Sustainable development depends on lifelong education

The path leading to a sustainable society leads through education, according to an AU professor. This is confirmed in a UN goal that education for sustainable development should be placed on the agenda. But Denmark lacks clear political plans of action.

2013.09.30 | Mathilde Weirsøe

Boy with globe. Photo: Colourbox

Lindebjergskolen north of Roskilde. A place where climate change, play and learning go hand in hand. The pupils play with water in their breaks, and water channels and rain gardens are included in the teaching. Photo: Thomas Vilhelm

We buy lead-free petrol, our cars do more mileage to the gallon, we use energy-saving light bulbs, and we wash our clothes with environmentally friendly washing powder. But on the other hand, we use our cars more, have more electronic gadgets than ever, and wash even more clothes.

“We’re reluctant to cut down on our consumption. Which is why we’re so keen on new, advanced forms of green technology, because using this kind of technology helps to convince us that we’re living sustainably. But we’re forgetting that the level of our consumption is rising all the time.”

This is how Jeppe Læssøe summarises the consumption dilemma facing modern Man. He’s a professor with special responsibilities in environmental education at Aarhus University. And he focuses in particular on the concept of education for sustainable development. Because if people and societies are ever going to understand and deal with the dilemmas involved in balancing development with sustainability, education is vital. This is why the UN made 2005-2014 the decade of education for sustainable development.

Lifelong learning

Education for sustainable development involves a broad range of competences which help us to lead more sustainable everyday lives. Competences which don’t come of their own accord, but which require innovation throughout the education system, in childcare centres, at workplaces, in local communities, in the media and elsewhere.

“What’s at stake here is lifelong learning. I think we need knowledge of life that can help us to navigate and reflect on the way we lead our lives,” reports Jeppe Læssøe.

And this is where educational theory and research play an important role, he underlines.

“What educational theory and research can do in the whole field of sustainability is to get people involved and promote learning through participation and dialogue about how to cope with the dilemmas that social developments present us with,” he explains.

A multi-subject approach

We don’t need a new subject on the curriculum. Because education for sustainable development involves many different subjects and connects subjects in new ways. Having said that, education for sustainable development does involve some specific skills, underlines Læssøe.

“If people are going to contribute successfully to sustainable development, they need scientific knowledge about nature and the environment,” he says – with reference to a network of researchers, NGOs and practitioners who collect specific examples of education for sustainable development in practice.

These examples show how to inject relevant and useful knowledge into science subjects, as well as teaching students specific skills enabling them to make sustainable decisions in their everyday lives. For instance, Vestforbrænding in the west of Copenhagen are working with schools on a project to teach school pupils about waste management. There’s another example at a Danish continuation school, where the students have explored the potential for being self-sufficient in terms of energy. They discovered that the best solution involved putting solar panels on the school roof.

Politicians marking time

But the success stories are few and far between. One of the reasons for this is that the political focus on this area is inadequate. Jeppe Læssøe would like to see greater political commitment and concrete plans of action.

“The Danish politicians are simply marking time – they’re far too cautious. They’re very reluctant to invest new resources and launch new initiatives in this area. There’s a general lack of support structures, for instance there’s too little coordination between the ministries involved in education and sustainable development. A few steps have been taken, but we lack a proper structure with the necessary resources, organisational set-up, plans of action, supplementary training and so on. What this means in practice is that nothing is being done at the moment and we lack a clear sense of direction,” says Jeppe Læssøe.

Denmark nowhere near UN objective

Other countries are doing more than Denmark in this area. In particular, recently industrialised countries in Asia as well as Australia and Canada have taken the UN’s education for sustainable development decade much more seriously.

“Australia and Canada are setting the pace. And they prove that it is possible to implement education for sustainable development in practice – not only at the political level, but also in the education system,” says Jeppe Læssøe.

He knows that a long, hard road lies ahead if Denmark is going to catch up. And there isn’t much innovative spirit in evidence at the moment, even though a few good initiatives have been launched.

“Some small steps have been taken by schools that take the idea seriously. And some people have achieved a great deal. But it’s only a small minority, and the general picture is that we’re a long way from the goals defined by the UN – which actually have to be met in 2014,” says Læssøe.

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