From rhetoric to action: Why the normative concept  “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD) must be revisited

From rhetoric to action: Why the normative concept “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD) must be revisited

According to UNESCO, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) aims to “empower learners to take informed decisions and responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society, for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity”. Even though no one questions the urgency to teach sustainable development, the content must be increasingly challenged since its nature is mostly of normative rather than empirical nature. In other words, it aims to teach students what they should think and do in order to be “sustainable”. However, empirical research has revealed that reducing all challenges to a simple normative orientation can be counterproductive. Moreover, students need to be encouraged to challenge normative views by looking for alternative ethical perspectives as well as empirical facts in order to come up with concrete and informed proposals for action that go beyond very general statements related to the need to make the world more sustainable.  Our SNF-funded research project on ‘biotechnology and moral development in high schools’ was based on an intervention study that explored to what extent the debate in class on sustainable development changes once students are exposed to a concrete practical experience and alternative perspectives.

About the author

Philipp Aerni, Director Center for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (CCRS)