How can the developing fields of inquiry in Education for Sustainability (EfS) and Environmental Education (EE) work to facilitate this conversation? How can we find meaningful ways to build on the history that has shaped these movements and nurture the synergistic partnerships to ultimately transform K-12 education from a system shaped by an industrial view of the world into one that embraces the desire for a regenerative and sustainable future? In an effort to respond to these questions and to the concerns of the teachers, leaders, and policy makers in our midst, this article reviews the history that has shaped the conversation related to environmental and sustainability literacy; looks at some key documents that have the potential to set the course for future conversations; and lays out a course for collaboration that allows for redefining K-12 education in a way that is regenerative for the social, biological, and physical systems which sustain us.

A Brief History of Environmental and Sustainability Education

Environmental education was established in the wake of Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, the first Earth Day in 1970, and the Tblisi Declaration, the world’s first intergovernmental conference on EE organized by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1977. By 1990, when the National Environmental Education Act was passed, EE had become a fairly common element in American education with many states having EE curriculum frameworks in place. These frameworks challenged educators to examine environmental issues (e.g., pollution, species loss, recycling) from multiple perspectives (the natural and human elements and systems involved in an environmental issue). Underlying EE was the phrase “from awareness to action” that assumed knowledge would inform pro-active responses and shape pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.

With the publication of the “Brundtland Report” in 1987, sustainability and sustainable development began to emerge as useful concepts for understanding and tackling a much broader array of issues defined not just by environmental issues but also by the social and economic inequities that resulted over time from the unsustainable relationship among social, economic, and ecological systems. The Brundtland Report, the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, and more recently the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (or Rio+20), were landmark events in the development of efforts to educate for sustainability. Brundtland and Rio+20 first elaborated a conceptual framework to explain contemporary ecological and development crises as inextricably interlinked phenomena and state the important role of education in creating an equitable future. Today, this work is reflected in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a universal call to action to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity” (United Nations, n.d.).

A multitude of fields, each with its own educational mission and cadre of professional practitioners, were poised prior to Rio+20 to contribute to a comprehensive effort to educate for sustainability. Ecological design and architecture education, holistic education, futures studies, system dynamics and systems thinking, organizational learning and change, environmental ethics and philosophy, ecological economics, and ecological psychology all existed prior to Rio+20 and have continued to develop synergistically with sustainability education in the United States (Federico, Cloud, Byrne, & Wheeler, 2003).

Today, as the green schools movement expands, EE and EfS have shaped the environmental and sustainability literacy pillar that defines a green, healthy, and sustainable school. They also have untapped potential to transform what and how we teach in K-12 schools in the United States.

Finding Common Ground

In their recent book, Post Sustainability and Environmental Education: Remaking Education for the Future, Jickling and Sterling argue that to achieve a sustainable future, we need to remake education all together (Jickling & Sterling, 2017). As more practitioners in the field read this book, concerns and questions are coming up that ultimately boil down to, if they are right, then is distinguishing between EE and EfS still relevant? If they are right, then ‘good’ education will produce students who are environmentally literate and educated to increase the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth indefinitely. It is our opinion, however, that until we reach that point, it is necessary for EE and EfS to work together to remake and redefine our educational system.

To gain a better understanding of the current thinking regarding the attributes of EE and EfS that have the potential to redefine education, we examined four seminal documents:

Education for a Sustainable Future: Benchmarks for Individual and Social Learning (EfS Benchmarks) (Cloud, 2017) North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) Guidelines for Excellence: Community Engagement (NAAEE, 2017) NAAEE’s Excellence in Environmental Education: Guidelines for Learning (K-12) (NAAEE, 2010) California’s A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy (ELTF, 2015)

We found that these four documents share common elements including a vision of a healthy and sustainable future, the importance of informed civic responsibility, decision making and action with interdependence and complexity in mind, and a focus on laws and principles derived from nature and the science of sustainability. They also contain many similarities in pedagogical practices that we believe are core to educating for the future.

As EE and EfS converge in green schools, the pedagogical approaches that support outcomes such as awareness, knowledge, attitudes/values, skills, and engagement/participation are clear. In Convergence Between Science and Environmental Education, Wals et al. (2014) offer that there is greater focus on understanding the “learning process and the capacities of individuals and communities needed to help resolve complex socioecological issues” (Wals, Brody, Dillon, & Stevenson, 2014, p. 538). This focus on learning processes calls on promising practices in education in general, such as inquiry-based learning, service-learning, place-based learning, and project-based learning. Here we call out place-based learning as a shared teaching and learning practice, educating in and about local communities where much of our engagement and action occurs.

EE and EfS also have a shared value in authentic and culturally-socially relevant learning that engages all learners. By teaching in this way, in local places, evaluations of EE and EfS show an increase in student achievement and engagement (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998; PEEC, 2010; AED, 2007), as well as positive student social, health, and well-being outcomes from increased consumption of fruit and vegetables and increased civic engagement (PEEC, 2010; Ratcliffe, Merrigan, Rogers, & Goldberg, 2009). Not surprisingly, these benefits extend to the larger school community, re-energizing educators and benefiting school culture (PEEC, 2010). Both EE and EfS share impacts on sustainability indicators such as air and water quality and energy and waste reduction (Johnson, Duffin, & Murphy 2012).

The Vision of Our Future Together

To transform education, leaders in the fields of EE and EfS must find meaningful ways to build on shared strengths and mutually reinforce each other’s efforts in implementing EE and EfS. Here are three key areas to focus on to support synergistic impact – partnerships, research, and self-assessment.


In addition to collaborating toward shared goals, EE and EfS practitioners must facilitate partnerships amongst a diversity of players in local communities. By building partnerships between formal educators and non-formal and informal environmental and place-based educators, enduring multi-level partnerships for authentic, student-driven, place-based, and service-learning opportunities can be developed. An example is Shelburne Farms in Burlington, Vermont where fourth- and fifth-grade teachers worked in collaboration with educators on a project called Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids. The program called on partners in city government, resource specialists in a variety of sustainability fields, families, artists, and others to support student engagement by defining and improving quality of life indicators in their communities. These partnerships are enduring and reinforce the practices of EE and EfS in formal school settings.


Focusing research efforts on the impact of EE and EfS can legitimize our collective work. The emphasis should be on efforts defining the attributes of EE and EfS that demonstrate learner achievement and engagement, whole-child measures including health and wellness, democratic participation and a sense of efficacy, educator effectiveness, school culture, and sustainable community indicators. The defining attributes linked to these outcomes help to articulate what works and highlight practices that are transferable in a variety of contexts.

Self-Assessment and Reflection

A third area of focus is self-assessment and reflection to continually improve practices. EE and EfS practitioners recognize the power of education to transform the world. As educators, we must continually focus on our own learning and improvement, further defining and refining our work. We can learn, adapt, and remain resilient as our educational, socio-cultural, and environmental worlds evolve. As you read the documents highlighted here, reflect on your strengths and gaps as individual educators as well as those of the organizations you represent. This desire to learn and grow is needed to survive and thrive on Spaceship Earth.

This new way of thinking about similarities and differences between EE and EfS and how to combine the approaches for our common future is exciting. One example that is taking place right now can be found in New Zealand. Here, a plan has been put forth that appears to join the two movements together. Environmental Education for Sustainability Strategy and Action Plan 2017-2021 begins to blend the two approaches by defining Environmental Education for Sustainability as a “holistic approach to creating a nation of innovative and motivated people who think and act sustainably” (New Zealand Government, 2017, p. 3). While the plan references sustainability and includes “… a strong human element, including respecting a diversity of perspectives, reducing inequality and promoting cooperative effort” (New Zealand Government, 2017, p. 3), there is no clear evidence that it is more than EE with a goal of sustainable communities. Yet, it is interesting to note the integrative nature of the model’s four dimensions – spiritual, physical, family/community, and thought/knowledge. Perhaps this serves as a model for others to explore possible collaborative, synergistic efforts.

Transforming education from an industrial model to a regenerative model is the challenge of the green schools movement. By building on the history, seminal documents from EE and EfS, and the synergies that are shared, the foundations for robust collaboration and research exist. As theoreticians and academicians work out the details, it is imperative that all schools and school districts engage their teachers and curriculum designers in a review of the seminal documents shared in this article. Determine for yourself where the power is and where the unique contributions are for your community. Use the documents to improve your work. Document your practice and send us your results. (Stay tuned for the new collaborative initiative connected to exemplars of the EfS Benchmarks). We look forward to seeing the fruits of your partnerships, your research, and your self-assessments/reflections; to your student work, improvements in teacher effectiveness, robust school cultures, and enhanced school community connections all in the service of measurable, sustainable community development in the short and long run. Most importantly, we look forward to our collective efforts to education for a sustainable future.

Jaimie P. Cloud and Jen Cirillo

Originally published in the Green Schools National Network Quarterly republished with permission.

Jaimie P. Cloud ( is the founder and president of The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education in New York City. The Cloud Institute is dedicated to the vital role of education in creating awareness, fostering commitment, and guiding actions toward a healthy, secure, and sustainable future for ourselves and for future generations. We monitor the evolving thinking and skills of the most important champions of sustainability and transform them into educational materials and a pedagogical system that inspire young people to think about the world, their relationship to it, and their ability to influence it in an entirely new way.

Jennifer Cirillo ( is the Director of Professional Learning at Shelburne Farms where she coordinates the Sustainable Schools Project, among other educator programs focused on Education for Sustainability and place-based and service-learning. Jennifer works with schools to use the Big Ideas of Sustainability to enhance or redefine curriculum, collaboration and community partnership, and campus ecology and culture. Learn more about her work at and follow her on twitter @SustSchlsProj.