Piloting Nordic sustainability education

A Nordic network is piloting a post-qualifying course for adult educators, focusing on sustainability education. The pilot emphasises learning combined with practical action.


How to raise awareness and engage the Nordic population in the need for sustainable development?

A cross sectoral network, with participants from different levels of education and different adult education institutions, has for several years worked with the Nordic Network for Adult Learning (NVL) to answer this question.

The NVL is a body that enables co-operation in the adult education sector in the Nordic region. The objectives of the NVL strive towards promoting lifelong learning by focusing on cross-sectoral cooperation in the priority areas defined by the Nordic Council of Ministers. NVL transmits competence and experiences between the five Nordic countries Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and the three autonomous areas: Greenland, Åland Islands and Faroe Islands. The task of the network is to deepen Nordic competence and foster mutual learning.

In this article we present an example of Nordic cross sectoral further adult education in education for sustainable development. We will start by defining sustainable development and outline how education for sustainable development has developed, globally and in Nordic adult education. After that we continue by presenting the background to the example course, its aims, target group, quality assurance, content and future prospects.

Post-2015 agenda for sustainable development ready in November 2014

The concept sustainable development became common after the publication of the so called Brundtland report in 1987 (WECD, 1987), but was first defined in the World Conservation Strategy. The basic definition for sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (World Conservation Strategy, 1980). Sustainable development is dependent on economic and social development, and environmental protection (UN DESD, 2011).

During the last decade, 2005-2014, the UN has focused on enhancing education for sustainable development at all levels of education, also in adult education (UN DESD, 2011). The goal has been that graduates would be able to take the social, environmental and economic costs and benefits into consideration when making decisions (Sibbel, 2009, 68-82). The implementation of the Decade has been reviewed. Based on this review, strategies for ESD activities after 2014 have been developed. These will be presented on the UNESCO World Conference on ESD in November 2014. At the conference the Global Action Programme on ESD will be presented, which is the post-2015 agenda for enhancing ESD after the decade (UNESCO, 2014).

For taking all sustainability aspects into account systematic and holistic thinking is needed. ESD aims to develop learners’ self-learning, problem–solving and creative and critical thinking. It requires cooperation among disciplines and transdisciplinary education (Rieckmann, 2012, 127-135; Sibbel, 2009, 68-82; Svanström et al., 2008, 339-351; van Dam-Mieras et al., 2008, 251-264).

(Multidisciplinary education is cooperation between disciplines, based on the methodology applied by the different disciplines. Interdisciplinary education is cooperation between disciplines, in which the same methodology is applied. Transdisciplinary education differs from multi- and interdisciplinary education by that the cooperation goes beyond the disciplines and involves also users and stakeholders (Lozano, 2006, 787-796).)

According to Lozano (2014, 205-216) creativity is recognized as a key skill for sustainability. It is also crucial that individuals who are working for sustainable development share their knowledge and engage in collaboration with different sectors of society (Ferrer-Balas et al., 2010, 607-610; Lozano, 2014, 205-216).

Sustainable development and the Nordic tradition of civic formation

Adult education has a central role for sustainable development. The pilot course we present in this article leans on the tradition of the Nordic tradition of civic formation “folkeopplysning”. Both in former and present Nordic strategies for sustainable development formal and non-formal education is emphasized as one of the important ways to succeed with the transition needed towards a sustainable society, understood as “A good life in a sustainable Norden (Nordic countries)” (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2013).

The Nordic tradition for civic formation plays an important role in this process of transition. The roots go back to the Danish priest N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783 – 1872). Since the early 1800s, democratic formation and empowerment have been central goals of the pedagogy. Grundtvig saw dialogue between equals as the basic principle of civic education: “Not telling people what to think, but stimulating them to creative reflection about life and thus qualifying them to become real participants in democracy” (Læssøe, 2007). Grundtvig’s concept of ”civic formation” addresses the deep connection between formation of the individual and formation of the community; the pedagogic platform therefore embraces formation as an individual, as a member of society and as world citizen. It would be hard to find an approach better suited to addressing today’s goals for a sustainable world – from individual life quality to sustainable local communities to global and intergenerational equity.

Norden today is at a crossroads as regards sustainable development; ranking very high internationally in terms of economic growth, welfare and education, yet far less impressive in terms of our very high ecological footprint. Global equity will require drastic changes in consumption in the rich countries.  This will need real, open democratic debate about what we mean by good life quality and action to make the changes needed. In this process civic formation has an important role (Paaby, 2012).

Education for sustainable development in Nordic adult education

Since 2006 Nordic Network for Adult Learning (NVL) has had education for sustainable development on the agenda, for example through a series of seminars that have combined educational inputs, practical examples and interactive dialogue.

As a follow-up to this, a Nordic cross sectoral post-qualifying education was developed, supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers as one of several projects under the program Green Growth the Nordic Way.

Green growth is a key priority for Nordic co-operation in the coming years.

“The Nordic Region – leading in green growth” is the Nordic Prime Ministers’ shared green growth initiative under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The green growth initiative is a vision based on the joint utilization of Nordic strengths in a number of areas including education for sustainable development. The project described here is a part of this effort. (Norden, 2014 A)

Globalization, the emergence of the information society, unsustainable levels of production and consumption, an ageing population and the results of climate change are both challenges and opportunities for the Nordic countries. Joint Nordic cross-sectorial initiatives which integrate the principle of sustainable development are needed, to meet these challenges and opportunities (Norden, 2014 B).

The Nordic countries have agreed that the region has to work together towards sustainable development by conducting a sustainability strategy for the region. The aims of the course we present in this article are also following the goals in this sustainable development strategy, which sets up goals and prioritized areas for climate and renewable energy, sustainable production and consumption, the Nordic welfare state as a tool for sustainable development, education and research, participation of the population and local sustainability strategies (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2009).

The pilot course 2014-2015

The pilot course of the educational programme emphasises learning geared towards theoretical knowledge combined with practical action. The aim is to build bridges between formal education institutions, local administrations and civil society organizations; assisting both formal and informal learning arenas to learn from the inspiring local examples.

The target group is teachers working with adults, for example at a folk high school, in a study organisation or representing an NGO with education for sustainable development on its agenda. The education course is free, but the participants have to pay the travelling costs, study material as well as the time invested in the studies.

The education will last one year, organized as four sessions taking place in four different Nordic countries and together with own studies it will constitute 15 credits (ECTS). During the year each of the 19 participants also works with a practical project for their employee. The first session was organized September 10th- 12th in Oslo in Norway. The other sessions will be organized in Samsø/Denmark, Gothenburg/Sweden and Porvoo-Borgå/Finland during the academic year 2014-2015.

In the first session introduction to the concept of sustainable development – historical, epistemological and strategic illustrated with practical examples – will be presented. Other topics at the first session are fair distribution and global citizenship, the Nordic landscape and the opportunities it provides for reflection and new knowledge.

At the second session some of the topics are “alternative energy solutions and self-sufficiency, community, local ownership and economy. At the third session the ecological cycle, urban ecology or city cultivation and democracy and participation, will be presented, among other things. At the fourth and last session the program includes sustainable lifestyle – “the good life”, sustainable development in knowledge organizations, various certification schemes, and local traditions and heritage as part of sustainable development.

Because transdisciplinarity is essential for ESD the aim is to encourage the participant to cooperate with different stakeholders. The sessions are planned based on local examples, to show that local examples can be found everywhere. The added value from having the sessions in the Nordic countries, is to show different practical and pedagogical examples from different regions in different cultures than the one that the participants are used to. The other aim with having such a variety in the programme is for ensuring that all participants can get examples to their work for the benefit of the students.

Planning session by the project group in Oslo on August 21th, 2014. /Photo: Project archive

19 Nordic students have been accepted as participants, six from Denmark, three from Iceland, four from Finland, two from Sweden and four from Norway. The group are spread in age, from about 25 to 65, all in all eight men and eleven women. As for the participants’ backgrounds and work experience the following sectors are represented: university, local authority, business, NGO’s – mainly from the so-called Transition Networks, civil colleges (”folkehøgskoler”) and study associations. The last three mentioned are the majority.  The target group that the students work with in their daily work are divided between adult learners, broadly: local citizens and schoolteachers. Thematically the projects that the students will work with during the course cover the following:

  • sustainable buildings and materials,
  • sustainable food,
  • organizing of partnerships between local authorities, civil society and local private sector – how to revitalize the Local Agenda 21 approach
  • systems for environmental certification and sustainable management, and
  • ethical consumption and global citizenship.

The projects are various, from organizing regional networks (for example promoting local food), education and influencing politicians, developing sustainable work health, renovation of a folk high school to conform to sustainability standards, or making a film in which young people from all Nordic countries tell about how they were convinced to work for a more sustainable future.

Participants and teachers at the first session in Oslo, September 2014.

Quality assurance

During 2009- 2012 Manninen et al. (2012) studied the perceived success of educational projects. This research group consisted of a consortium of experts in each of the Nordic countries and was done for NVL. They studied 21 examples of educational projects and programmes, based on information delivered by the institutions responsible for the projects. Based on their findings they created a handbook with recommendations on how to prepare and carry out educational projects designed to help individuals, groups or society to meet challenges. They found eight success factors, which are: 1) networking, 2) getting new groups involved, 3) sustainable new structures and practices, 4) focus on participants’ needs, 5) process evaluation, 6) community as pedagogical strategy, 7), flexibility and 8) new role for institutions.

In this pilot course we aim at addressing these success factors by 1) planning, implementing and developing the course in a cross sectoral Nordic network in that we have also thought about how to continue with the course after the pilot year. The participants have a regional and/or national network that they work with during the course. In the first session the participants were also divided into five groups, that hade similar interests or/and projects. 2) The target group is adult educators that see a potential in involving new groups at their institution by studying sustainability aspects. 3) The aim is to develop sustainable new structures and practices at the institutions the participants are working at. 4) The practical projects are based on new needs that the employee of the participants has identified. 5) Both the course and the work of the participants are evaluated during the course and in the end. The evaluation is based on action research because this is an experiment: the only way to study this is to make it happen. 6) The participants learn together from each other by having different projects that they work on. 7) The education is based on the participants’ needs, which means that they can themselves choose the literature that they are reading and the project they are working on. 8) Through the practical projects the institutions that the participants are working at can find new roles (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Quality Assurance of the pilot Nordic cross sectoral further adult education in education for sustainable development, adapted from Manninen et al., 2012.

International cooperation

The pilot course has been presented at three international conferences during 2014. At NERA (Nordic Educational Research Association) 42nd Congress that focused on Education for Sustainable Development, the EU-Russia adult and continuing education conference in the area of sustainable development and the Nordic conference Bridges for Lifelong Learning.

There are possibilities for transferring this educational model to other contexts. At one of the conferences a participant from Russia showed interest in the pilot: further cooperation has already started. Another participant was interested in cooperation around exporting the model to China. Since enhancing education for sustainable development and quality assurance demands are alike in the Nordic countries and China (Holm, 2014), it will be something that the network will look into. There are challenges for transferring the model into other cultures: the planning and development work must be done in a network that involves experts from that region.

Work session at the Nordic conference Bridges for Lifelong Learning, June 11th 2014 at Harpa in Reykjavik, Iceland. Presentation of the pilot model.

Concluding remarks

We argue that learning geared towards theoretical knowledge combined with practical action is a way to educate for sustainable development. Bridges ought to be built between formal education institutions, local administrations and civil society organizations in a transdisciplinary fashion, assisting both formal and informal learning arenas to learn from the inspiring local examples.

The added value of this multinational course compared to a national one is that the participants will work across cultures, and will benefit from practical and pedagogical examples the from different regions. The course is also an important part of the Nordic sustainable development strategy.


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