Education for sustainable development (ESD): Exploring theoretical and practical challenges

Helen Kopnina*, Frans Meijers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

83 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: This article aims to explore the challenges posed by the conceptual framework and diversity of practice of education for sustainable development (ESD). The implications of plurality of ESD perspectives and methodological approaches as well variations in ESD practice will be addressed. Critical framework for conceptualizing of ESD which takes environmental ethics into account will be proposed through the discussion of The Ecocentric and Anthropocentric Attitudes Toward the Sustainable Development (EAATSD) scale. Design/methodology/approach: The paper opted for a general review approach, covering literature that provides an overview of the concepts and practices of ESD, as well as program evaluation studies. Additionally, qualitative evaluation of EAATSD scale with students of higher professional education was conducted, using in-depth interviews and dialogue with individual students as well as classroom discussions. Findings: It was found that there are wide and inconclusive debates about the aims of ESD based on the critique of sustainable development discourse in general and instrumentalism embedded in ESD in particular. According to the qualitative evaluation, EAATSD scale can be used for testing anthropocentric and Ecocentric Attitudes Towards Sustainable Development in students of higher education. Based on these results, this scale was found to be revealing of the critical view of paradoxes and challenges inherent in multiple goals of sustainable development as well as useful for testing anthropocentric and ecocentric attitudes in students of higher education. Research limitations/implications: Reliability of the scale needs further statistical testing, and as is the case in conventional EE/ESD evaluations, and consequent research is necessary to improve institutional, national, and international applicability to particular cases. Future research should draw from this critical review in order to devise alternative evaluation tools. Practical implications: In practice, this implies that currently administered evaluations of generic ESD, while useful in concrete cultural or institutional settings, might be premature. The article concludes with the reflection upon which conceptual, methodological, cultural, and ethical challenges of ESD which should be useful for ESD researchers and practitioners in different national settings. Originality/value: This article fulfills an identified need to address the paradoxes of sustainable development and to study how ESD can be more effective.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)188-207
Number of pages20
JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2014
Externally publishedYes


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