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Education for resilience

Authors: Jose Roberto "Robbie" Guevara Published:

Education for resilience: adult and community education response to a context of crises * * This paper has been significantly revised from the version presented at the International Symposium of the Japan Society for the Study of Adult and Community Education in celebration of its 60th Anniversary on 29th September 2013 in Tokyo, Japan.  

Education for resilience: adult and community education response to a context of crises *

* This paper has been significantly revised from the version presented at the International Symposium of the Japan Society for the Study of Adult and Community Education in celebration of its 60th Anniversary on 29th September 2013 in Tokyo, Japan.



Resilience has become a new focus of adult and community education programs that aim to develop the capacity of individuals and communities to respond to a global context of crises. These multiple crises are often described as the result of a combination of the global financial crisis, the climate change crisis and the crisis due to situations of conflicts, to name a few. While global in scale, these multiple crises have very localised impacts which need to be considered in developing education for resilience responses.

Resilience is defined as “the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure” (Walker & Salt, 2006,1). It recognises that the world is changing, and therefore a resilient system responds to the changing world while maintaining the ability of the system to function. Resilience acknowledges that these socio-ecological systems are complex, consisting of inter-related parts that value diversity and feedback and are adaptable. Therefore, for a system to become resilient, on-going innovation and learning are required, founded on locally developed actions (Walker & Salt, 2006).

It is, therefore, understandable, given the notion of a world in a context of crises, why there has been an increase in the number of education programs that aim to develop resilience in both individuals and communities. This notion of developing education programs that are responsive to context is a long-standing tradition of adult and community education practice. The well-respected educator, Paulo Freire, succinctly argued that “education is thus constantly remade in the praxis. In order to be, it must become” (1993, 65).

This article will critically reflect on how this commitment of educators to be responsive to context, through resilience education programs may in effect retain and uphold the structure and function that itself contributed to the crisis in the first place.

To develop this argument, the article initially identifies educational frameworks that have supported this notion of education being responsive to context. The article then focuses on how this argument applies to context-responsive education programs that address the environmental crisis, with a specific focus on Education for Sustainable Development. Finally, the article examines how education for resilience programs can be strengthened to ensure that they do not merely assist individuals and communities to cope with crisis, but to understand, respond and transform the very causes of the crisis.The typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines in November serves as an example of such a crisis.

Responsive education frameworks abound

There is no lack of global education frameworks that demonstrate the commitment to learning that is responsive to the needs of the times. I will as much as possible use direct quotes from these frameworks to help illustrate how these education ideals have long existed and how they have changed.

Both the Faure Report (1972) of “learning to be” and the Delors Report (1996) that identified three additional pillars of “learning to know”, “learning to do”, and “learning to live together” continue to be very relevant in this context of crises. However, often the focus of the so-called Four Pillars of Education is in how education can assist the individual learner to adapt and respond to the changing context throughout his/her lifetime.

The Faure Report, entitled Learning to Be (1972, 104), identified that “education has to prepare mankind to adapt to change, the predominant characteristic of our time.” To develop this ability to adapt to change, the report argued that humans

“…must be capable of understanding the global consequences of individual behaviour, of conceiving of priorities and shouldering his share of the joint responsibility involved in the destiny of the human race.” (p.xxv)

The Delors Report, entitled Learning: the Treasure Within (1996) expanded on this notion of the individual learning to adapt to his/her context to include how such learning enables the individual to play a significant role at work and or in the community. The Delors Report argued that …

“… not only must [education] adapt to changes in the nature of work, but it must also constitute a continuous process of forming whole human beings – their knowledge and aptitudes, as well as the critical faculty and the ability to act. It should enable people to develop awareness of themselves and their environment and encourage them to play their social role at work and in the community. (1996,19)”

In the field of adult education, both the 1997 Hamburg Declaration (CONFINTEA V) and the 2009 Belem Framework for Action (CONFINTEA VI) acknowledged, with varying emphasis, these two tasks of education: firstly to be responsive to the changing contexts of the learner and secondly, to enable the learner to shape his/her community and the world. These two tasks of adult education were evident in the sections that linked education and environment in both the Hamburg Declaration and the Belem Framework for Action.

However, Clover and Hill (2013) argue (and I would agree, having attended both the Hamburg and Belem conferences) that the environmental agenda was more prominent in Hamburg than it was in Belem. The prominence of the link between environment and adult education in Hamburg, I would suggest, is very much linked to the series of United Nations global conferences that were convened in the 1990s, which contributed to establishing the interconnectedness of the issues tackled by each of these conferences.

One of these UN global conferences was the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, also called the Rio Earth Summit, which produced a document called Agenda 21 (UN,1992), that established strong links not only between environment and development but with education too. Chapter 36, entitled Promoting Education, Public Awareness and Training, identified how education

“…is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues.

Chapter 36 acknowledged the importance of both formal and non-formal education methods in developing “ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development” to ensure effective public participation. Furthermore, it emphasised the need to develop a more holistic understanding of our environment, if we are to make significant changes to the way we live and relate to our environment.

To be effective, environment and development education should deal with the dynamics of both the physical/biological and socio-economic environment and human (which may include spiritual) development, should be integrated in all disciplines, and should employ formal and non-formal methods and effective means of communication. (UN Agenda 211992)

The Hamburg Declaration (UNESCO 1997) supported these main elements, going further to identify that not only was it about the social, economic, cultural and spiritual contexts, but that the political context must equally be addressed if we are to mobilise effective action.

Education for environmental sustainability should be a lifelong learning process which recognizes that ecological problems exist within a socio-economic, political and cultural context. A sustainable future cannot be achieved without addressing the relationship between environmental problems and current development paradigms. Adult environmental education can play an important role in sensitizing and mobilizing communities and decision-makers towards sustained environmental action. (UNESCO 1997)

The International Civil Society Forum (FISC) that resulted in the Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility (ICAE, 1991) weaves the key principles into a coherent statement that identifies the value of formal, non-formal and informal education. This statement is grounded in a holistic and interdisciplinary understanding of context that does not shy away from regarding education as an ideological and political act, and leading to empowerment.

While the Belem Framework for Action (UNESCO, 2009,14) may not have had an explicit statement about environment and development, it did identify this missing aspect in terms of current policy and practice by observing that, “more integrated approaches to adult learning and education to address development in all its aspects (economic, sustainable, community and personal) are missing.”

Clearly, there is a long history and tradition of education in general and adult education in particular, to be responsive to the changing context. One such context that has continued to become more important within the context of crises has been that of the environment. As the frameworks above have indicated, the understanding of the environmental context has not always been limited to the biological or natural environment; transformative adult education in particular has always embraced the need to acknowledge the more holistic environmental context.

The concept of sustainable development was one attempt at establishing these inter-relationships between the environment and the social and economic dimensions of society. The most cited definition of sustainable development is based on the Brundtland Report (1987) that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition strongly emphasises the time element or the temporal dimension of sustainable development by highlighting the present and the future.

Aside from considering the element of time, there has also been an emphasis in the need to balance these three dimensions or pillars of sustainable development; namely the social, economic and environmental dimensions, which have been referred to as the triple bottom-line.

However, as illustrated by the Hamburg Declaration (1997) above, there are those who have argued that the triple-bottom line does not explicitly acknowledge the cultural, spiritual and political dimensions of sustainable development. To address this, the UNESCO (2010) Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future (TLSF) website has explicitly included a political dimension to sustainable development.

In sum then, there is a clear agreement of the need for a holistic understanding of our environment, and therefore a holistic educational approach that acknowledges both formal and non-formal methods. However, there seems to be an ongoing debate on the explicit dimensions that need to be included in this understanding, like the political dimension.

Education for sustainable development

I came into adult and community education as an environmental educator with a background as an environmental scientist. I have been humbled by the farmers, fisher folk and indigenous peoples I have worked with in the Philippines. In my work I have attempted to address the tendency of environmental education to focus only on the biological or natural environment, rather than a more holistic approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness of the various dimensions of society – the social, political, economic, environmental, cultural and historical contexts. The phrase Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) or Education for Sustainability (EfS) provided me with a shortcut way to describe the kind of educational practice that we developed together with these very groups in the Philippines.

I celebrated in 2002 when the proposal of the Japanese government to establish the UN Decade of ESD (DESD) from 2005 to 2014 was approved by the UN General Assembly. The goal of the UN DESD (UNESCO, 2006) was “to integrate the values inherent in sustainable development into all aspects of learning to encourage changes in behaviour that allow for a more sustainable and just society for all.” As the end of the UN Decade of ESD approaches, it will be necessary to reflect on the Decade within the context of the multiple global crises.

UNESCO (2013) describes that ESD

“is not a particular programme or project, but is rather an umbrella for many forms of education that already exist, and new ones that remain to be created. ESD promotes efforts to rethink educational programmes and systems (both methods and contents) that currently support unsustainable societies.”

A review by UNESCO of how the UN DESD has contributed to education policy and practice has confirmed that while there is a shared framework in terms of the vision of sustainable development, each of the countries have focused on “distinctive themes and topics, have different coordination mechanisms, and use a diversity of learning approaches.” (UNESCO, 2011,9)

For example, in the Netherlands, the ‘Learning for Sustainable Development’ (LfSD) programme has succeeded in embedding ESD across all sectors (formal, non-formal and informal education) through an emphasis on social and lifelong learning. While in Oman, the distinctive approach has been to develop partnerships with the business sector within the context of the formal education system. (UNESCO, 2011)

However, UNESCO has also acknowledged that there has been a greater emphasis on embedding ESD principles within the formal education curricula rather than within non-formal or informal educational contexts (UNESCO, 2011). UNESCO (2012,12) has observed that the spread of ESD has been rather uneven. Based on a survey of 50 countries in 2008, 26 countries reported no evidence of ESD, but in 2012, 16 of the 26 countries now report evidence of ESD.

This lack of recognition of ESD may be attributed to the term ESD being used interchangeably with Education for Sustainability and Education for a Sustainable Future, and how the specific organisation or community make the distinction (UNESCO 2010). Even from within UNESCO

…there is less push for a uniform view of ESD that can be prescribed to all countries and regions. Instead there is more recognition of the need for locally relevant interpretations, learning processes and change mechanisms. (UNESCO, 2012,20)

I support this view and would argue that what is more important is that there are principles of ESD that have been identified which weave together the ideals of education and the dimensions of sustainable development. (see UNESCO’s definition of ESD)

Charles Hopkins (in Mayr & Schratz, 2006, 5) has often argued that ESD should be careful not to fall into the trap of being what he described as ‘adjectival’ education, where a particular theme or issue is added before the word education to describe, as an adjective would, its scope and purpose.

UNESCO (2012,18) cited examples of these

…adjectival’ education to include, “environmental, peace, human rights, consumer, development, health, HIV/AIDS, biodiversity, gender, inclusive, multi-cultural, holistic, global, citizenship, disaster risk reduction (DRR), climate change (CC) and for food security.

Hopkins, in a workshop conducted in 2006 for the Ubuntu Network on “Embedding Development Education” clarified his concerns that ESD should not become one more example of ‘adjectival’ education, but rather how these ‘adjectival’ education approaches can contribute to ESD.

“So when we start looking at what are the elements where I’m going to be talking about education for sustainable development, that’s the international term that is used but you will see at the end that I’m really talking to each of you about what components you have to contribute to this whole thing. ..’cause in some places the vehicle that could be used to start the whole thing could be development education. Other people call it citizenship education, to some it’s environmental education but we do need to get beyond the adjectival forms of education… we do need to get right into the core, and it’s not just the discipline that’s going to do this – it’s got to be reorienting our entire way of thinking.” (Ubuntu Network 2006:5)

Hopkins (in Mayr & Schratz, 2006, 5) consistently argued that this “adjectival” approach would diminish the potential for ESD to address the needed reorientation of our way of thinking that is more encompassing of the four pillars (social, economic, environmental and political), the temporal dimension (past, present and future generations), different kinds of learning (formal, non-formal and informal), different disciplines (trans-disciplinary) and embracing of the local and the global.

In my opinion Hopkins’ criticism of adjectival education is not a judgement about the content of a given “environmental education” itself being necessarily and unavoidably poor but more an observation that such kind of education, like disciplinary knowledge, has its limitations. I see Hopkins’ stance as more of a warning that ESD should be careful not to go down this ‘adjectival’ education approach that can potentially ‘narrow’ what is meant to be ‘holistic’ education. I would argue that adjectival education can potentially be an entry point to more holistic education but it is important that educators acknowledge how this can link to other aspects of what is a complex crisis.

I make the observation that the context and the urgency of crises, as the recent events like Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 in the Philippines, has resulted in ESD becoming often equated to climate change education or disaster risk reduction education. This focus has developed despite the emphasis on ESD having a more open and less prescriptive definition, the acknowledgement of the value of embedding ESD across the formal, non-formal and informal educational contexts, and the need to be responsive to local contexts.

While I acknowledge that it is essential to equip individuals with knowledge and skills to respond to the crisis situations that they find themselves in, I make the observation that these education programs can have the tendency to merely assist the learner with ways to survive the current crisis and then prepare for the next crisis. However, in particular for communities that have become more vulnerable to climate change due to poverty and conflict, how can we facilitate that they can develop a deeper understanding of the crisis? How can we locally contextualise the science and the economics of climate change, while also explain the political and global factors that have contributed to their vulnerability? This is the challenge of ESD, if we are to truly contribute to developing a long-term and more sustainable response to the crises.

Re-thinking educating for resilience

I have tried to illustrate how as adult educators we currently have educational frameworks, from education, adult education and education for sustainable development that can guide us in responding to a situation of multiple crises.

However, I have also raised concerns about how these very frameworks – in crises – can potentially result in education that can narrow, rather than broaden and deepen our holistic and contextual understanding. As a result, the appropriate action that is identified is limited to preparing for and responding to the crises, rather than addressing the roots of the crises.

I wish to illustrate these concerns further by referring to educational programs I have recently observed. These programs have aimed at building resilience of individuals and communities who have been identified as vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and disasters.

For example, Senator Loren Legarda from the Philippines has proposed a 5-point Plan to help make communities resilient, in the aftermath of a series of destructive calamities in the country. She identified the need to manage the risk rather than the disaster; be ‘disaster-literate’; use scientific information to increase reliability of prediction; protect the environment and be prepared. She specifically underscored the need for education and public awareness and how the government can be responsible for conducting training for building the resilience of families using current government programs.

However, like many education programs, ‘disaster-literacy’ focuses on being prepared, managing the risk and responding to the disaster, but often fall short, in developing a deeper, more holistic and explicitly political understanding of why in fact the risks and vulnerabilities have increased. This would involve developing an understanding of the contribution of climate change and the continued lack of commitment of the developed countries to finding a solution, as exhibited again during the most recent UN Climate Change negotiations, held while some communities were wiped off the map in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan.

The author (standing) together with colleagues from ASPBAE, November 2013. The group volunteered to repack rice for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan at the National Relief Operations Centre in Manila after an ESD workshop. Photo: Robbie Guevara.

It is within these contexts that I argue that unless we take into consideration this more holistic perspective that explicitly acknowledges the political dimension and the more long-term perspective of responses, there may be the tendency for such education programs to be narrow and promote short-term reactive responses. While these responses, like the 5-point plan of Senator Legarda are important contributions, I am afraid that they may not foster long-term resilience but instead encourage a sense of ‘re-silence’ in the individuals and communities we work with.

I purposely coined the word ‘re-silence’ to call attention to the potential for education to only focus on developing capacities to cope and adapt to the changing context brought about by climate change, often experienced through natural disasters. These capacities of coping with and adapting to the changing context are important; however in the context of resilience that emphasises “the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure” (Walker & Salt, 2006,1, italics are by the author), it may result in merely preparing individuals and communities for the next disaster.

This is consistent with the argument of Holmberg (2013,3) that the dominant discourse in resilience has a tendency to ignore the political dimension of sustainability and tends to “mask power relations, contradictions of interest and inequalities that to a large extent determine how humans utilise the Earth.”

However, he also emphasised that this does not deny the possibility for resilience to be “radical and subversive” but unless the imbalance in social and economic powers are addressed, educating for resilience will merely maintain the very power structures that has contributed to unsustainability. Hence I suggest that resilience education programs that do not question why individuals and communities have been made vulnerable in the first place may in fact be promoting re-silence.

Paulo Freire succinctly captures the challenge of how we, as adult educators, should respond to the changing context of crises. In reflecting on how context shapes educational practice, Freire described that the

…banking method emphasises permanence and becomes reactionary,” on the other hand, “a problem-posing education – which accepts neither a ‘well-behaved’ present or a predetermined future – roots itself in the dynamic present and becomes revolutionary. (Freire, 1993, 65)

The Faure Report (1972) alluded to a similar challenge when they proposed that

…educational systems must be thought out afresh, in their entirety, as must our very conception of them. If all that has to be learned must be continually reinvented and renewed, then teaching becomes education and, more and more, learning. (p. xxxiii)

Therefore, instead of merely preparing individuals and communities to cope and adapt to the situation of crises, a problem-posing approach to education for resilience motivates the learners to develop a critical and holistic understanding of the crises situation. It would motivate an attitude of trying to understand the very roots that have led us all into this situation of crises and why we have become more vulnerable in the first place.

A problem-posing approach to education for resilience that links the local and the global will question why there are different levels of vulnerability if indeed climate change is a global crisis? But more importantly a problem-posing approach to education for resilience will motivate informed action, not limited to coping or adapting, but to transforming the very system that continues to perpetuate uneven distribution of power that results in unequal vulnerabilities, despite the shared context of crises.

Concluding thoughts

I think we have all the frameworks and the tools, and as adult educators have always had the passion and determination to contribute to change. What we need is to consolidate our strengths, at all levels and across all sectors. Otherwise educating for resilience may end up becoming educating to re-silence ourselves and our communities to accept that we will just continue to be made more and more vulnerable, one crisis after another.

Let us not kid ourselves, we are all vulnerable. Some have been made more vulnerable than others. I am amazed to see how often the very communities who are the most vulnerable are actually the most resilient. Maybe it is time for us to practice a key principle of adult learning that says “we are all learners” especially within this contexts of crises. It is time for us to facilitate a process of learning to be truly ‘global’ citizens who understand that as long as any one is vulnerable, we are all vulnerable.

We can no longer afford to be silent.


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Jose Roberto "Robbie" Guevara Jose Roberto "Robbie" Guevara has extensive experience in education for sustainable development within the Asia-Pacific region. Robbie is an Associate Professor in International Development at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and the President of the Asia-South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE). Contact: Show all articles by Jose Roberto "Robbie" Guevara
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