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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.

Teaching ideas and tips

Education for sustainability fosters innovative approaches to curriculum design and review, and provides many opportunities for students to become confident, connected, actively involved, life-long learners.

Schools choosing to include a sustainability focus can do so in a number of ways. For example:

  • through developing a whole school approach – where students engaging in practices, projects, and ways of working that lead to a more sustainable future forms the basis of the curriculum and teaching and learning programmes
  • by using the NCEA Achievement Standards in Education for Sustainability to engage students in worthwhile qualifications
  • by including the multitude of meaningful learning contexts, issues, and community projects that sustainability provides across learning areas and levels of the curriculum.


Central concepts that students can develop understanding of through EfS include:

  • sustainability – the ability of individuals, groups, and communities to meet their needs and aspirations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs
  • equity – respect for all life, social justice, intergenerational equity, finite resources
  • interdependence – biodiversity, community, cultural diversity, democracy, globalisation
  • responsibility for action – taking action, informed decision-making, citizenship, consumerism, enterprise, resilience, and regeneration.

Table showing inter-relationships between aspects of education for sustainability:

Context or topic Concept of EfS as an understanding for students to develop Sustainability issue The vision for action – what students might do that targets the sustainability issue


The Bush


Endangered animals


We are learning about how living things work together to meet their needs.

Loss of biodiversity and habitats for a range of species

Butterfly gardens

Skink gardens

Native plantings

Bird Forests

Pa Harakeke




The water cycle


We are learning about connections between land use and waterways.

Erosion of land increasing sediment in waterways

Streamside plantings

Stormwater drain campaign








We are learning about finite resources.

Increasing amounts of waste that natural systems cannot process

Packaging audit of school to establish what "waste" comes into the school

Create waste system to manage biodegradable organic matter in the school


Responsibility for action

We are learning to make informed decisions and take action.

Reliance on a non-renewable resource with large energy and waste outputs

Creating a "walking school bus" for students to get to and from school safely

Renovation of the school bike sheds for safe and easy storage of bikes for staff and students

Fair trade

Responsibility for action

We are learning to make informed decisions and take action.

Ensuring food is produced and sold in ways that the Earth can sustain and people gain a fair price for their goods

Creating a school garden or orchard

Working with a community garden to process fruit for local sale

Taking action

Students taking informed action to address issues of sustainability and participate in creating a sustainable future is the core of education for sustainability.

Taking action is a process of learning that:

  • uses meaningful contexts for learning
  • empowers students to do something with their learning: "It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with what you know" (source unknown)
  • supports participation in the wider community, such as taking part in decision making processes
  • develops the key competencies leading to action competence in education for sustainability.

Students need to be given multiple opportunities to plan, implement, and carry out actions in response to what they know and understand about the causes of sustainability issues and possibilities for change.

Examples of actions include:

  • a personal response or behaviour change such as taking the bus rather than the car
  • a project to rehabilitate or prevent degradation of the environment, such as excluding stock from waterways or planting to increase biodiversity
  • the development of a system to reduce use of natural resources such as installing a rainwater collection system to use on gardens or in toilet cisterns
  • a project to educate others on an environmental issue, such as a movie highlighting ways to make a wrapper-free lunch and how this reduces waste to landfills.

Planning for taking action

When planning for taking action in education for sustainability, you will need to consider:

  • what will my students learn as a result of this action?
  • what prior knowledge and understanding do my students have of the sustainability issue they are seeking to address?
  • how can I ensure my students are involved in deciding what to do?

This tool helps students map the process of action and plan their learning. It is suitable for many different contexts.

Teaching ideas

Find a range of teaching ideas to help you consider ways to integrate EfS into your local curriculum. You can adapt these ideas to suit the needs, interests, and strengths of your students.

Explore kaitiakitanga
This section of Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand has links and information about kaitiakitanga, a way of managing the environment, based on the traditional Māori world view. It explores the concepts of guardianship, protection, preservation, and sheltering. You could read the article Kaitiaki of the Stream with your students which is based on the work of Pātaka Moore of Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa in Ōtaki. In a talk to local students, he explains the history and significance of the Mangapōuri Stream. He also discusses how the stream, which is now unhealthy, might be restored. Encourage your students to consider how they can take on the role of kaitiaki for their local environment.

Chocolate fair trade 
Support students to find out about the trade and distribution of resources in the cocoa industry. Students can understand how their consumer choices impact on people and take action to improve the hauora (well-being) of cocoa producing communities.

Exploring waste
Encourage students to consider what happens to things when we no longer want them. Create a timeline to examine how long it takes for different items of waste to break down and use this as a catalyst to challenge students to think about what they buy and what to do with something when they have ‘finished’ with it. 

Wage a war on plastic
Investigate the impact of plastic consumption on the health of our earth and take action to reduce the damage. The School Journal article Plastic-free Challenge explains how a class of New Zealand students took action to combat plastic pollution.

Make your school a nicer place 
Consider ways that you can make the physical environment of your school a more attractive and environmentally friendly place to be. Students might choose to plant a school vegetable garden, build bird feeders or bug motels, create garden art, or install additional rubbish bins to keep the grounds tidy. The Enviroschools foundation supports an action-based approach to education through which children and young people plan, design, and implement sustainable projects, and become catalysts for change in their families, whānau, and the wider community.

Celebrate Conservation Week
Use Conservation Week as an opportunity to explore education for sustainability with your students, staff, and community. You could introduce Conservation Week to students at your school assembly and organise activities during the week. This Conservation Week event page is packed with ideas to help you get involved. 

Go on a LEARNZ virtual field trip
Select a LEARNZ virtual field trip to use with your class. Many of the trips have a sustainability theme. Each field trip has its own dedicated website with curated curriculum links and support for teachers, plus relevant reading and interactive quizzes for students. The experience of a field trip is also captured using daily videos, diaries, and recorded web conferences that you can view retrospectively. 

Senior secondary

At levels 6-8 of the national curriculum, schools can develop new and innovative courses with a focus on sustainability that encourage learning in a range of disciplines. A focus on education for sustainability can also be incorporated within traditional learning areas.

Education for Sustainability Teaching and Learning Guidelines are now available to guide teachers in developing teaching and learning programmes for senior secondary students. Education for sustainability has its foundations in environmental education, and the Environmental Education Guidelines (1999) will continue to provide useful information and support for planning.

Qualifications in education for sustainability are available on the National Qualifications Framework at NCEA Levels 2 and 3. These qualifications will contribute to students' learning and career pathways in creating a sustainable future.

The Ministry of Education has developed a series of Achievement Standards for education for sustainability at levels 2 and 3 on the National Qualifications Framework that are aligned with The New Zealand Curriculum. They may be used within dedicated year-long sustainability courses or be incorporated into other senior subjects such as geography, the sciences, economics, and horticulture as well as within learning areas such as technology and the arts.

Pathways in EfS

Education for sustainability achievement standards provide relevant qualifications to contribute to students learning and career pathways in creating a sustainable future.

The achievement standards are integrated assessments, which can be used in a variety of ways depending on student needs. The standards could be incorporated within traditional learning areas, or offer assessment opportunities for new and innovative courses with a focus on sustainability, which encourages learning in a range of disciplines.

NCEA qualifications in education for sustainability provide:

  • coherence in linking learning for transition from primary to secondary school and further learning
  • assessment opportunities to give credits for University Entrance
  • focused knowledge and competencies that will contribute to careers needed for a “sustainable economy”
  • opportunities to develop meaningful integrated pathways in secondary schools implementing the NZC
  • recognition for active young people interested in creating a sustainable future.

Updated on: 17 Dec 2020