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Education for sustainability

Education for sustainability

Education for Sustainability (EfS) empowers learning communities with the values, knowledges, and skills they need to take meaningful action to ensure a thriving world.

This website provides the rationale for EfS, celebrates learner outcomes, discusses teaching pedagogies, and describes the ways in which EfS can inform a whole-school approach to creating a more sustainable world.

Why Education for Sustainability?

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.

The importance of Education for Sustainability

Education for Sustainability is about learning to think and act in ways that cultivate the wellbeing of our people and our planet. It provides a relevant, engaging lens through which to explore the New Zealand Curriculum, so that teachers and ākonga contribute to the regeneration of the health of our social, cultural, and ecological systems.

Rationale for Education for Sustainability

Humanity has never faced such significant and urgent challenges as those facing us today. Education for Sustainability explores the ways we can meet the needs of all, addressing unsustainable practices through taking empowering, optimistic, values-based action. 

“Learning must prepare students and learners of all ages to find solutions for the challenges of today and the future.
Education should be transformative and allow us to make informed decisions and take individual and collective action to change our societies and care for the planet.”

    - Learning for Sustainable Development, UNESCO, 2021.

EfS is a holistic, transformational lens through which the New Zealand Curriculum can be navigated, providing a relevant foundation on which to build local curriculum in relationship with mana whenua and the natural environment.

EfS helps to create future-focused, lifelong learners by providing engaging opportunities to contribute to a changing world. It requires integrated curriculum approaches and is most effective when supported by whole-school policies and practices.

Kaupapa for Education for Sustainability 

The following principles, which outline the intent of Education for Sustainability (EfS), have evolved from Mātauranga Whakauka Taiao | Environmental Education for Sustainability Strategy and Action Plan 2017–2021. Descriptors of each EfS principle emphasise the opportunities to address social and environmental justice issues within teaching and learning.   

The principles of EfS

Principle 1: Thinking for the future

Emphasising vision and action for the future through:

  • developing a long-term vision for a thriving ecosystem
  • implementing school-wide policy that ensures sustainable operations and supports the movement towards regenerative practices
  • empowering young people to determine a sustainable future through active participation for change
  • encouraging intergenerational learning through community engagement in local curriculum contexts
  • critically analysing the values and practices that have brought us to this point in time, so that a thriving future can be created.

Principle 2: Sharing values

Fostering kaitiakitanga, citizenship, and personal and collective responsibility through:

  • exercising care for our place and our people through teaching and learning experiences that emphasise our connectedness and interdependence
  • examining dominant values and raising critical consciousness around individualism, consumerism, and what ‘enough’ looks like
  • implementing locally relevant, place-based curriculum that develops the knowledge, attitudes, and skills required to think and act sustainably
  • developing teaching and learning experiences that highlight our reliance on, and responsibilities for, regenerating biodiversity, land, freshwater, marine environment, air, atmosphere, and climate
  • enabling teaching and learning experiences that result in visible change towards a more sustainable world
  • acknowledging and respecting multiple value positions and diverse knowledge.

Principle 3: Adopting a uniquely New Zealand perspective

Providing real-life contexts for learning about sustainability through:

  • honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi through authentic engagement with our collective histories, including addressing the impact of colonisation on our contemporary realities
  • utilising EfS as a vehicle to address social and environmental justice issues using Treaty partnership processes
  • exploring the ways in which local action can positively contribute to local or national environmental issues (e.g., freshwater quality, predator-free New Zealand) or help to mitigate the impacts of climate change on our island nation.

Principle 4: Growing knowledge, skills, and understanding

Developing social, cultural, economic, and environmental understanding through:

  • exploring the ways in which mātauranga Māori, in relationship with mana whenua, can provide direction into a sustainable future
  • actively building EfS knowledge, skills, and understanding within and across curriculum learning areas
  • developing capabilities in Education for Sustainability through critical inquiry, perspective-taking, and taking action in response to the root causes of issues
  • focusing on the causes of issues in order to identify meaningful action
  • understanding systems thinking through making connections between social, cultural, economic, and environmental systems in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • engaging with the ways human activity can positively or negatively impact our planetary life support systems, particularly through building climate change awareness.

Principle 5: Taking collective action

Enabling increased collaboration, valuing tangata whenua as kaitiaki, and exercising stewardship through:

  • encouraging community engagement and a sense of belonging through active participation for change within local contexts
  • creating partnerships and collaborations for collective impact in response to sustainability and climate change issues
  • encouraging responsible use of limited resources through school-wide policies that promote circularity and reduce consumption
  • celebrating and empowering youth and community in political activism and social change.

Key concepts within Education for Sustainability

Key concepts are the big ideas and understandings that will remain long after learning has taken place. The following big ideas – sustainability, interdependence, connection, equity, and participation for change – are key concepts that underpin a holistic approach to EfS.


Living in ways that will ensure a thriving future 

Sustainability is the underpinning concept of EfS. Sustainability challenges us to find ways to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This requires us to radically reimagine the ways in which we are living today in relation to each other and the natural world.

“For our very own survival, we must learn to live together sustainably on this planet. We must change the way we think and act as individuals and societies … education must change to create a peaceful and sustainable world for the survival and prosperity of current and future generations.

   -  Education for Sustainable Development: A Roadmap, UNESCO, 2020.

Interestingly, within te ao Māori, there is no specific kupu (word) that means ‘sustainability'. This signifies an important philosophical difference. Many people may view humans as separate from nature and sustainability as predominantly a resource management issue. However, within mātauranga Māori a flourishing taiao (environment) is integral to our mauri (life force), and vice versa. 

Regeneration is a useful term when considering what is required at this moment in time. It focuses on the need to actively improve on the status quo, rather than sustaining what are currently broken systems. Regeneration encourages us to take part in actively restoring vitality and abundance so that future generations can prosper.  

Select this link to open a text version of this diagram.

Developing truly sustainable ways of living in Aotearoa New Zealand requires us to change our dominant societal values to ensure a thriving, resilient future. These values-based explorations are a crucial part of EfS. Exploring what we value and how we act in response to those values, informs learners’ understanding of, and aspirations for, their world.  


We are inextricably connected to each other and this world

Interdependence is a big idea that is visible within EfS in a number of ways. Interdependence is evident within our planetary life support systems. The circular systems of the natural world (e.g., water cycle, life cycle, seasonality, soil health), and the ways in which human life is entirely dependent upon them, provide a rich place from which awe, wonder, and respect for our planet can be developed.
Interdependence is also developed through our understanding of sustainability. Our social and cultural wellbeing is related to the wellbeing of the economy and that of the natural world. This interdependence is often presented as the four pillars, or aspects, of sustainability.

The four aspects of sustainability

Environmental is the need to ensure that biophysical systems can sustain all life on Earth. It includes the structure and function of natural ecosystems and the interactions between them and people, as well as calling for us to actively regenerate our environment.

Social is the need for equity within and between generations, and within and between groups. It includes individual and community wellbeing based on a fair distribution of resources.

Cultural is the need to nourish attitudes and values that represent diverse worldviews, and the political need for all people to express their views freely and to participate in decision making.

Economic is the interactions of people with the natural environment in using resources to create goods and services that add value to their lives. It acknowledges that resource use and waste must occur within the capacity of our planet. It encourages fair trade and circularity that equitably distributes benefits and costs. 

Select this link to open a text version of this diagram.

Interdependence exists in the present moment, as well as across time and space. We are directly linked to our past through our elders and connected forwards, by those that are born today. EfS recognises the impact that our shared histories have had on our lived realities today and that we are actively creating our shared future every day.

Systems thinking helps ākonga to examine interdependence within EfS, providing ways in which they can analyse issues and map appropriate actions in response.
Within mātauranga Māori, there are a number of deeply resonant ideas that further grow our understanding of interdependence as a key concept of EfS. Kaitiakitanga is often understood as guardianship, but it is also about reciprocity. Our natural resources will sustain us if we take care of them. This is an interdependent relationship where we are actively a part of nature and not separate from it. This in turn reminds us of whanaungatanga – that we are all family, all related. All aspects of Earth, people, and nature are connected to each other, all the way back to Papatūānuku and Ranginui.


Local focus for global impact

In Education for Sustainability, ākonga explore the relationship between people and the environment within their own context. These place-based connections – being able to learn within your local environment and community – ensure that active, engaged learning takes place within the context that surrounds us. This allows ākonga to develop a strong relationship to the environment and community-specific to their place in the world. It also helps to generate a connection to their natural world, an important foundation from which action can then take place. 

“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”
   - David Sobel

Authentic place-based connections honour Māori as mana whenua. Place-based connections respect the specificity of local mātauranga, whakapapa, and whanaungatanga and cultivate the connections between ourselves, Earth, and each other, creating spaces for critical consciousness-raising in response to pūrākau (myths), local stories, and our living landscapes. In this way, EfS links with approaches in the Local Curriculum Design Toolkit, as well as Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories in the New Zealand Curriculum, which both emphasise localised curriculum in response to place. 

Through inquiry into their own context, community, and place, ākonga develop a connection to nature, a sense of belonging to a common humanity, and respect for difference and diversity.


Equity in EfS means considering social and environmental justice issues and the ways they intersect

Sustainability issues, such as climate change, do not exist in isolation from wider societal issues or the values and systems that created those issues. EfS strives for greater equity through challenging and transforming these structures and practices.

Justice for the planet and justice for all people are entwined within Education for Sustainability. Effective EfS teaching and learning focuses on these issues of equity, considering the ways in which sustainability issues intersect with environmental and social justice issues.

Environmental justice seeks to ensure that all people have the same rights and access to healthy environments within which to live, work, and play. The concept of environmental justice began in the 1980s when it was recognised that many polluting industries and waste disposal areas were located near low-income and/or minority communities. Today, environmental justice movements primarily focus on the disproportionate impacts of climate change, as not all populations are able to mitigate or address the effects of climate change. This is especially relevant to any exploration of the impact of climate change on our Pacific neighbours. Environmental justice also strongly requires that we respect and care for our planet and everything on it.

Social justice issues are also an important part of equity within EfS. Examining social justice means that EfS learners consider the structures or actions that result in people being treated unfairly. Addressing social justice issues involves such things as working against discrimination, challenging policies that contribute to ongoing oppression, and ensuring all people are able to flourish. Within Aotearoa, social justice is particularly connected to recognising the impact of colonisation on tangata whenua and the natural world. Crucially, social justice also considers issues of intergenerational fairness – ensuring that we leave a world within which future generations can flourish.

Seeking to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi is central to equity in Aotearoa, as it will address many environmental and social justice issues simultaneously.


The doughnut model (Ranworth, 2017) helps to guide learners’ understanding of equity.
The doughnut layers of our social foundation and ecological ceiling help to define the space within which we can enjoy a safe, just world.

Select this link to open a text version of this diagram.

Participation for change

Knowledges, skills, and understandings are developed through experience and action 

Personal and social responsibility for action is a key concept of Education for Sustainability. EfS is experiential, requiring ākonga to connect with sustainability issues and then actively participate in an appropriate response, taking concrete steps to address, mitigate, or solve issues.

Education for Sustainability centres teaching and learning experiences in our local environment and community. This emphasis creates the conditions for ākonga to respond to the complex challenges of sustainability, such as climate change, through actively participating in their own world, often developing local and community-oriented responses to wider sustainability issues.

A local, community-oriented approach does not preclude learning and actions that are directed towards regional, national, and global goals and impacts.

Education for Sustainability and the NZC

Sustainability is a significant theme within the New Zealand Curriculum. EfS is a holistic and transformational lens through which the New Zealand Curriculum can be explored, providing a relevant foundation on which to build local curriculum in relationship with mana whenua and the natural environment.

EfS links within the New Zealand Curriculum

Education for Sustainability approaches address all the aspirations defined within the vision of the New Zealand Curriculum.

Our vision is for young people:

  • who will be creative, energetic, and enterprising
  • who will seize the opportunities offered by new knowledge and technologies to secure a sustainable social, cultural, economic, and environmental future for our country
  • who will work to create an Aotearoa New Zealand in which Māori and Pākehā recognise each other as full Treaty partners, and in which all cultures are valued for the contributions they bring
  • who, in their school years, will continue to develop the values, knowledge, and competencies that will enable them to live full and satisfying lives
  • who will be confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners.

(New Zealand Curriculum, page 8)

Education for Sustainability enacts all of the principles of the New Zealand Curriculum, particularly the Treaty of Waitangi, Inclusion, Learning to learn, and Community engagement. It is referred to within the Future focus principle in the NZC.

Future focus

The curriculum encourages students to look to the future by exploring such significant future-focused issues as sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, and globalisation.
(New Zealand Curriculum, page 9)

The values of the New Zealand Curriculum are deeply-held beliefs about what is important or desirable. They are expressed through the ways people think and act. Effective EfS approaches demonstrate a clear commitment to all the values of the New Zealand Curriculum.

Students will be encouraged to value:

  • excellence, by aiming high and by persevering in the face of difficulties
  • innovation, inquiry, and curiosity, by thinking critically, creatively, and reflectively
  • diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages, and heritages
  • equity, through fairness and social justice
  • community and participation for the common good
  • ecological sustainability, which includes care for the environment
  • integrity, which involves being honest, responsible, and accountable and acting ethically

and to

  • respect themselves, others, and human rights.

(New Zealand Curriculum, page 10)

Education for sustainability seeks to empower ākonga of all ages to take action on issues of concern and interest to them. This action competence uses all the key competencies, combined with experiences from the learning areas. 

EfS and local curriculum

Education for Sustainability is not a learning area but is a lens through which to view the learning areas in relation to the values and key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum.

Sustainability is just one of the future-focused issues identified within the New Zealand Curriculum. Effective EfS practice involves exploring all of these future-focused issues, making it a rich source of learning opportunities. 

Future-focused issues … encourage the making of connections across the learning areas, values, and key competencies, and they are relevant to students’ futures. Such issues include: 

  • sustainability – exploring the long-term impact of social, cultural, scientific, technological
  • economic, or political practices on society and the environment
  • citizenship – exploring what it means to be a citizen and to contribute to the development
  • and well-being of society
  • enterprise – exploring what it is to be innovative and entrepreneurial
  • globalisation – exploring what it means to be part of a global community and to live amongst diverse cultures.

(New Zealand Curriculum, page 39)

Within local curriculum design processes, a learning community will collaborate to consider the relevant issues for their context, their learners, and their community at this time. For many schools, these issues can connect to sustainability and the way each young person can develop the dispositions required for a sustainable future.

Once the broad scope of a local curriculum has been developed in collaboration with community, schools can consider the ways the EfS principles can underpin the implementation of that curriculum in an integrated way. Education for Sustainability involves environmental, social, cultural, and economic aspects and is therefore applicable across the curriculum. As outlined above, Education for Sustainability fosters innovative approaches to curriculum and provides many opportunities for students to become confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.

The learning area statements within the New Zealand Curriculum describe the essence of each learning area, how it can contribute to a young person’s education, and the way it is structured. These statements are a useful starting point for discussing the ways the principles and key concepts of EfS can intersect with learning areas within your local curriculum.

There are endless directions in which knowledges, skills, and values can be explored and developed across the levels and learning areas of the New Zealand Curriculum and through the key competencies. Resources that provide examples are included in the EfS curriculum, pedagogies, and assessment section.

Education for Sustainability at NCEA

An Education for Sustainability Teaching and Learning Guide is available to help teachers develop teaching and learning programmes for senior secondary students.

Credits in Education for Sustainability are available for NCEA levels 2 and 3 and are aligned with the New Zealand Curriculum. They may be used within dedicated year-long sustainability courses or incorporated into other senior subjects such as geography, social studies, the sciences, technology, economics, and horticulture.

Education for Sustainability credits provide ākonga with a knowledge, value, and competency base for existing and emerging career pathways and lifelong skills, which will contribute to a sustainable, low-emissions future in Aotearoa.


Mātauranga Whakauka Taiao | Environmental Education for Sustainability Strategy and Action Plan 2017–2021.
This strategy and action plan provides a useful framework for EfS approaches that have a strong environmental focus. Designed by the Ministry for Environment, Department of Conservation, and the Ministry of Education, the broad principles within Mātauranga Whakauka Taiao have been used as the foundation for the EfS principles that have been further developed above.

Education for Sustainable Development: A Roadmap cover

UNESCO (2020). Education for Sustainable Development: A Roadmap.
This publication has informed the development of the EfS principles and the key concepts. It emphasises the importance of policy for education and sustainable development, whole-school approaches, building educator capacity, empowering and mobilising youth, and focusing on local level action.

Opportunities for Education in a Changing Climate cover.

R. Bolstad (2020). Opportunities for Education in a Changing Climate: Themes from Key Informant Interviews. NZCER.
This report, part of NZCER’s wider education and climate change project, outlines findings from 17 in-depth interviews with a range of viewpoints about climate change and the role of education.

He Whakaaro cover

Ministry of Education (2019). He Whakaaro: How Environmentally Aware are New Zealand Students?
This insight paper examines the awareness of English-medium secondary students on a range of environmental issues and how this has changed in the last decade. Awareness of environmental issues is positively related to students’ scientific literacy, socioeconomic status, and engagement in science-related topics and activities, as well as with science teaching practices.

Environmental education in New Zealand schools: Research update 2015 cover

R. Bolstad, C. Joyce, and R. Hipkins (2015). Environmental education in New Zealand schools: Research update 2015.
This 2015 report updates the findings from a large multi-method study of environmental education in New Zealand schools from 2002–04. The update drew on New Zealand environmental education literature published since the previous study and involved workshops with key individuals about environmental education practice and developments over the past decade.

Video: Place-Based Education and Māori History.
“Begin where your feet are, and then spread out into the world.”
In this video, Professor Wally Penetito speaks powerfully about the importance of understanding where you stand, beginning with the indigenous history of where you are, connecting with mana whenua. Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories in the New Zealand Curriculum also covers this important theme.

Updated on: 22 Apr 2022