Curriculum Design for Sustainable Development

Cultivating change by transforming education through sustainability. This lesson provides educators with tools to integrate sustainability into curriculum design.

Cultivating Change: Transforming Education through Sustainability

Main Goals

  1. Help educators understand sustainable learning and its importance.

  1. Provide educators with tools to integrate sustainability into curriculum design.

  1. Design curricula focused on learners and aligned with sustainability goals.

  1. Encourage educators to evaluate and improve curricula for sustainable development.

  1. Promote collaboration among educators to share best practices in sustainability.

Outline

Introduction (5 minutes)

Topic 1: Curriculum design and sustainable development (10 minutes)

Topic 2: Key principles for integrating sustainability in curriculum design (20 minutes)

Topic 3: Challenges and opportunities (20 minutes)

Topic 4: Aligning learning objectives with SDGs (10 minutes)

Topic 5: Student achievement and success from a sustainability perspective (5 minutes)

Topic 6: Evaluating the effectiveness of curricula in promoting sustainable development (5 minutes)

Topic 7: Collaboration and innovation in curriculum design (10 minutes)

Concluding Remarks (5 minutes)

Topic 1: Curriculum design and sustainable development

1.1. Sustainable Learning and Education (SLE)

  • An emerging philosophy and approach to learning, teaching and education systems founded on principles of sustainability
  • Focuses on renewable, self-sufficient, responsive and continuously improving learning
  • Aims to instill skills to thrive in complex, changing circumstances and contribute to a sustainable future
  • SLE IS NOT education about or for sustainability as its main focus is creating sustainable learning processes and systems. To some extent SLE looks to embed sustainable competencies in the curricula.

1.2. Core ideas and principles of SLE

SLE aims to assist learners develop four key competencies for sustainability: 

  1. Systems thinking 
  1. Futures thinking
  1. Values thinking 
  1. Strategic thinking

1.3. Attributes of a SLE-based curriculum

  • Learner-centered, experiential and participatory with a strong emphasys on solving problems using transdisciplinary perspectives and diverse forms of knowledge.
  • The SLE curriculum connects with learners' interests and contexts to direct students into attempting to solve real-world challenges
  • Curriculum design and implementation involves participation, co-creation and collaboration.
  • The curriculum’s learning objectives, content and assessments align with sustainability goals.

1.4. School Example: University of West England, Bristol

UWE Bristol has worked on aligning their curricular design with the UN SDGs since 2015:

  1. Design of multidisciplinary curricular programs (e.g. BEng Architecture and Environmental Engineering)
  1. Courses sessions, modules and assessments across all programs are developed in alignment with SDG fulfillment

Example of course activities:

  1. Compulsory 2-week period of volunteering in BSc programs
  1. Integrated project weeks on social and environmental challenges using multidisciplinary teams

1.5. Community Example: Roots & Shoots

  • Founded by Dr. Jane Goodall in 1991
  • Encourages youth to identify and address local problems using a sustainability perspective
  • Learners work on multidisciplinary projects according to their interests and passions
  • Participants created a framework of the desirable traits and skills a desirable leader should have: Compassionate Leadership Skills and Traits

Notable actions and initiatives:

Common Ground Program

A project for high-school students in Nebraska (USA) aimed at developing conservation activities in the area in cooperation with the Crane Foundation.

Topic 2: Key principles for integrating sustainability in curriculum design


2.1. Principles for sustainability in curriculum design

Useful questions to consider when considering the integration of sustainability-related competencies in curriculum design:

  1. How relevant will that competency be in the future? (both from a technical perspective but from a policy perspective)
  1. How inter-related are the selected competencies, skills, attitudes and values with one another? Do they conflict?
  1. How will the development of the skill be integrated in the curriculum?
  1. Academic/social impact of the competency?

2.1. OECD Learning Compass 2030

The OECD Learning Compass 2030 is a result of the OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 that attempts to provide an aspirational vision for the future while attempting to answer 2 key questions:

  1. What knowledge, skills, attitudes and values will today's students need to thrive in and shape their world? 
  1. How can instructional systems develop these knowledge, skills, attitudes and values effectively? 


  1. Core foundations
  2. Transformative competencies
  3. Student agency/co-agency
  4. Knowledge
  5. Skills
  6. Attitudes and values
  7. Anticipation-Action-Reflection cycle

2.2. Integrating Competencies in Curriculum Development

Question: Are there sustainability-related competencies are already being embedded in curriculum design? Are there noticeable effects from this integration? 

To answer these questions, we will look at the degree of integration in the curriculum of 9 skills that are suggested in the OECD 2030 Learning Compass.

These skills are: Reflection, Collaboration and co-operation, Learning to learn, Respect, Responsibility, Empathy, Self-Regulation, Persistence, and Trust

2.3. Impact on Students

Development of these competencies has resulted in, among others, these tangible benefits for students:

  • Improved achievement across subjects
  • Greater engagement and motivation
  • Increased creativity and critical thinking

However…

  • Initially, students may struggle with the greater autonomy
  • Traditional assessments may not directly measure competency growth
  • Impact of skill acquisition is only noticeable long-term 

Topic 3: Challenges and opportunities

3.1. Challenges for Sustainability Education

Policy and Leadership - Lack of national strategies, standards or curriculum requirements:
  • Without clear mandates, sustainability lacks priority and coherence
  • Risks fragmented, inconsistent implementation

Teacher Capacity - Insufficient training
  • Teachers lack strategies for systems thinking, PBL, assessment
  • Results in ineffective sustainability education

Resources: Funding constraints, materials access
  • Funding constraints inhibit innovation, partnerships
  • Lack of materials is also a barrier to pedagogical innovation

Stakeholder Involvement: Business and community engagement needed
  • Business/community engagement provides expertise, facilities, funding
  • Brings real-world connection, supports school-community partnerships

3.2. Overcoming Barriers and Enabling Change

National strategies: 
  • Drive widespread, consistent sustainability education
  • Provide standards and benchmarks for accountability
  • E.g. New Zealand’s 2016 National Strategy had sustainability aims, standards and benchmarks be taught at all levels of education
Teacher training programs:
  • Building capacity in systems thinking, pedagogy, assessment
School sustainability networks:
  • Allow schools to share ideas, curricula, best practices
Partnerships:
  • Tap external expertise in sustainability issues, projects
  • Provide facilities, funding; connect learning to society

3.2. Overcoming Barriers and Enabling Change - GOOD PRACTICES


3.3. The 3 Models for Curriculum Alignment

3.4. Challenges and Opportunities - Key takeaways


Challenges:

  1. Structural constraints
  2. Teacher capacity and training
  3. Assessment and evaluation
  4. Complex coordination
  5. Stakeholder engagement


Opportunities:

  1. National strategies and leadership
  2. Interdisciplinary learning
  3. Community partnerships
  4. Student empowerment
  5. Horizontal and vertical alignment of curriculums

Topic 4: Aligning learning objectives with SDGs 

4.1. A general framework for alignment

  1. Identify Desirable Skills: Identify the sustainability-related skills and competencies that are desirable for students to develop.
  2. Create Learning Objectives: Create learning objectives that demonstrate the acquisition of the identified skills (e.g. using the SMART criteria).
  3. Develop Pedagogical Strategies: Develop teaching and learning strategies that promote the acquisition of those skills.
  4. Assess Skill Acquisition: Develop assessments to measure students’ acquisition of the identified skills and competencies.
  5. Evaluate and Reflect: Evaluate and reflect on the effectiveness of the strategies and assessments used, and make any necessary adjustments and improvements.

4.2. Identify Desirable Skills (examples)


SLE framework:

  1. Systems thinking 
  1. Futures thinking
  1. Values thinking 
  1. Strategic thinking


OECD Learning Compass:

  1. Reflection
  2. Collaboration and co-operation
  3. Learning to learn
  4. Respect
  5. Responsibility
  6. Empathy
  7. Self-Regulation
  8. Persistence
  9. Trust

4.3. Creating Learning Objectives using SMART criteria

Specific 

Clearly define what the student is expected to achieve

Measurable

Ensure that the objective can be measured and assessed

Achievable

The objective are challenging but attainable for the student

Relevant

The objective is important to the course and student’s learning goals

Time-bound

There is a specific timeframe for achieving the objective

4.3. Creating Learning Objectives for Systems Thinking (example)

Learning objective: By the end of this unit, students will be able to analyze a data processing pipeline from data ingestion to machine learning modeling. They will identify its components, dependencies, and interactions, and create a flowchart to represent their understanding.

Specific: Students are expected to be familiar with different components, dependencies and interactions involving a data pipeline

Measurable: Each student’s competency is evaluated with a flowchart

Achievable: Difficulty of problem is adjusted to meet student’s background and software familiarity

Relevant: it should relate to course content and the learning goals of students this course

Time-bound: By the end of this unit

4.3. Creating Learning Objectives for Self-Regulation (example)

Learning objective: Within the first two weeks of this project, students will be able to apply time management, goal setting strategies for their final machine learning project as demonstrated through the successful completion of project milestones and reflective writing.

Specific: Students are expected to apply time management and goal setting strategies

Measurable: Project milestones and reflective writing

Achievable: Difficulty of problem is adjusted to meet student’s background and software familiarity

Relevant: the skills in question that are necessary for successfully completing a challenging project

Time-bound: Within the first 2 weeks

4.4. Develop Pedagogical Strategies

Note: In this lesson, we will only make a brief mention of existing Pedagogical Strategies that can be implemented to better integrate sustainability competences in curricula. A more detailed outlook at each strategy is present throughout Module 2’s Unit U4. 

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Team-based Learning (TBL)

Case studies

Community Service Learning

Experiential and active learning

4.5. Assessment of skill acquisition and curriculum effectiveness

Assessing Skill Acquisition (Topic 5)

  1. Purpose

Why is the assessment being considered and what does it tell us?

  1. Timing

When is the assessment done?

  1. Nature

What tasks will students perform and how will they be scored?

Evaluate and Reflect (Topic 6)

  1. Relevance

Does the curriculum address its intended goals and aspirations? 

  1. Coherence

Is the curriculum consistent across its components?

  1. Accuracy

Is the information accurate and up-to-date?

Topic 5: Student achievement and success from a sustainability perspective

5.1. Types of assessment

  1. Formative assessment: Done during the learning process (e.g. quizzes, peer-feedback)
  1. Summative Assessment: Done at the end of learning unit

(e.g. exams, final project)

  1. Authentic Assessment: Use of skills to real or simulated scenarios

(e.g. presentations, case studies)

  1. Others (e.g. portfolios and media) 

5.2. Good practice – Using Depth of Knowledge (DoK) and External Impact at the University of North Dakota

Key concepts and ideas:

Tokens: Proof of skill acquisition

Impact Scale: Rates depth of knowledge and external impact

Reviews: Multiple peer/instructor reviews phases

Grading: Summative grade depends on DoK and the external impact of the project

5.3. Other Good Practices

High Tech High (California, US): 

Uses Project-based learning

Goals: Develop sustainability competencies such as systems thinking, critical inquiry, and taking action.

More info --> here

Green School Bali (Indonesia): 

Greenstone Projects

Goals: Develop sustainability competencies such as creativity, communication, and problem-solving.

More info --> here

Topic 6: Evaluating the effectiveness of curricula in promoting sustainable development 


6.1. Why Evaluate Sustainability Curriculum Effectiveness?

  • Assess alignment to intended sustainability learning outcomes
  • Identify gaps in student competency development
  • Guide continual improvement of curriculum, instruction, assessment
  • Demonstrate accountability and impact for sustainability education investments
  • Benchmark progress on sustainability goals over time

6.2. Evaluating Progress Sustainability Competencies

GreenComp

  1. Four competence areas: ‘embodying sustainability values’, ‘embracing complexity in sustainability’, ‘envisioning sustainable futures’ and ‘acting for sustainability’.
  2. Create learning objectives for these competences
  3. Assess competence before and after curriculum implementation

PISA Global Competence Framework:

  1. Assesses sustainability competencies using a standardized test administered to 15-year-olds in 2018
  2. Repetition allows comparison of student proficiency over time and across demographics

Topic 7: Collaboration and innovation in curriculum design

7.1. Collaborative Curriculum Design

  • Brings together diverse expertise and perspectives
  • Fosters systems thinking and interdisciplinarity
  • Builds shared vision, goals, and accountability
  • Enables ongoing refinement and evolution
  • Models collaboration for students

7.2. Challenges and Strategies in Collaborative Curriculum Design


7.3. Designing a Collaborative Curriculum Plan 

  1. Convene a diverse team of collaborators
  2. Co-develop vision, competencies, themes, essential questions
  3. Research and share existing materials and practices
  4. Brainstorm interdisciplinary projects linking classroom to real issues
  5. Create templates for collaborative design and assessment
  6. Implement iterative cycles of peer feedback and refinement
  7. Continually update based on data and societal needs

Concluding Remarks

Key Takeaways

  • Sustainable learning and education (SLE) focuses on creating renewable, self-sufficient and continuously improving learning processes.
  • Curriculum design for SLE should be learner-centered, experiential, participatory, and connect learning to real-world contexts.
  • There administrative challenges to implementing SLE curricula. In addition there also exist opportunities as SLE-related skills are already being assessed in curricula across the globe.
  • When designing sustainability aligned learning objectives, these should be directly aligned with the UN SDGs or with a framework like SLE. 
  • Evaluating curriculum effectiveness in developing sustainability competencies over time can be done using tools like GreenComp or PISA.
  • Collaboration in curriculum design brings diverse expertise, fosters innovation, and models collaboration for students.

Recommendations for Practice

  • Conduct sustainability competency gap analysis to identify priority skills.
  • Provide training and support for teachers on pedagogical approaches like PBL or TBL.
  • Develop national or local strategies and policies to drive widespread SLE adoption.
  • Use horizontal and vertical alignment models to integrate SLE across subjects and grades .
  • Partner with organizations and businesses to bring real-world problems into the curriculum.
  • Allow time for cross-disciplinary teacher collaboration.
  • Evaluate sustainability competency growth regularly using authentic, data-driven assessments.

Extra Material 1: Lessons from embedding values in curricula

Embedding values is complex. Anticipating consequences and responding flexibly enables effective, sustainable values in educational design:

  • Some values are "caught", not just taught
  • There are conflicting values between schools, teachers, parents and students that need to be reconciled
  • Consciously reflect student perspectives and voices
  • Preserve subject integrity: use existing frameworks to embed values appropriately
  • Be aware of media risks: proactively communicate with stakeholders
  • Use authentic assessments: prioritize validity, feasibility, actionability

Extra Material 2: A timeline on mature curriculum design (Finland)

References:

Alvarez, E., Striker, R., & Ewert, D. (2023). Implementing Tokens For Personalized Learning In A Biomedical Engineering Program: Lessons Learned And Future Considerations. In EDULEARN23 Proceedings (pp. 8308-8314). IATED.

Bianchi, G., Pisiotis, U. and Cabrera Giraldez, M., GreenComp The European sustainability competence framework, Punie, Y. and Bacigalupo, M. editor(s), EUR 30955 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2022, ISBN 978-92-76-46485-3, doi:10.2760/13286, JRC128040.

Boeve-de Pauw, J., & Van Petegem, P. (2018). Eco-school evaluation beyond labels: The impact of environmental policy, didactics and nature at school on student outcomes. Environmental Education Research, 24(9), 1250-1267.

Doran, G. T. (1981). There’sa SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management review, 70(11), 35-36.

Hays, J., & Reinders, H. (2020). Sustainable learning and education: A curriculum for the future. International Review of Education, 66(1), 29-52.

OECD. (2018). Preparing our youth for an inclusive and sustainable world: The OECD PISA global competence framework. OECD Publishing

OCDE (2021), Embedding Values and Attitudes in Curriculum: Shaping a Better Future, Éditions OCDE, Paris, click here for the website

Scottish Government. (2019). Learning for Sustainability: Vision 2030+ Action Plan. Retrieved from click here for the website

Singelmann, L., Striker, R., Vazquez, E. A., Swartz, E., Pearson, M., Ng, S. S., & Ewert, D. (2021, October). Creation of a framework that integrates technical innovation and learning in engineering. In 2021 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) (pp. 1-9). IEEE.

Taguma, M., & Barrera, M. (2019). OECD future of education and skills 2030: Curriculum analysis. Disponibile su: click here for the website

UNECE (2011). Learning for the future: Competences in education for sustainable development.

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance. Jossey-Bass.

CLICK on the following image to view and download the full module in PDF format

Up next

Sustainability Competences and Pedagogical Approaches
Learning to understand the key principles and characteristics of different pedagogical approaches in education.

Course Lessons

Introduction to Sustainable Development

Introduction to Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development in Higher Education

Sustainable Development in Higher Education

Curriculum Design for Sustainable Development

Curriculum Design for Sustainable Development

Implementation workshop for pedagogical innovation

Implementation workshop for pedagogical innovation

Project Partners