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date: 21 January 2018

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Asia

Summary and Keywords

A new approach to education has been proposed, called Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), with the goal of developing education in order to foster individuals who will contribute to the realization of a socially, economically, and environmentally more sustainable society. From the beginning of the 21st century, this has given rise to discussions and practices on related themes all over the world, including in Asia. While the environment surrounding education is markedly changing in Asian societies, with educational reforms actively pursued in many Asian countries and regions, their situations greatly differ depending on the context in which they find themselves.

Today, departing from the conventional modes of teaching and learning that focus on the acquisition of an already systematized body of knowledge and skills, the field of education the world over is now shifting its focus to what is called key competencies, adopting and experimenting with new teaching and learning styles to develop abilities referred to as 21st-century skills. Based on these theoretical and conceptual discussions, a number of initiatives have been adopted as policies, school curricula, and educational practices in order to promote ESD in Asian countries.

It is possible to divide Asian countries into three groups based on the place of ESD in their countries, as well as their degree of socioeconomic development and the popularization of school education: (a) countries that have accumulated experience in the practice of environmental education or development education; (b) countries that have been witnessing growing environmental consciousness and its rapid institutionalization in recent years, with varying degrees of implementation of environmental education; and (c) countries in which the elimination of poverty and inequality remains the most pressing issue and ESD is promoted in connection with development issues.

Although the introduction of ESD is greatly affected by each country’s socioeconomic situation, it is important for all countries in Asia to promote equitable and sustainable education in order to realize a sustainable society. Thus, Asian countries need to form a social consensus to promote ESD, which requires the participation and responsibility of the whole of society.

Keywords: Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), sustainable development, Asia, key competencies, 21st-century skills, environmental education, development education


To realize a socially, economically, and environmentally more sustainable society, it is essential to create individuals who will lead that society. In an attempt to develop education from this perspective, a new approach to education has been proposed, called Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). From the beginning of the 21st century, this has given rise to discussions and practices on related themes all over the world, mainly led by the United Nations (UN) Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In particular, during the 10-year period from 2005 to 2014—designated “The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UN-DESD)”—a variety of initiatives were taken across the globe to promote ESD through policies and institutional and practical instruments. ESD thus can be viewed as an international educational movement aimed at promoting sustainable development.

At the same time, the objectives of ESD resonate with the objectives behind the educational trend currently taking hold across the world. This derives from a new concept of academic abilities—namely, those that formal education is expected to equip students with for living in the 21st century. That is, departing from the conventional modes of teaching and learning that focus on the acquisition of an already systematized body of knowledge and skills, the field of education is now shifting its focus to what is called key competencies in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is adopting and experimenting with new teaching and learning styles to develop abilities referred to as 21st-century skills.

This shift in the view of education and academic abilities is not unrelated to the uncertainties that have arisen about the sustainability of modern society. Because the paradigm of modernization weakened severely in the late 20th century, many have opened their eyes to the unsustainable way of the world today. This has led to the understanding that it is essential that education enable one to proactively find solutions to the issues of 21st-century society, such as ever-worsening environmental problems and the limitations of various systems. Under such circumstances, new approaches to education have emerged all over the world.

This trend is also occurring in Asia, considered globally as the world’s growth center in the first half of the 21st century, given its rapid economic development and diverse political evolution. Yet, the continent is not monolithic; it is extremely diverse politically, economically, socially, and culturally. While the environment surrounding education is markedly changing in Asian societies, with educational reforms actively pursued in many countries and regions, their situations greatly differ, depending on the context in which they each find themselves.

Based on this understanding of the current situation, particularly in view of the shift in the view of education in Asia, this article attempts to provide an overview of how ESD has been incorporated into policies and practices in Asia.

Shift in the View of Education in Asia

Asia can be succinctly characterized with one word: diversity. The region includes capitalist and socialist economies, and the degree of political democratization varies from one country to another. In terms of economic development, there are advanced countries such as Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, as well as less-developed countries such as Laos, Myanmar, and Nepal. In terms of religion, some Asian countries, including Thailand and Cambodia, are predominantly Buddhist, while others, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, are predominantly Muslim. Yet others, such as the Philippines and South Korea, are predominantly Christian. There are also countries like India, which is multireligious, with Hinduism as one relatively dominant religion, while Confucianism retains a strong influence in East Asia, particularly China.

Diversity also exists in the field of education in Asia. Still, there are two important phenomena that are shared widely: the great importance that the various populations place on education, and movements in educational reform based on the new idea of academic ability that are taking place in many Asian countries in response to ever-growing expectations for education.

For example, in East Asian countries, which lead the world in academic performance based on the results of international academic surveys, the conventional teaching and learning styles focusing on rote memorization are now actively being reexamined. In less-developed countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia, the general expectations and enthusiasm for formal education are growing, spurring debate on the question of not only how to improve students’ academic abilities, but also what kind of citizens students should grow into as a result of their education.

Against the background of such changes in the awareness of issues relating to education, teaching and learning modes in school education in Asia have been changing in recent years. Previously, and particularly in comparison with Western countries, it was generally believed that school education in Asia was characterized by rote learning, with students passively absorbing knowledge that teachers dispense in one-sided lectures. However, recent rapid changes in Asian societies have triggered a widely shared sense of crisis over the conventional teaching and learning styles, perceived to be inadequate to prepare students for rapid societal changes and accompanying challenges. As a result, many countries and regions in Asia now have come to embrace the view that it is essential to develop students’ new academic abilities, which may also be called generic skills and key competencies.

These new academic abilities are the competencies expected of 21st-century human resources in a knowledge-based society. Encompassing a broad range of areas, they include the ability to communicate effectively with others and find solutions to problems and the conventional ability to acquire knowledge. Asian countries now expect school education to improve students’ wide-ranging generic skills that include “basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, interpersonal skills such as communication and teamwork, and personal attributes such as the capacity to learn and embrace change” (Australian National Training Authority, 2003, p. 4). The motivation for this expectation is twofold: Learning is expected to prepare students for entry into the job market (i.e., learning to increase students’ employability) on the one hand, and for civic life on the other hand (Australian National Training Authority, 2003).

The former is based on the requirements for certain abilities that are expressed mainly by the industrial world. A neoliberalist influence can be discerned here. On the other hand, the latter comes from the need for generic skills that individuals are expected to possess in order to develop and participate in a progressive community, following the ongoing trend to place increasingly greater emphasis on active citizenship and community life as a result of global advances in research on learning communities and lifelong learning. It is up to the respective countries to decide on which of the two types of abilities to attach importance to, and most countries are striving to strike a good balance between the two.

The concept of “new academic abilities” has recently given rise to innovation in educational practices in various school subjects in Asian countries. This can be witnessed in the way that some traditional approaches to teaching and learning are being replaced by more progressive ones (Table 1). Such progressive teaching and learning styles are indeed aimed at developing students’ generic skills.

Table 1. Switching Teaching and Learning Styles

Traditional Approaches

Progressive Approaches

Education about citizenship

Education for/through citizenship

Maintenance of social order

Adjustment and adaptation to change


Action and civic engagement





Transmission of knowledge through lectures

Two-way interactive approach; critical interpretation




Holistic personal development

Textbook-centered learning environment

Multimedia-compatible learning environment

Subject knowledge

Lifelong learning skills



Modern teaching methods

Future-oriented teaching methods

Note: Drawn up based on Tawil (2013).

How are these progressive approaches incorporated into the practical situations of education? One approach that schools in Asian countries are most avidly adopting today is “collaborative learning.” In this learning style, students are divided into small groups in which they try to optimize their own and each other’s learning through dialogue (Sato, 2012; Saito, Murase, Tsukui, & Yeo,2014; Saito et al., 2015). This and other progressive teaching and learning approaches are aimed at realizing autonomous and proactive learning. In the 21st-century social environment, in which changes occur rapidly and assured future prediction is next to impossible, the rationale for these new approaches is found in the way that they enable individual students to acquire and develop generic skills through repeated autonomous and proactive learning sessions, thereby eventually learning to make decisions and take action in an autonomous and proactive manner in their daily lives, including at work.

In the background of the promotion of these new teaching and learning styles is the widely shared fundamental question about how society should evolve. An important turning point for collective awareness in this regard was the UN Sustainable Development Summit, held in September 2015. At this international forum, the governments which attended the Summit agreed that national efforts and international coordination and collaboration were essential in various aspects (political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental) of realizing a sustainable world. Therefore, they adopted 17 international-scale Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).1 Among the SDGs, Goal 4 concerns education and aims at “ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all,” with emphasis on ESD.

ESD aims to nurture in students, through progressive approaches in particular, the ability to consider various present-day issues, such as environmental protection, the fight against poverty, the protection of human rights, and equitable development on their own to take action to achieve objectives and find solutions.2 With the principle of intergenerational and intragenerational equity as its foundation, ESD aims to realize development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as stated in the definition of “sustainable development” presented by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (UN, 1987, I-3, para. 27). As education for developing leaders and participants in the construction of a sustainable society, ESD promotes democratic systems, economic systems in consideration of the possible impacts of economic activities on society and the environment, respect for the uniqueness of different cultures, and the protection of human rights. ESD as a new approach to education has emerged from the understanding that, to build a sustainable society, it is essential to guarantee high-quality learning opportunities for all so that each and every learner is able to contemplate development, the environment, and other issues from a broad perspective and take action. Therefore, ESD entails changes in teaching and learning.

ESD for Living in Present-Day Society, with Its Ever-Growing Complexity

In today’s rapidly globalized world, people, information, and economic, political, and cultural pursuits are closely interconnected and actively moving beyond national borders in an unprecedented manner. In such a situation, the issues facing the international community are becoming increasingly complex. This is evident from the fact that environmental problems are not the only global issues; food, natural resources and energy, peace, and human rights are as well, and they are all intricately intertwined and mutually reinforce the complexity of the individual issues. The world today is indeed one of great uncertainty. To solve the problem of global warming, for example, it is no longer sufficient to examine environmental issues alone; energy, science and technology, regional conflicts, and other problems covering several domains also must be addressed. Given such major qualitative changes in society, Asia and the rest of the world, starting in the late 20th century, have come to understand that if humanity wishes to build a sustainable future, it is essential to fundamentally modify the way that education and teaching and learning styles are viewed in order to overcome global environmental problems and other formidable challenges.

The importance of education in promoting sustainable development is underlined in Chapter 36 of “Agenda 21,” the document adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in 1992 (UN, 1992). The international community has since shared a common understanding that education is the driving force for change that is necessary to construct a sustainable society. The UN-DESD (2005–2014), first proposed in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, designated UNESCO as the lead agency for the initiative. In 2009, the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development was held in Bonn, Germany, to review the progress of ESD in the world. In 2014, the UNESCO World Conference on ESD was held in Nagoya, Japan, to take stock of the UN-DESD.

Based on the principles of intergenerational and intragenerational equity, presented in the report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, ESD aims to help learners develop their ability to view various present-day issues relating to the environment, poverty, human rights, and development as their own and take action to find solutions.3 In this sense, ESD is a form of learning that transforms people and society with regard to the values, behavior, and lifestyles required for the realization of a sustainable future (UNESCO, 2009, 2010).

In conducting ESD, a particular importance is accorded to two objectives: first, the development of students’ personal qualities such as character, autonomy, decision-making ability, and a sense of responsibility; and second, the development of students as individuals capable of understanding their relationships with others, society, and the natural environment and cherishing and nurturing these relationships. Accordingly, it is essential in ESD to regard the environment, development, poverty, peace, human rights, and various other issues not as separate items, but as interconnected and inseparable, addressing them from an interdisciplinary perspective to understand them within a broad organic framework. In this manner, ESD aims at enabling learners to develop their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, as well as the ability to take action in a concrete manner. That is, it involves more than acquiring knowledge and skills about or relating to a sustainable society as within the conventional framework of “environmental education” or “peace education.” Rather, ESD requires a participatory learning approach that emphasizes learning by doing and other forms of studies and practices through experience.

To sum up, the learning envisaged in the concept of ESD is principally that of social constructionism that emphasizes the ability to utilize the type of knowledge that has been highly regarded within the framework of human-centered development, problem-solving ability, and collaborative learning. At the same time, learning in ESD is holistically oriented toward solving, from a global perspective, problems that challenge the vision of a sustainable society and taking action for the transformation of oneself and society. In other words, the view of learning on which ESD is founded can be described as an extension of the constructionist notion of how education should be.

The concept of “learning that transforms oneself and society” that is at the core of ESD4 can be associated with the transformative learning proposed by Jack Mezirow and influenced by the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire (Mezirow, 1998). Positing that the learner’s worldview is unreasonably shaped by his or her social background, Mezirow stated that, through critical reflection on his or her past experiences, the learner can be emancipated from the perception that has oppressed him or her, thereby learning to reexamine the premises and values that she or he has taken for granted and to view the world in a more comprehensive manner. With such an attitude, which contains self-criticism, one can develop a viewpoint with which to examine whether the existing social systems contribute to the reproduction of various problems that occur on a global scale. This can be a departure from the conventional modern school education that has emphasized the development of human resources mainly for the maintenance of the existing social order. This leads to proposing innovative ways in which education can be conducted.

At the same time, Mezirow basically supposed an individual to be a unit of learning, which sets limits on what can be achieved through Mezirow-style transformative learning. In this regard, it can be said that the form of learning that is emphasized in ESD, in which groups and organizations transform themselves through continued learning, is more strongly influenced by the concept of the “Learning Organization” proposed by Peter Senge and the “Systems Thinking” that is practiced therein (Senge, 1990; Senge et al., 2012). In Systems Thinking, which enables a process in which a team becomes aware of a situation, examines it, and considers action to solve problems which are found in such situation, the transformation of society is defined as the ultimate goal of learning.

The progressive view of education on which ESD is founded actually corresponds to a trend in education that is currently developing worldwide. In this trend, the acquisition of general-use abilities and societal skills required of today’s human beings, termed competencies, generic skills, or 21st-century skills, is recognized as the principal objective of education, resulting in movements toward the reorganization (or innovation) of curricular contents and learning methods.5 This trend in the new 21st-century concept of academic abilities is largely influenced by the adoption of the concept of “key competencies” proposed in the OECD’s Definition and Selection of Competencies: Theoretical and Conceptual Foundations (DeSeCo) Project (1997–2003) in PISA and other international academic performance surveys. This concept highlights the importance of having a sense of and becoming competent in the world, dealing with transformation and change, and responding to long-term challenges (OECD, 2005, p. 10). In such situations, transformative learning is one of the most effective approaches to nurturing competencies in individuals. Particularly in Asian countries, where school education reforms generally emphasize the necessity of shifting more progressive approaches as discussed previously, transformative learning to acquire key competencies needs to be promoted.

Another background factor that should not be overlooked is the multisource learning opportunities that exist today beyond the conventional realms of textbooks and classrooms, thanks to advances in globalization and information and communications technology (ICT) as represented by the Internet, which make existing knowledge rapidly obsolete and demand constant upgrading.

The DeSeCo Project defines “key competencies” as general abilities with cognitive and noncognitive aspects to meet complex demands within a particular context—more specifically, (a) the ability to use social, cultural, and technical tools interactively; (b) the ability to interact in heterogeneous groups; and (c) the ability to act autonomously—which do not exist independent of one another but rather are interconnected (Rychen & Salganik, 2003). In connection with ESD, it should be noted that the key competencies of the DeSeCo Project have a social perspective, in that they are important not only for individuals to lead a successful life in society, but for the construction of a sustainable society as well. Today’s educational reforms, with their new concept of academic abilities, are taking place as a switch from the traditional teaching and learning styles to progressive approaches (see Table 1).6

It is believed that ESD, which envisages the implementation of teaching and learning based on this new concept of academic abilities, should be promoted through international cooperation. Accordingly, to follow up on various initiatives that were inaugurated in various parts of the world during the UN-DESD, UNESCO took the lead in introducing the Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD as a policy goal with five priority policy areas, encouraging national- and community-level promotion of it.7

Today, DeSeCo has been one of the strongest influences in school education reforms and the improvement of teaching and learning in many countries, including in Asia. It is important to understand that international initiatives in education such as DeSeCo have a similar direction to what ESD has been promoting, partly because the same stakeholders are engaged. Therefore, when we examine the value of education initiatives (e.g., ESD and DeSeCo), we need to realize more about the diversity of education initiatives such as alternative channels of learning and inclusive education for minority people and how they can be taken up in such international initiatives as ESD and DeSeCo. Due to space limitations, we cannot fully discuss this matter here.

ESD in Policy and Institutional Instruments and Practices in Asia

This section provides an overview of the initiatives that have been taken as policies, school curricula, and educational practices in order to promote ESD in Asian countries. To do so, the Asian countries discussed are divided into three groups based on the place of ESD in their countries, as well as their degrees of socioeconomic development and the popularization of school education: (a) countries that have accumulated experience in the practice of environmental education or development education; (b) countries that have been witnessing growing environmental consciousness and its rapid institutionalization in recent years, with varying degrees of implementation of environmental education; and (c) countries where the elimination of poverty and inequality remains the most pressing issue and ESD is promoted in connection with development issues.

Let us now look at how ESD is promoted in these three groups of Asian countries in terms of policy, curricular content, and educational practices. Considering that the term ESD is not yet in widespread use in many Asian countries, it should be noted that the policies and activities taken up here do not necessarily bear that explicit label and are mainly those that may traditionally be termed environmental education or development education. Unless otherwise noted, the evaluation of the situations in the countries in this section is based on Abe and Tanaka (2012), ACCU-UNESCO (2013), Fien (2013), Kitamura (2014), Ryan, Tilbury, Corcoran, Abe, and Nomura(2010), UNESCO (2009, 2014), and UNESCO Bangkok (2009).

Countries That Have a History of and Accumulated Experience in Environmental or Development Education

As countries in Group A, which have accumulated experience in the practice of environmental education or development education, Japan, South Korea, and India can mainly be cited, along with China and Taiwan, among others. These countries and regions, having already taken diverse initiatives for both environmental education and development education in terms of policies, school curricula, and educational practices, are today promoting ESD. In these places, ESD usually incorporates the perspectives of environmental education and development education comprehensively. It is promoted at the community level, with the active involvement not only of schools, but also of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and other civil organizations, and community groups, realizing bottom-up practices of ESD that reflect local characteristics. In more recent years, domestic networks have been expanding as various actors join the movement, while international networks are also being built. Japan, South Korea, and India are promoting ESD more actively than the rest of Asia. (Among these, Japan is particularly enthusiastic about this approach, being the country that advocated it at the Johannesburg Summit in 2002, and being as dedicated to it as such countries as Germany and Sweden on an international scale.)

As a policy initiative, Japan adopted a national implementation plan for the UN-DESD in 2005, which was revised in 2011. Based on this plan, the Roundtable Meeting on ESD (ESD no tameno Entaku Kaigi) was established within the Japanese government in 2007 as the platform on which various experts in their fields meet and discuss how to promote ESD. In the Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education, formulated in 2008 to specify the overall policy of the educational sector, ESD is clearly positioned as one of the pivotal principles and an important area in which to devise policy measures in the educational sector. In 2014, Japan hosted the UNESCO World Conference on ESD in Nagoya, where it appealed to the domestic and international participants to recognize the importance of involvement by various stakeholders toward the implementation of the GAP. In 2015, the annual UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development was inaugurated to honor outstanding ESD projects. In this manner, the diffusion and development of ESD are clearly established as important policy themes in Japan.

A similar phenomenon was found in South Korea. In 2005, the country adopted national strategies for education for sustainable development, followed by the formulation of an action plan for the strategies in 2006. The Basic Law on Sustainable Development was enacted in 2008 and amended in 2010. These policy and legal instruments stipulated that ESD should be established as an axis of South Korea’s education.

In India, studies on the environment were formally introduced into school education around 1990, followed by the provision of grants for environmental education by provincial governments. In 2005, an international conference was held in Ahmadabad on the promotion of the UN-DESD. India is also promoting the incorporation of ESD elements into various aspects of the formal school system.

In these countries, the promotion of ESD is defined as an important policy direction, and public-private collaboration has been significant. The public and private sectors have jointly formed organizations to support ESD projects in schools and local communities. For example, the United Nations University (UNU), headquartered in Tokyo, supports the establishment of Regional Centers of Expertise (RCEs) on ESD across Asia, and there are cases in Japan, South Korea, and India in which educational institutions, civil organizations, and governmental agencies work together, with local RCEs playing the central role. In the early period of ESD advocacy in Japan (i.e., the first decade of the 21st century), civil organizations led the formation of the Japan Council on the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD-J), encouraging further ESD-related activities by NGOs and NPOs. In addition to those efforts, institutions such as the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) in Japan and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) in India carry out scientific research concerning ESD.

Let us now look at how ESD is incorporated into school curricula and other learning opportunities in these three countries, first in primary and secondary education. In Japan, when the Course of Study (national curriculum) was revised in the 2008/2009 academic year, the importance of constructing a sustainable society was underlined and inscribed into various school subjects. At present, in the summer of 2016, deliberations are being repeated by the Central Council for Education of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) and other actors on the theme of ESD and how it should be more explicitly emphasized in the next version of the Course of Study, which is revised roughly every 10 years.

Meanwhile, the number of UNESCO Associated Schools, which serve as centers for promoting ESD in schools, has been rapidly increasing in Japan, from only 15 in 2005 to 939 at the end of 2015. Based on the idea that cooperation by universities is essential for the implementation of activities by UNESCO Associated Schools, the Interuniversity Network Supporting the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network (ASPUnivNet) was established in 2008 under the leadership of the Miyagi University of Education. As of 2016, 17 universities have joined the network and support schools in their respective regions. There are over 100 UNESCO Associated Schools in South Korea and over 50 in India. In recent years, other Asian countries have been trying to increase the number of UNESCO Associated Schools (especially China, which is particularly enthusiastic about the idea).8

A characteristic example of ESD-related curricula is “Environment Education,” a school subject integrating social studies and science that pupils in India study up to the fifth year of elementary school. To improve environmental education, educational materials are developed jointly by the Indian government and the Center for Environment Education, a government-associated organization, and used in teacher training programs across India.

Having looked at these initiatives in basic (primary and secondary) education, let us now turn to higher education. In Japan, some universities (such as Okayama University and Ehime University) have an ESD instructor-training course as part of their formal curricula, while others (such as Rikkyo University) have an ESD research and practice center on campus. Likewise in South Korea, there are universities that have an ESD-oriented course, such as Yonsei University. And 10 Korean universities, led by Yonsei University, have launched the “Green Campus University Initiative” to collaborate to construct an ecological campus. In fact, the realization of a “sustainable campus” is the goal toward which many Japanese and Taiwanese universities are actively working. There are also cases in India in which environmental education is introduced into the higher education curriculum. In China, universities that have accumulated experience in environmental sciences have been active in opening courses in environmental studies and programs for environmental protection.

As for research, the University of Tokyo founded the Integrated Research System on Sustainability Science (IR3S) to promote tertiary-level ESD and research into sustainability science, reinforcing the network of Japanese universities and seeking collaboration with universities in Asia and other regions. In 2008, the Promotion of Sustainability in Postgraduate Education and Research (ProSPER.Net) was established at the UNU in Tokyo to promote international collaboration in education and research on ESD.

In ESD, practical educational activities pursued in collaboration with local communities are as important as those carried out strictly within educational institutions. As an example of such community-based practices, the Okayama ESD Project, launched by Okayama City in Japan, is vigorous in organizing activities. This project is a platform provided by the local government to enable schools, NGOs and NPOs, private businesses, and other entities in Okayama City to cooperate in promoting ESD. Nevertheless, its activities are not imposed by the government, but rather are promoted while respecting the independence of participating groups.

The Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development in Tongyeong City in South Korea is working on a plan to implement ESD systematically in formal education, from kindergarten to university. This plan is distinctive in that ESD is designed not to stay within the confines of school education: Educational opportunities are concurrently offered to local residents to promote ESD as lifelong learning.

In India, a participatory approach is taken to implementing national water policy, in which diverse stakeholders can take part in the management of water sources. For this reason, the importance of ESD is emphasized whenever possible. The National Disaster Management Authority of India also highlights the importance of ESD for disaster reduction, including disaster preparedness education.

Countries That Have Been Witnessing Growing Environmental Consciousness and Rapid Institutionalization in Recent Years

The countries in Group B (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam) have been experiencing a growing environmental consciousness in recent years, while the institutionalization of ESD-related initiatives in school education has been progressing rapidly. They share some distinctive traits. From the 1970s to the 1980s, they adopted a policy of placing priority on economic development; in the 1990s and onward, internal change (democratization) and external pressure (from the international community) led to a growing demand for environmental protection and sustainable regional development. In such a changing social environment, institutional arrangements were made to develop top-down environmental education, supported by ideological activities mainly led by the elite. Later, the limited participation of the general public in the process of institutionalization came to be viewed negatively. In more recent years, bottom-up approaches have been emerging, including policy proposals in response to society’s needs and active participation by NGOs and citizens in related activities.

At this point, let us examine how these countries are working on ESD at the policy level. Because of the growing environmental consciousness in these countries, they are commonly characterized by the fact that ESD is promoted mainly as environmental education. For example, in Thailand, the National Education Act of 1999 stipulated that education is used to transmit knowledge about and deepen understanding of the environment, while experience is also emphasized. Based on this policy, the Environmental Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) program (2008–2012) was formulated as the basic plan for the introduction, understanding, institutionalization, coordination, and promotion of ESD.

In Indonesia, the Western notion of natural conservation began taking hold in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the idea spread that it was important for residents to obtain the right to manage local land and natural resources through community empowerment. This phenomenon had resulted from the impact of the then-active democratization movement on the general environmental consciousness, which had in turn activated people’s participation in the process of environment policymaking. In the late 1980s and onward, comprehensive educational activities that met local community-level needs were promoted. During the first decade of the 21st century, environmental education gradually came to be identified as ESD, which covers a wider range of areas and issues. For example, in 2004, the Ministries of Education and Environment jointly established a biministerial Environmental Education Policy. The National Standard of Educational Content, comprising 15 ESD components, was then adopted.

Malaysia adopted the “Green Strategy” in 2002 as the national environmental policy. Clearly indicating the significant place of education in the country’s environmental initiatives, it instituted the promotion of comprehensive environmental education in accordance with the recommendations of Agenda 21 (UN, 1992). The state of Sabah adopted an environmental education policy in 2009. This is a rare example of a local government adopting such a policy to institutionalize environmental education. Incidentally, the implementation plan for environmental education in accordance with this policy, as well as the establishment of a monitoring system, benefited from assistance by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Vietnam established “Vietnam Agenda 21” in 20049, with assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Curricula for environmental education have been developed in accordance with this policy. The National Committee on the Decade of ESD, a policy organization mainly composed of high-ranking officials who play a central role in promoting this approach, was also established to examine organizational response by the government.

The countries cited in this discussion are all located in Southeast Asia. In this region, ESD and relating educational initiatives have been gradually recognized as important agenda items. In 2013, the governments of Southeast Asia were represented at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting on the Environment, where the ASEAN Environmental Action Plan (2014–2018) was adopted. In this plan, the member-states declared their commitment to promoting environmental education with the goal of realizing a sustainable society in the region. In 2014, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) put together a road map for ASEAN to introduce sustainability education into universities. This document, which has introduced the concept of a “sustainable mindset,” aims to promote and generalize sustainability education at universities in Southeast Asia.10

In addition to these policy instruments that explicitly indicate the countries’ position on the promotion of environmental education, steps have been taken to translate the policies into school curricula and educational practices. In Thailand, on the occasion of the curriculum revision in 2008, environmental education was introduced and incorporated into such subjects as “Life Experience” in primary education and “Science/Mathematics” and “Social Studies” in secondary education. ESD activities are also promoted in local school curricula that are designed within the local context of each district or region. This is made possible because the Thai local governments are authorized to design their own curricula at their discretion as far as it does not exceed 30% of the whole curriculum. The Thailand Environmental Institute Foundation (TEI) works in partnership with some 4,000 schools across the country to carry out environmental education applying the Whole School approach.

In Thailand’s higher education, some universities have a course in environmental education in the Faculty of Education or Science. Some such courses feature lectures that are conducted in collaboration with NGOs (e.g., the master’s course of the Environment Education Center at Phranakhon Rajabhat University, a teachers’ college). Thammasat University has established an international program for environmental education jointly with Mie University (Japan), Tianjin Normal University (China), Sejong University (South Korea), and Sriwijaya University (Indonesia), operating double-degree programs and international internships.

In Indonesia, environmental education has not yet been established as an independent academic subject, but the government encourages the coverage of environmental issues in several subjects. In the second half of the first decade of the 21st century, UNICEF and UNESCO commenced a collaborative attempt to link ESD with the existing Creating Learning Communities for Children (CLCC) program. The Institute for Research and Community Services at Gadjah Mada University, a UNESCO-certified National ESD Coordinator, carries out community support programs in the final year of each academic course in all the faculties, providing students with the opportunity to contribute to community development by utilizing the knowledge and skills that they have accumulated at the university.

In Vietnam, the distribution of ESD-related e-learning materials commenced in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century within the framework of training programs for both current and future schoolteachers. Moreover, UNESCO is taking the lead in implementing a project that involves introducing ESD-related learning contents into extracurricular activities in lower secondary education, through collaboration between the network of UNESCO Associated Schools (ASP-net) and UNESCO’s Community Learning Center programs.

Countries Where ESD Is Being Promoted in Linkage with Development Issues

In the countries in Group C (which include Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), the elimination of poverty and inequality remains the most pressing challenge in society. For this reason, ESD is promoted mainly in linkage with development issues. Since they are still in the process of socioeconomic development, the focus in activities from policymaking to educational practices is on poverty reduction and responses to other development-related challenges. Accordingly, the importance of environmental education and development education is not yet fully recognized, nor are they widely practiced in the actual areas of education.

Nevertheless, the adoption of the SDGs in 2015 and other relevant movements have created the awareness that school education should be improved so that ESD can be promoted. Since the countries in this group are still struggling with more fundamental and major problems such as access to, and quality of, basic education, there is a mountain of challenges to overcome before the kind of comprehensive learning that ESD aims to promote can be realized. Therefore, these countries are still struggling to introduce ESD-type approaches into school curricula and to train teachers who understand ESD in theory and practice.

Under such circumstances, in these countries, environmental education, education for international understanding, and human rights education are promoted in a top-down manner, often with support from international organizations and donor organizations. In many cases, they are merely curriculum development projects and workshops on a trial basis. Therefore, the concept of ESD has not yet been fully embraced at the classroom level or reflected in educational practices. At the same time, however, there are communities in these countries where resident-led, bottom-up approaches to development have been traditionally active, as in the example of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka. The Sarvodaya provides service learning activities to people in rural and remote villages in Sri Lanka and they do not have to depend on neither charity nor supports from external donors.11 In this sense, community empowerment, which encourages proactive resident participation in the process of local development, is not necessarily a new concept there. This means that, if effectively linked with such traditional practices, ESD can take a great leap forward in the future.

Despite the situations outlined here, most countries in Group C have a clear policy direction that promotes ESD-related education. For example, Cambodia emphasizes the importance of environmental education and peace education in its Education Strategic Plan, which constitutes the core of the country’s educational policy and is revised every five years or so. In Sri Lanka, the Education for Social Cohesion and Peace (ESCP), the national action plan adopted in 2008, serves as the rationale for promoting peace and social education. In Pakistan, in addition to top-down policy measures adopted by the central government, local community-based initiatives are being encouraged. For example, the Pakistani government and the then World Conservation Union (currently the International Union for Conservation of Nature: IUCN) Pakistan have collaborated to adopt a local education plan incorporating ESD.

In the field of school education, where these policies are put into action, ESD-related educational practices have been gradually taking place. For example, in Cambodia, the groundwork for future improvement in environmental education has been laid with assistance from UNESCO, resulting in the establishment of learning laboratories for programs concerning the national environment. The National Institute of Education has introduced a program into its high school teachers’ training that guides trainees in incorporating ESD into the school subjects that they expect to teach in the future. Meanwhile, initiatives for peace education, such as the revision of history textbooks and the publication of supplementary educational materials, have become active since the second half of the 2000s to transmit to younger generations knowledge about the country’s history, notably the rule by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and the subsequent civil war. These initiatives have been promoted within the framework of “World Heritage Education,” which aims to contemplate peace issues through studies of the country’s cultural assets and historical experiences.

In Sri Lanka, in accordance with the ESCP policy mentioned previously, new subjects have been introduced into school curricula, such as “Citizenship Education” (for 6th- to 8th-year students) and “Citizenship Education and Governance” (for 10th- to 11th-year students) to develop the students’ life competencies. There is also a nationwide peace education movement whose activities are incorporated in a manner that covers the entire school life so that schools can serve as peace centers in their respective local communities. As these examples suggest, in countries such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka, which experienced fierce internal conflicts, nurturing national harmony to build a peaceful society is recognized as an important objective of the promotion of ESD.

While ESD is carried out in a very limited manner in school education in the Group C countries, it is practiced in community-level development projects. For example, in Nepal, UNESCO and the Asia-Pacific Cultural Center for UNESCO (ACCU), a Japanese civil society organization, carry out an environment/literacy integration program that aims to help local residents deepen their understanding of the natural environment through informal literacy education.

In Bangladesh, UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative), an NGO established in 1984, leads a new movement for farmer-led, ecofriendly agriculture to protect biodiversity. In this movement, educational activities are carried out in the form of discussions and knowledge sharing on biodiversity and other themes related to sustainable development, respecting empirical learning by local residents. Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM), an NGO that has been working in Bangladesh since the 1950s, organizes environmental education and disaster reduction education for the poor through community volunteers.

In Laos, a project for creating “ESD communities” in both urban and rural areas was launched in 2012 with official development assistance from the Japanese government. This project involves forming a practical learning network for local development centered on several schools within a community.

In addition to these national-level policies and practices for the promotion of ESD in the three groups of Asian countries presented here, there are several mechanisms that have been or are being constructed to carry out transnational knowledge sharing and monitoring in the Asia-Pacific region. Some of these regional mechanisms are led by UN organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNU, and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), while others are led by regional agencies such as SEAMEO. For example, the Asian South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education (ASPBAE), a network comprising 200 organizations in 30 countries, including governmental organizations, civil organizations, universities, and media organizations, also contributes to promoting ESD in the Asia-Pacific region by engaging in activities advocating the importance of ESD and organizing disaster management and literacy-training programs.12

Finally, a project launched in 2006 to develop ESD indicators in the Asia-Pacific region merits a mention. The objective of this project, conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and UNESCO with cooperation from Macquarie University in Australia, was to establish guidelines for developing indicators for monitoring and assessing national-level ESD in the UNESCO member-states in the Asia-Pacific region (UNESCO/IUCN-CEC/Macquarie University, 2007). The results of this project were presented at the 2014 World Conference on ESD, along with the ESD indicators designed under the leadership of the Steering Committee on ESD of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). The Asia-Pacific indicators serve as reference in the development of indicators concerning SDGs, for which adoption at the United Nations is expected in the summer of 2016. As ESD is likely to be further promoted not only in Asia, but on a global scale, it is essential to survey and evaluate progress continuously in the development of such indicators.


Asia’s diversity can be an obstacle to the realization of a sustainable world. Diversity can keep one from understanding another, and from being understood oneself, resulting in an unnecessary and excessive focus on differences. Yet, diversity can also lead to mutual respect if the different parties learn to be accepting and tolerant of one another, and this is a step forward to a sustainable world. Developing such an attitude is one of the main objectives of ESD.

Presented in this article is an overview of ESD in Asia, with the notion that this approach, which contemplates development and the environment from a broad perspective, is founded on a new view of academic abilities that calls for reform in teaching and learning styles. With the division of Asian countries into three groups, the overview shows in particular that the introduction of ESD is greatly affected by each country’s socioeconomic situation. However, given Asia’s great diversity, it should be noted that this paper is far from an exhaustive study and takes up only certain distinctive initiatives in certain countries. Moreover, since the text mainly presents initiatives by governments, international organizations, and civil organizations, it does not cover the private sector, whose role in the promotion of ESD is expected to grow in importance in the future.13

In addition to these limitations, we are aware that further exploration should be required for the following issues in our future research: (a) the ESD practice/challenge, such as networking among schools and local communities; (b) the dissemination level of ESD approach among schools over subject- or examination-oriented pedagogy among teachers; and (c) the relationships between stakeholders in top-down structures in Asian countries. It is specifically important to examine these three missing issues because the forces that impede the implementation of ESD include a low level of understanding about this educational approach among teachers and education practitioners, who are on the ground in various educational settings. In most of (if not all) Asian countries, ESD seems to be something quite abstract for them, and it is hardly applicable to their daily teaching and other educational activities. However, as discussed in this article, ESD has been very much associated with the shift of teaching and learning that is taking place in many Asian countries, and what teachers and education practitioners have been including in their daily activities can be easily interpreted from the perspective of ESD.

With regard to the new type of education resulting from the shift in teaching and learning styles described here, it is important to pay special attention to one possible pitfall. That is, even if more proactive, learner-led education is realized with the shift in learning mode based on the new view of academic abilities, if the number of recipients of such education remains limited, it will not contribute to building a sustainable society. In the progressive view of academic abilities on which ESD, as a new approach to education, is based, critical thinking and effective communication skills are considered particularly important.

We should not overlook the fact that access to rich and diverse cultural experiences, which are highly conducive to developing these competencies, is often influenced by the size of the cultural capital that a learner possesses. For example, children who have many opportunities to listen to and engage in discussions on current social issues at home are usually better prepared to develop their newly acquired academic abilities. In many countries, differences in the size of cultural capital tend to be reflected in differences in academic performance. There are apprehensions that, as the switch to the progressive teaching and learning styles takes place in the future in favor of new academic competencies, the tendency for a student’s family background to determine his or her academic performance becomes even more pronounced, moving farther from the ideals of ESD.

It must be pointed out that, in addition to individual-level inequalities, such differences can lead to greater inequality between countries. In other words, children in industrialized countries live in an environment that is more compatible with the implementation of ESD than children in developing countries, who tend to encounter difficulty with appropriately using the resources necessary for the new educational approach. However, this does not necessarily mean that the latter lack resources altogether. In fact, there is a wealth of resources in their traditional culture and the natural environment that can be made accessible to children. The problem is that school education in developing countries is not often equipped with the means for teaching and learning required to make optimal use of these resources.

Despite these apprehensions and challenges, ESD-style learning is expected to become increasingly important in the ever-changing 21st century. The world today faces a myriad of problems whose factors are intricately intertwined. To find solutions, it is necessary to integrate the vast bodies of specialized knowledge accumulated in separate domains, creating new systems from them, and finding new societal and technological applications. This process can be called “knowledge innovation” (Suttmeier, Cao, & Simon, 2006), and amid its rapid socioeconomic development, Asia is expected to utilize its diversity to realize knowledge innovation.

To train those who will lead such a process, it is essential to promote ESD, thereby increasing opportunities for active learning that is oriented toward finding and solving problems. The approach must be promoted on the premise that equitable and sustainable education is indispensable for a sustainable society. It is essential, therefore, that Asian countries form a social consensus that education requires the participation and responsibility of the whole of society.

Further Reading

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Thomas, K. D., & Muga, H. E. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of research on pedagogical innovations for sustainable development. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.Find this resource:


Abe, O., & Tanaka, H. (Eds.). (2012). Ajia Taiheiyo Chiiki no ESD: Jizoku Kano na Kaihatsu no tame no Kyouiku no Shin Tenkai (ESD in Asia and the Pacific Region: New development of “ESD”). Tokyo: Akashi Shoten (in Japanese).Find this resource:

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Australian National Training Authority. (2003). Defining generic skills: At a glance. Adelaide, Australia: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.Find this resource:

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(1.) For detailed information on the SDGs, visit the UN website:

(3.) The outline of ESD provided here is based on information available on the website of the Japan National Commission for UNESCO under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, “Education for Sustainable Development” page:

(4.) The definition of ESD referring here is provided on the UNESCO Bangkok website:

(5.) The term literacy traditionally referred to the ability to read and write. OECD, via its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted every three years since 2000, introduced a broader sense of the term that signifies the ability to “read” (i.e., understand, evaluate … ) and “write” (i.e., use, express … ) required for social participation in a broader context.

(6.) Different international organizations and governments use different terms to refer to the qualities and abilities that are required in the new era, combining one of such adjectives as generic, key, and core with a noun such as skills, competencies, and qualifications, or sometimes employability.

(7.) For detailed information on GAP, visit the UNESCO website:

(8.) UNESCO Associated Schools were first established in 1953 to form the Associated Schools Project Network (ASPnet), to put in practice in schools the principles presented in the UNESCO Constitution, as communities in which experimental initiatives of education for international understanding were carried out and compared for research purposes and between which coordination was sought. As of June 2015, there are 10,422 UNESCO Associated Schools in 182 countries and regions in the world. Japan has the largest number per country. For detailed information on ASPnet, visit the UNESCO website:

(9.) For detailed information on Vietnam Agenda 21, see the website of Vietnam Agenda 21 Office:

(10.) See Sharma (2012).

(11.) For detailed information on Sarvodaya, visit

(12.) For detailed information on ASPBAE, visit

(13.) Refer to Fien (2013) for the role of corporations in the promotion of ESD in Asia.