Defining Environmental & Sustainability Education

Defining Environmental & Sustainability Education (ESE)

At OISE, we use the term 'ESE' (Environmental & Sustainability Education) as a shorthand to reference multiple traditions of environmental and ecojustice learning that happen at all levels of education, from Kindergarten through to higher education, in formal and informal settings. These traditions include Environmental Education (EE), Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), Indigenous education, Land-based learning, nature-based learning, Outdoor & Experiential Education (OEE), place-based education, eco-justice education, éducation relative à l'environnement et au développement durable, Education for Sustainability (EfS), Climate Change Education (CCE), climate justice education, humane education; and sustainability for well-being. We recognize that each of these traditions draw on different foundational principles and philosophies, and emphasize a range of approaches and issues. Using the term ESE signals a desire to honour the contributions and tensions of these multiple theoretical and practical positions, help others learn about the rich histories that inform ESE and contribute to these traditions moving forward. Below we share others' definitions for some of these traditions; this is not intended as a definitive listing, but rather as a series of starting points for those wanting to learn more.

Environmental Education:

  • Learning that “encourages a sense of personal responsibility for the environment; fosters a commitment to sustainable living, and promotes an enduring dedication to environmental stewardship.”    - Green Street


  • "Environmental education is education about the environment, for the environment, and in the environment that promotes an understanding of, rich and active experience in, and an appreciation for the dynamic interactions of:             
    - the Earth’s physical and biological systems;
    - the dependency of our social and economic systems on these natural systems;
    - the scientific and human dimensions of environmental issues;
    - the positive and negative consequences, both intended and unintended of the interactions between human created and natural systems."
                                 Ministry of Education "Shaping Our Schools, Shaping Our Future", 2007, p. 6


  • Most ecologically-oriented education in the U.S., Europe, and Australia is in the category of “environmental education.” The basic premises of environmental education include giving students basic knowledge of ecological systems, encouraging appreciation of the outdoors, and teaching awareness of ecological issues…One branch of environmental education tends to come from the standpoint of the natural sciences, and so encourages students to understand how ecosystems function as interdependent systems. This approach has, for example, led to the use of the metaphor of seeing an ecosystem as an interconnected “web of life,” in which all the components are affected by a change to any part of the web: an important concept.” (p.11-12)      EcoJustice Education: Toward Diverse, Democratic, and Sustainable Communities, Third Edition by Rebecca A. Martusewicz, Jeff Edmundson, and John Lupinacci.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD):

  • "The role of education for sustainable development (ESD) is to help people develop the attitudes, skills, and knowledge to make informed decisions for the benefit of themselves and others, now and for the future, and to act upon those decisions. ESD is an approach to teaching and learning based on the ideals and principles that underlie sustainability – human rights, poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods, peace, environmental protection, democracy, health, biological and landscape diversity, climate change, gender equality, and protection of indigenous cultures. In these and many other dimensions, education for sustainable development is analogous with the vision and goals of UNESCO.  - Canadian Commission for UNESCO
  • “Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) encourages us to explore the profound inter-dependencies of ecological, societal, and economic systems. ESD is about respecting and preserving our histories, valuing culture and community, caring for others and the environment, and taking action to create a fair, healthy, and safe world for all beings. ESD also supports flexibility, creativity, critical reflection, and fosters a sense of personal responsibility for the economy, society, and environment."  - Learning for a Sustainable Future

Ecojustice/Climate Justice Education:

  • Ecojustice Education is the "educational efforts of students, teachers, and members of the local community learning collaboratively while engaged in revitalizing the local commons. Ecojustice Education is shaped by an understanding that local and global ecosystems are essential to all life; challenging the deep cultural assumptions underlying modern thinking that undermine those systems; and the recognition of the need to restore the cultural and environmental commons.”      EcoJustice Education: Toward Diverse, Democratic, and Sustainable Communities, Second Edition by Rebecca A. Martusewicz, Jeff Edmundson, and John Lupinacci.


  • “Ecojustice Education is based on the recognition that ‘to be human is to live engaged in a vast and complex system of life, and human well-being depends on learning how to protect it’ (Martusewicz & Edmundson, 2005, p. 71) … This approach also refuses the dichotomy between social justice and environmental concerns, arguing instead that they must be understood as grounded in the same cultural history. To look at the cultural roots of the ecological crisis is to ultimately argue that a fundamental cultural change needs to occur if we are to seriously challenge the various crises we face.” (p.9-10)      EcoJustice Education: Toward Diverse, Democratic, and Sustainable Communities, Third Edition by Rebecca A. Martusewicz, Jeff Edmundson, and John Lupinacci.


  • Climate Justice Education focuses on social injustice between wealthy and poor regions in the world and its disproportionate climate impact as such ‘There can be no ethical and adequately responsive climate change education without global climate justice education. Missing from most climate change education, especially in wealthier societies, is an appreciation that the metaphorical North of the planet is primarily responsible for carbon buildup but that its effects are coming thickest and fastest to the peoples and societies of the South…Education has a role in challenging and rolling back climate change injustice.’” (p. 242)   Education and Climate Change: Living and Learning in Interesting times by Fumiyo Kagawa and David Selby

Sustainability Education/Education for Sustainability (EfS):

  • “Education for Sustainability (EfS) is an educational approach that aims to develop students, schools and communities with the values and the motivation to take action for sustainability – in their personal lives, within their community and also at a global scale, now and in the future. Education for Sustainability (EfS) aims to build awareness and knowledge of sustainability issues but also to develop students and schools that are able to think critically, innovate and provide solutions towards more sustainable patterns of living."  - Sustainability in Schools AESA 2015-2016

Place-based Education:

  • “Place-based education (PBE) immerses students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, using these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. PBE emphasizes learning through participation in service projects for the local school and/or community.”  - Promise of Place
  • “Place-based education takes us back to basics, but in a broader and more inclusive fashion. Desirable environmental education, or what we’re calling place-based education, teaches about both the natural and built environments. The history, folk culture, social problems, economics, and aesthetics of the community and its environment are all on the agenda… one of the core objectives is to look at how landscape, community infrastructure, watersheds, and cultural traditions all interact and shape each other.”  - Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities by D. Sobel

Outdoor/Experiential Education:

  • The concept of outdoor education is defined in the literature on six main points:
  1. is a method of learning;
  2. is experiential;
  3. takes place outdoors;  
  4. requires the use of all senses and fields;
  5. is based on multidisciplinary subjects; and finally,
  6. includes relationships involving people and natural resources

-Experiential learning from the perspective of outdoor education leaders by Kadir Yildiz

Climate Change Education: 

  • Climate change education is about learning in the face of risk, uncertainty and rapid change…  Climate change education demands a focus on the kind of learning, critical and creative thinking and capacity building that will enable youth to engage with the information, inquire, understand, ask critical questions and take what they determine are appropriate actions to respond to climate change.”    - What Is Climate Change Education? by Stevenson, R.B., Nicholls, J. & Whitehouse, H.
  • It helps people understand and address the impacts of the climate crisis, empowering them with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes needed to act as agents of change. The international community recognizes the importance of education and training to address climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and the associated Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) agenda call on governments to educateempower and engage all stakeholders and major groups on policies and actions relating to climate change.”    UNESCO

Land-based Education:

  • Indigenous Land-based learning typically uses an Indigenized and environmentally-focused approach to education by first recognizing the deep, physical, mental, and spiritual connection to the land that is a part of Indigenous cultures.” Indigenous Land-based education teaches environmental stewardship. Simply put, Indigenous environmental stewardship reflects all the ways that Indigenous peoples honour Mother Earth, including practices of conservation and sustainability, as well as showing a responsibility for one another, as human beings.”  Indigenous Climate Hub


  • Indigenous Land-based education is relational and focuses on understanding how knowledge connects to and comes from land, including water, sky and everything connected to them. Indigenous Land-based education is its own paradigm based on Indigenous worldviews and beliefs and the passing on of knowledge to one another and to the next generation…It is also a form of understanding our place within, and our responsibility to, the wider universe.”   Canadian Commission for UNESCO