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Education for sustainability

Education for sustainability

Sustainability is a critical issue for New Zealand – environmentally, economically, culturally, politically, and socially. We need to learn how to live smarter to reduce our impact on the environment for future generations.


"Mō tātou te taiao ko te atawhai, mō tātou te taiao ko te oranga"

"It is for us to care for and look after the environment to ensure its wellbeing, in doing so we ensure our own wellbeing and that of our future generations"

What is education for sustainability?

New Zealand’s national curriculum focuses on 21st century learning, ensuring learners are equipped to participate in and contribute to their own society and the wider world. An important aspect of this is encouraging students to consider significant future-focused issues such as sustainability.

Education for sustainability (EfS) is about learning to think and act in ways that will safeguard the future wellbeing of people and our planet. 

Education for sustainability includes learning about:

  • the environment – water, land, ecosystems, energy, waste, urban living, transportation
  • the interactions between the natural environment and human activities, and the consequences of these
  • the choices and actions we can take to prevent, reduce, or change harmful activities to the environment.

Central to this learning is the exploration of attitudes, values, and behaviours with respect to the environment - both our own and those of others.

A focus on education for sustainability:

  • can develop learners who are informed decision makers, and connected to the land and the environment
  • provides a context that enables meaningful connections between learning areas, key competencies, and values
  • offers ways for students and schools to contribute to the social, cultural, economic, and environmental well-being of New Zealand. A sustainable school prepares young people for a lifetime of sustainable living, through its teaching, its culture, and its day-to-day practices
  • provides opportunities for students to engage in genuine learning in their communities and take action
  • uses authentic learning to develop creative and critical thinking for a sustainable future.

How does education for sustainability link to the New Zealand Curriculum? 

NZC Curriculum icon.

Sustainability is a significant theme throughout the national curriculum:

  • It is evident in The New Zealand Curriculum's vision for young people in New Zealand to be "confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners".
  • It is an important element for a graduate of Māori-medium education to enable them to effectively participate in the Māori world, advocating a Māori world view and understanding their role within whānau, hapū, iwi, community, and wider society.

Education for sustainability and Te Marautanga O Aotearoa

Te Marautanga o Aotearoa endorses a curriculum to support Māori students in their own world and to connect students purposefully towards contributing to a sustainable environment through holistic learning pathways.

Education for sustainability and The New Zealand Curriculum


What do we want for our young people? (NZC, p.8)

  • “to secure a sustainable social, cultural, economic, and environmental future for our country”
  • be connected - able to relate well to others, connect to the land and environment, be members of communities
  • be actively involved - participate in a range of life contexts, contribute to the well-being of New Zealand – socially, culturally, economically, and environmentally.


The foundations of curriculum decision making. (NZC, p.9)

Sustainability is explicitly identified as a significant theme for inclusion in the "future focus" principle.

High expectations
  • Supporting and empowering all students to achieve by enabling them to experience and participate in learning towards a goal that they see can make a difference.
Treaty of Waitangi
  • Acknowledging the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and seeking to give students opportunities to explore and gain understanding of a Māori perspective of the environment.
Cultural diversity
  • Recognising the importance of learning from the experiences of others and respecting the histories and traditions that will support a sustainable future for all.
  • Systems thinking in education for sustainability values and supports diverse skills and abilities, as we all have a part in ensuring a sustainable future.
Learning to learn
  • Education for sustainability requires learning to be active and developed with students as they explore, plan, and implement solutions to environmental issues.
Community engagement
  • Recognising that environmental issues are embedded in society, and providing opportunities for students to work with their community to find solutions to local issues.
  • As an integrated discipline, education for sustainability requires the contribution of all learning areas, key competencies, and values to support learning and decision making for action on environmental issues.
Future focus
  • Sustainability is a significant theme both now and into the future.


To be encouraged, modelled and explored. (NZC, p.10)

Students will be encouraged to value:

  • “ecological sustainability including care for the environment”.

In exploring environmental issues, people’s interests in the environment, and actions for a sustainable future, students will have many opportunities to:

  • learn about their own values and those of others
  • develop their ability to express their own values
  • explore with empathy the values of others
  • critically analyse values and the actions based on them
  • discuss disagreements that arise from difference in values and negotiate solutions
  • make ethical decisions and act on them.

Key competencies

Capabilities for living and lifelong learning. (NZC, p.12)

Education for sustainability seeks to empower students of all ages to take action on issues of concern and of interest to them. It describes this process as action competence, and uses all the key competencies, combined with experiences from the learning areas, to make this goal possible. The development of action competence and the key competencies is seen as part of the process of taking action.

Learning areas

Important for a broad general education. (NZC, p.16)

All learning should make use of the natural connections that exist between learning areas and that link learning areas to the values and key competencies. It is important for both teaching purposes and planning that schools provide clear statements of learning expectations in EFS that help chart progress.

In The New Zealand Curriculum, learning about sustainability issues is stated within achievement objectives for:

  • Health and Physical Education – Healthy Communities and Environments
  • Science – the Nature of Science, Participating and Contributing, Planet Earth and Beyond, Living World
  • Social Sciences – Place and Environment
  • Technology – Technological Knowledge, Technological Practice

And within Te Marautanga O Aotearoa:

  • Hauora – Taiao (health and environment)
  • Putaiao – Papatuanuku
  • Hangarau – Concepts of hangarau
  • Pangarau – Using pangarau
  • Tikanga-a-iwi – The changing world

Education for sustainability and the varied contexts that it supports provide multiple opportunities for rich learning in numeracy and literacy in everyday situations.

Growing a sustainable school.

Growing a sustainable school

A framework for understanding and developing a whole school approach to sustainability has been produced by a New Zealand research team including teachers through a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative project. This framework shows the areas of school life to consider when developing a whole school approach to sustainability. 

Four areas of school life work together to create a sustainable school.

In a sustainable school:

  • People work collaboratively, are reflective of our bicultural heritage and the diversity of their community. They ensure that students are all involved in sharing decisions in order to become confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.
  • Programmes focus on learning about the interaction between people and the environment and developing attitudes and behaviours for a more sustainable future. Through taking action students discover why sustainability matters and how to make sustainability a reality in their school and wider community.
  • Sustainable Practices are part of school culture instigated by students and staff to make a more resilient community for the future.
  • Place is created where students and their community work together willingly to reduce their impact on the planet for future generations to enjoy the diverse and beautiful world we live in.

Updated on: 17 Dec 2020