From the margins to the centre

Posted on April 28, 2009


UNDESD Robert Schreiber presenting core competencies for sustainability education

At the UN DESD conference I was at a workshop on integrating Education for Sustainability into curriculum plans.    The workshop had the theme of “from the margins to the centre” and was by far the most productive session I attended.

In one section, Robert Schreiber of the Hamburg Ministry of Education presented the German model of integrating Education for Sustainable Development across the school curriculum.  The goal is to help schools (and associated groups such as book publishers face the 

face the challenge of preparing children and young people more effectively for topics involving global development, to impart an understanding of globalisation processes and give them the necessary skills to critically analyse this.


The cross-curricular approach aims to provide an interdisciplinary approach and a concept.   The framework

is a conceptual framework for the development of syllabi and curricula, for designing lessons and extra-curricular activities as well as for setting and assessing requirements for specific subjects and learning areas

offers inspiration for: school profile and full-day school programme development, for cooperation with external partners and for teacher education

offers concrete recommendations and suggestions for the interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary organisation of instruction, and offers classroom materials (for vocational schools as well), to work out intricate global development issues.


The approach is essentially a matrix, with thematic areas on the vertical, and competencies on the horizontal.

These stem from the four German developmental policy target elements and what they recognise as 





From these factors they have distilled three competency domains – recognition, evaluation and action, which expand to 11 areas:


This competency domain underscores (considering rapid and often contradictory global processes) the necessity of acquiring and analysing global development information.

1:  Acquisition and processing of information:  Gather information on globalisation and development issues and process them thematically.

2:  Recognition of diversity: socio-cultural and natural diversity in a globalised world

3:  Analysis of global change  applying the guiding principle of sustainable development

4:  Differentiation between structural levels / levels of social action


The second competency domain centralises the critical reflection of different values and living conditions. It also focuses on the development of the individual identity under such conditions. It stipulates the evaluation of inconsistencies and conflict potential between global development objectives. This necessitates the ability to empathise and to alter perspectives that can challenge familiar world viewpoints and lead to new insights and changed points of view.

5: Shift of perspective and empathy 

6. Critical reflection and formation of opinion:  form opinions and simultaneously orient this opinion after the international consensus on sustainable development and human rights after critically contemplating globalisation and development issues.

7:  Assessment of development aid measures:  develop tactics to assess development aid measures and come to independent evaluations allowing for diverse interests and determining factors.


The third competency domain encompasses conflict management and communication, creativity and the willingness to innovate as preliminary requirements for active involvement in development processes. Central to the selection of a line of action is the clarification of standard and interest conflicts as well as the assessment of direct and indirect consequences of actions. Complex situations and rapid transformation require the ability to be able to deal with uncertainty and contradictions.

Pupils and students are able to …

8: Solidarity and co-responsibility –  Recognize areas of personal co-responsibility for humankind and the environment and take up the challenge.

9: Communication and conflict management: Overcome socio-cultural and special interest obstacles in communication, cooperation and conflict management.

10: Capacity to act on global change:  

 Ensure society’s ability to act on global change, especially on a personal and professional level, through openness and a willingness to innovate as well as through a reasonable reduction of complexity and be able to tolerate the uncertainty of open-ended situations.

11: Participation and active involvement:

 (children) are able to and, based on their politically mature decisions, promote the goals of sustainable development in their private, school and professional lives and take an active role in putting them into practice on a social and political level.


After some discussion, Robert assured me that the competencies are considered holistic.  In addition to the skills explicitly described, they are read as including values, knowledge and behaviour.

These competencies combine with thematic areas to produce the following matrix:


With Prof Ingrid Hemmer,  Schreiber presented the application of the matrix to the geography school curriculum.   It is perhaps unfornate that they picked geography it is surely the closest match of any subject to sustainability.     Beyond the maps of yore, geography concerns itself with systems concepts, with structures, functions, people, people and process.   The geography curriculum is even stated in terms of competencies in which the physical and human geographical systems, the different scales, and the system components contribute – pretty much aligning with sustainability without trying.



The model though is strong and making the links explicit is still useful.   Given a previously stated geography curriculum, they have worked through the sustainability matrix, examining agreement between the two.  It is not clear if the 100% congruence is a result of the process or was there anyway.    They used a simpler matrix than the one discussed above:


For example, within the “Communication” competence there is the following analysis and competencies identified:

Students learn to understand geographical/geoscientifc facts, to express themselves appropriately using geographical terms and thus to make themselves understood to others. This includes the presentation of such facts and interrelations/ connections in front of others. These various subsidiary communication competences are summarised here as one competence (K1). Students also have the opportunity to exchange ideas in geography classes (K2). These skills should be developed and practiced in the long-term as part of an overall geographical competence. 

Geography classes provide a special opportunity in this context, as they usually involve highly relevant themes that are also very important outside of school in society at large (e. g., environmental themes, planning, urban development, migration, natural hazards, cultures, regional geography etc.). This has very much to do with “putting knowledge into life” (Alexander von Humboldt). Geography lessons are not limited to unequivocal or unambiguous information, but also include a variety of trains of thought and arguments (e. g., when assessing interests and dealing with conflicts in planning, in the explanation and evaluation of natural hazards, justifying predictions etc.). Communication competence is of elementary significance for all of these activities.

Students realise that the geographical/geoscientifi c contents of schoolwork also depend on communication appropriate to the facts, the audience, and the communicator‘ s aims, and that form and content work together. Thus communication does not take place only “after” the acquisition of specialised knowledge but is simultaneously its prerequisite.


K 1 Ability to understand and express geographically/geoscientifi cally relevant statements

Students can

S 1 understand written and verbal geographically relevant statements in everyday and subject-specifi c language,

S 2 express geographically relevant information (in text, images, graphics etc.)  ordered according to the logic of the subject and using  specialist terminology, 

S 3 differentiate between observations of information and evaluations in geographically relevant statements,

S 4 organise and present geographically relevant statements in a way appropriate to the subject, the situation and the audience/target group.

K 2 Ability to speak about geographically/geoscientifically relevant facts, to discuss them and develop a well-founded opinion

Students can 

S 5 identify the logical, argumentative and geographical quality of their own and other people‘s statements in the context of geographical issues, and react appropriately,

S 6 weigh geographical statements and evaluations based on selected examples and develop their own, well-founded opinion in a discussion and/or develop an appropriate compromise (e. g., role-playing, scenarios).


During the workshop the participants developed an action plan for any country to adopt a similar process.  Unfortunately this became somewhat bogged down in specifics of German education (given that their education system is fiercely regionalised, Schreiber was very keen to have it recognised that the first step should be a national set of competencies).     These steps were reported back to the main group.  

UNDESD Robert Schreiber presenting core competencies for sustainability education

1. Agree a national set of sustainability competencies (assumes, of course, that subject area competencies already specified).

2. Articulate the subject’s contribution to education

3.  Map subject and ESD competency sets (this should be the subjects responsibility)

4. Competencies seen as a framework with freedom and in context for local relevance and engagement.


The second step was my contribution.   I wanted it to say “Articulate the subject’s contribution to sustainability and to education”.     The geographers’ special contribution sets the scene for the rest of the process for them:

The special contribution of the subject Geography to an understanding of the world lies in its examination of the interrelations between nature and society in different sizes and types of space. Thus it is a school subject which first  has a central concern with the topic of spatial aspects and secondly, links knowledge from natural science and social science.

The last statement – “competencies seen as a framework…” – was a to cater for the non-Germans in the group who felt that flexibility and creativity was a good thing (how the UN ever agrees to anything is a mystery to me).