Competences in Education for Sustainable Development: Critical Perspectives is the title of a book edited by Paul Vare, Nadia Lausselet, and Marco Rieckmann, and recently published by Springer. In this post, Stephen Martin, Hon Professor in Learning for Sustainability at Nottingham University reflects on what the book says. As ever with our blogs, these views are personal and are not necessarily shared the Association.

There is a new discourse emerging within the education and learning for sustainability community which argues that citizens need to have certain key competencies that allow them to engage constructively and responsibly with an increasingly complex and unsustainable world. As one recent authoritative UNESCO report suggests,

“Competencies describe the specific attributes individuals need for action and self-organization in various complex contexts and situations. They include cognitive, affective, volitional, and motivational elements; hence they are interplay of knowledge, capacities and skills, motives, and affective dispositions. Competencies cannot be taught but must be developed by the learners themselves. They are acquired during action, based on experience and reflection”.   

Arnim Wiek at Arizona State University has played a major  role in defining and operationalising five core sustainability competences: 

  • System thinking competence
  • Futures thinking or anticipatory competence
  • Values thinking or normative competence
  • Strategic thinking or action- orientated competence
  • Collaborative or interpersonal competence

This book provides a comprehensive analytical insight into how innovative, core-sustainability competency-based approaches could help us meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is a book of many parts with contributions from authoritative international educational researchers. It explores how competence is defined and applied to assess the intended learning outcomes of education for sustainable development(ESD). Its primary focus is on practicing and professional educators who could use competencies to transform the way they teach to facilitate the creation of cadres of sustainability change agents who can contribute to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals ( SDGs).

The book is organised into 4 sections. The first section offers a comprehensive analysis of the conceptual aspects of sustainability competences. The second covers their integration into existing frameworks and professional contexts. The third section deals with the essential pedagogical approaches to support teaching about competences. The final short section offers a limited but helpful assessment of the challenges of implementing educator competences at a critical time following the covid pandemic and other global challenges.

As is set out in the early section one of the key challenges for those educators who adopt the core competences is the wide-ranging differences in what is understood by national and international audiences by the word “ competence”. As Paul Vare argues there is no single definitive  understanding or accepted definition yet for this word and an analogous word –“competency “and its plural twin-competencies. Another way of understanding competence is as a noun and hence as a quality and an attribute that is acquired through practice and experiential learning. Another but different term is the word “disposition”, which is often applied in English speaking counties in this emerging discourse. Although the diagram which illustrates all these challenges on page 5 is helpful-it does beg the question-will the competence dialogue and related research impetus fail to  engage educational practitioners who have innumerable pressures to deal with at this current time? Yet there is no doubt as the chapter on The Competence Turn illustrates-this word is now beginning to dominate the language of education and learning in the offices of UNESCO and the OECD and in some countries like Finland -it now permeates national policy and practice. One of its consequences it seems is that Finland has now topped the OECD 37 –Country  PISA attainment league tables for several years.

Other chapters offer more hope in a more pragmatic sense through case studies and action research into place-base learning and interdisciplinary pedagogies. However, other changes such as those which arise from political, economic, social, technological, and environmental pressures- are increasingly beginning to raise questions about the fitness for purpose of our  current educational systems. And, maybe these are having a more fundamental influence on what needs to be taught and how.

Put simply the problem is a “knowing-doing” gap, which one US author[1] calls “a disconnect between our collective consciousness and our collective action.” He  is part of a growing movement which argues that as we move from one geological epoch-the Holocene to the Anthropocene it is time to reconceive the way we teach and learn. Plutarch argued two thousand years ago that education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. But knowledge acquisition seems to dominate the policy agendas of most nations and is closely aligned with targets of promoting greater economic growth, wealth, and prosperity. 

There are innovative ways of learning that avoid the “knowing-doing gap” one of which is to shift the place of learning  from campus or classroom to community. Many students learn better by doing.  So, by creating action learning programmes in communities, the student becomes the change agent, and the teacher is the coach, the helper who holds the space for the learner to support their highest potential. Developing action learning at scale requires quite different learning infrastructures, including classrooms that are not primarily about content delivery but about reflection on action, which requires a different type of educator that can hold the space for student-centred forms of learning.

Perhaps the chapter which embraces this sort of transformation in a more accessible way is that authored by Kerry Shephard? He argues persuasively that applying competence in the ESD discourse conflates both cognitive and affective objectives in an unhelpful way. It compromises how teaching and learning approaches relate to both the act of doing something and the willingness or motivation to do the same thing. He argues that both the act and their willingness to act are separate and require different teaching and learning approaches. So, he argues that in place of the word competence we should use able and willing as more appropriate  operational terms to better facilitate more transparent and understandable communication between practitioners. In other words, they make more pedagogical sense to practitioners than words like competence and disposition. And this quote exemplifies his underlying concerns:

“And to be blunt, conflating affect and cognition into the catch-all, frame-activating, educationally trendy world of competence really would not matter much to me, or to anyone else probably, if it worked. If in 2021 our ESD field of enquiry was congratulating itself on a job well done, this chapter likely would not find a place in this book. “

By framing his approach to teaching and learning through the lens of critical thinking Shepherd offers a more realistic and grounded exploration of how we might judge the effectiveness of a university education. He avoids the pitfalls of ESD and EFS and other adjectival descriptors of current educational approaches to sustainability. Moreover, developing and enhancing individual critical thinking and related dispositions captures more precisely the social, environmental, and ethical needs of civil society in a complex and rapidly changing world. In the absence of this kind of explicit purpose, then as one Finnish academic has recently commented, the university “has already become an empty shell, or a soulless organism reduced to dead matter.”

If we are to transform our  education systems, then as Otto Scharmer advocates, we need to co-create with students and communities new and adaptive learning systems so that learners become adaptive ecosystem and community leaders and as such become context and place based- change-makers.  They will need collaborative competencies to convene diverse group of stakeholders and partners and then take them on a journey from a silo to a systems view, from” ego-system to eco-system” awareness. Creating the sustainable and ethical space for such a journey is at the heart of all major leadership challenges today. It is a capacity that is largely missing in all organizations and insufficiently developed in our schools and universities. As anchor institutions in their communities, they could offer real-world platforms and community partnerships in the cities and regions that they are embedded in and enhance that capacity by providing relevant out of classroom learning laboratories for student participation and learning by doing.

I leave the last words to Kerry Shephard:

By choosing ESD competence as an educational objective and measuring stick, academics in the broad areas of environmental education, education for sustainability, and education for sustainable development appear to me to have made a simple situation far too complicated.


Dr Stephen Martin can be contacted at, and Paul Vare at:

[1] Scharmer,O, (2019) ,Vertical Literacy: Reimagining the 21 -Century University; Field of the Future Blog:

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