage their own solutions while exploring how they might work towards achieving them – ESD2 (Vare & Scott, 2007).

The hope is that education can not only play an increasing role in raising awareness of the concerns about our world, but in addition, help learners transform those concerns into action for change.

Project details can be found here or by contacting Paul Vare ( or Rick Millican (

Reflective questions

  • In what ways might the content and focus of education need to change in response to the climate crisis?
  • Do you feel that teacher education should embed the principles of education for sustainable development?
  • If so, to what extent could the RSP framework of competences help this process?


Corner, A., Roberts, O., Chiari, S., Voller, S., Mayrhuber, E., Mandl, S., & Monson, K. (2015). How do young people engage with climate change? The role of knowledge, values, message framing, and trusted communicators. WIREs Climate Change, 6(5), 523–53.

Schumacher, E. F. (1997). ‘This I believe’ and other essays (essay first published in 1974). Dartington: Green Books.

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe [UNECE]. (2011). Learning for the future: Competences in education for sustainable development. Retrieved from

Vare, P., & Scott, W. (2007). Learning for a change. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 1(2), 191–198.

Vare, P., Arro, G., de Hamer, A., Del Gobbo, G., de Vries, G., Farioli, F., Kadji-Beltran, C., Kangur, M., Mayer, M., Millican, R., Nijdam, C., Réti, M., & Zachariou, A. (2019). Devising a competence-based training program for educators of sustainable development: Lessons learned. Sustainability, 11(7), 1890.