Adult Education and the Planetary Condition

Nordic cross-sectorial further adult education for sustainable development

Tove Holm, PhD, Training Manager, Sykli Environmental School of Finland, Finland,, +358 50 574 6471
Caitlin Wilson, MSc, PhD candidate and adjunct teacher, University of Iceland, Iceland,
Kirsten Paaby, MA, Senior advisor, Stiftelsen Idébanken, Norway,
Ellen Stavlund, MA, Project manager, Voksenopplæringsforbundet, Norway,


Adult education has a central role for sustainable development because adults further educate leaders for all labor markets.

Since 2006 the Nordic Network for Adult Learning (NVL) has had education for sustainable development on the agenda. A Nordic cross-sectorial group has discussed what kind of approach is necessary to get changes in our mindsets and behavior. The result is the development of a Nordic cross-sectorial, post-qualifying education which the Nordic Council of Ministers decided to support as one of several projects under the program “Green Growth the Nordic Way” during the academic year 2014-2015 (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2015).

The pilot emphasizes learning geared towards action competence, an approach involving a high level of knowledge combined with practical action (Mogensen and Schnack, 2010). The aim of the pilot is to build bridges between formal educational institutions, local administrations and civil society organizations, assisting both formal and informal learning arenas to learn from inspiring local examples. The target group is pedagogues engaged in sustainable development and adult learning.


Education for sustainable development in adult education

Adult education has a central role for sustainable development because adults further educate leaders for all labor markets. Adult learners also represent an important part of communities as they are the workforce, voters, consumers, leaders, parents and teachers. Therefore, adult education is a critical forum for education for sustainable development (ESD) to take place, but it presents several unique challenges. Adults learn through a wide variety of avenues including higher education, workplace education, community or professional organizations, and a variety of ways more difficult to categorize which may involve incidental learning, informal styles and non-formal settings (Maier, 2011). Adult learners tend to be more receptive to instrumental knowledge, which is more goal- or behavior-oriented, because they see its use and relevance more easily for their work, but communicative knowledge, which involves dialogue and inspires intentional action, supports action competence in ESD (Habermas, 1984; Jensen and Schnack, 1997; Falasca, 2011; Macdonald et al., 2012). So, effective adult ESD involves navigating the variety of settings and styles in which adults learn, and managing their expectations for the learning process.  

ESD is also characterized by systemic and holistic thinking, which are needed in order for all sustainability aspects to be taken into account. Competencies aimed for include self-learning, problem-solving, and creative as well as critical thinking. ESD requires cooperation among disciplines and transdisciplinary education (Sibbel, 2009; van Dam-Mieras et al., 2008). Transdisciplinary education differs from multi- and interdisciplinary education in that the cooperation goes beyond the disciplines and involves also users, problem owners and stakeholders (Lozano, 2006). According to Lozano (2011) 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; Lozano, 2011).

ESD has been developing for the past several decades all over the world. With roots in the environmental movement of the 1960s and the emergence of sustainable development in the 1980s, ESD is defined by UNESCO as:

a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology and equity of all communities…This represents a new vision of education, a vision that helps people of all ages better understand the world in which they live, addressing the complexity and interconnectedness of problems such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, population growth, health, conflict and the violation of human rights that threaten our future. This vision of education emphasises a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to developing the knowledge and skills needed for a sustainable future as well as changes in values, behavior, and lifestyles. (UNESCO, 2003, p. 4)

Thus ESD attempts to foster holistic, responsible thinking in the minds of global citizens and planetary stewards. According to UNESCO, “Education for sustainable development aims to help people develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge to make informed decisions for the benefit of themselves and others, now and in the future, and to act upon these decisions” (UNESCO, 2010). In his book Sustainable Education, Stephen Sterling calls for the reorientation of education towards sustainability (2001). He explains that including issues and topics of sustainability in traditional educational systems will not address the problems of sustainability. Whereas these traditional systems are characterized by functional or instrumental learning, reoriented sustainable education is transformative and is characterized by critical and creative learning (Sterling, 2001).

The UN has focused on enhancing ESD during the UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development from 2005-2014 (UN DESD, 2011). At the UNESCO World Conference on ESD in November 2014, the implementation of the decade was presented. Suggested actions for non-formal education include initiatives to increase public awareness, strengthening the involvement of media, increased attention on different roles of government and civil society, delivery of appropriate training and material to respond to the capacity gap of educators, and use of music, arts and other means for communication (UNESCO, 2014a). The decade was considered the most successful of all decades that UNESCO has conducted. The goals for enhancing ESD after the decade were published in the Global Action Programme on ESD. The main goals are to reorient education and to promote sustainable development (UNESCO, 2014b).

Nordic further adult education for sustainable development

Since 2006, the Nordic Network for Adult Learning (NVL) has had ESD on the agenda adressing how the global sustainanbility challenges can be worked with at the local level by identifying the possibilities of making the changes needed – both individually and in community.

NVL arranged a series of Nordic seminars with paticipants from a big variety of Nordic non-formal and formal educatonial organisations, in cooperation with from the Norwegian Association for Adult Learning (NAAL) and the Ideas Bank. Thematically the seminars focused on the connection between civic formation, democracy and sustainable development. In addition to the seminars a serie of best pratices in ESD at the civic formation level were published at the NVL website (Paaby 2012). Based on these seminars NAAL and the Ideas Bank studied  the possibilities for adults in the Nordic countries to learn about both the challenges for sustainable development and how to act and obtain competence for action. This was done in cooperation with NVL on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers. It was found that in spite of clear policy documents on ESD the implementation and practical follow up were missing at the civic society level. Local sustainability is more than just planning. It is about everyday attitudes and actions, and about outcomes that can be enabled, but not produced, by planning. Competence must be broad based. There is a necessity for civic mobilisation because change occurs through social and technical innovation – in the hands of individuals and groups. In this way, public action is at once a supplement to political governance, and a prerequisite for good local governance. To strengthen the civic mobilization there is a need for integrating a broader thematical perspective in further education by including innovative arenas and methods for learing in the spirit of the UN Decade for ESD (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2011). To follow up the recommendations from the report a Nordic cross- sectorial group was established that discussed what kind of approach is necessary to get changes in our mindsets and behavior. The result is the development of a Nordic cross-sectorial, post-qualifying education which the Nordic Council of Ministers decided to support as one of several projects under the program “Green Growth the Nordic Way” during the academic year 2014-2015 (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2015).

The pilot emphasizes learning geared towards a high level of knowledge combined with practical action. Several concepts at the core of sustainability education are incorporated into the pilot: action competence, future orientation, active participation, transdisciplinary learning, learner agency and empowerment (Huckle, 2006; Mogensen and Schnack, 2010; Læssøe and Krasny, 2013). The aim is to build bridges between formal educational institutions, local administrations and civil society organizations, assisting both formal and informal learning arenas to learn from inspiring local examples. The target group is pedagogues engaged in sustainable development and adult learning.

Quality assurance

Manninen et al. (2012) have studied characteristics for successful educational projects conducted in the Nordic countries. Based on their findings, they published a handbook with recommendations on how to prepare and carry out educational projects designed to help individuals, groups or society to meet challenges which align with the goals for ESD. They found eight success factors, which are: 1) networking, 2) getting new groups involved, 3) sustainable new structures and practices, 4) focus on needs, 5) process evaluation, 6) community as pedagogical strategy, 7) flexibility, and 8) new role for institutions.

Figure 1, Quality Assurance of the pilot Nordic cross-sectorial further adult education in ESD, adapted from Manninen et al., 2012 in Holm et al., 2014).

In the pilot course we aim at facing these factors by (see Figure 1):
- 1) planning, realizing and further developing the course in a cross-sectorial Nordic network. The participants of the course also have a regional and/or national network that supports them during the course. Coaching groups were formed through an Open Space process.
- 2) The target group of the course is adult educators who see a potential in involving new groups at their institution, by taking into account sustainability aspects. The extent (ECTS), language of instruction, time and place for the sessions, number of participants, prerequisites, admission criteria and priorities in admission, competences that the students will build, content and working methods, form of examination and criteria for assessment and responsible course coordinator are documented in a realization plan.
- 3) The aim is to develop sustainable new practices and structures at the institutions where the participants are working.
- 4) The practical projects are based on new needs that the participants and/or their institutions have identified.
- 5) Both the course and the work of the participants are evaluated during the course and when finalized. The evaluation is based on action research because as this is a pilot, the only way to study it was to make it happen.
- 6) The participants learn together from each other by presenting and discussing their practical projects that they work on.
- 7) The education is based on the participants’ needs; that is, they can themselves choose the practical project they are working on and choose literature that is useful for their project and learning.
- 8) Through the practical projects the institutions in which the participants are working can find new roles.

The pilot in action
The activities for the participants of the course are presented in Figure 2. In the same figure is also a summary of how the project group has disseminated the results during 2014-2015. Here is one example from the second session: the Circle on Samsø Energiakademi. Project manager Malene Anniki Lundén introduced the circle to the participants: which is a a method to form a strong and cohesive community, from aim to action. One of the circle`s learning platforms is about examination of the democratic processes that works in groups. One important aim is to investigate and train what leadership is, what it means in practice to be able to speak from an intention and finally be able to listen. By that the circle challenges us to train ourselves continuously on being curious.

Some thought from the students after the second session: -New ways to inspire people and how to get people/children motivated. -A more obvious collaborative group. A clearer vision, more concrete plan and helpful tips from the other projects. - It can be a challenge and rather lonesome to design new worlds. In a group like this, the physical presence is an experience that tells you, you are not alone in the boat. - I want to spread the message. 


Figure 2. Activities for participants and communication of the pilot course during 2014-2015.

Language as a challenge

A part of the learning in the course is working with and in the Nordic Landscape. During the first two sessions of four we have noticed that the main challenge that we have identified is the lack of a common Nordic language. We have tried to address it at the learning platform instead of making it a problem. In the second session at Samsø we included time-outs – and raised the question how is it with the language and understanding now? When people were exhausted after a long day e sometimes agreed to change into English. In the third session in Gothenburg we will pay specially attention again to the language and we will initiate the production at place of a Nordic dictionary with the most essential words and concepts in the field of sustainable development that we have problems by understanding. This is one example of how we are practicing “community as a pedagogical strategy”.

One student reflection about her experience of the course

“What has impressed me most is the diversity of places and ways in which we, the participants in the course, work. And how the course has facilitated our sharing of experiences, not least through the visits to examples in the field we have together during the course. I feel like I understand how the others have dealt with the challenges of trying to promote sustainability in our different situations, without having been there myself. Like I have had a vicarious experience and gained perspective through my fellow students. This has directly fed back into my own work, informing my practice and widening my worldview. I can refer to the work of my colleagues. This has enriched my professional experience.

The other remarkable thing that has happened is somehow through the course this incredible solidarity has grown. We have become brothers and sisters in arms in education for sustainable development. A special trust has developed. I know I can rely on these colleagues for collaboration in years to come. We are already planning our future work together after the course. To me this is something special, something I haven’t experienced in other networks, and is due to the way the course is run.”


We have found that learning geared towards theoretical knowledge combined with practical action is a way to educate for sustainable development. Building bridges between formal education institutions, local administrations and civil society organizations in a transdisciplinary fashion has engendered a sense of collective efficacy, reinforced by the inspiring local examples. The added value of this multinational course compared to a national one is that the participants work across cultures, and benefit from practical and pedagogical examples from different regions, as evidenced by student testimony. The course is also an important part of the Nordic sustainable development strategy, since it enhances the goals for education and cooperation in that.

Questions that this work has raised: How can adult education answer the needs for Nordic green growth? What competencies do communities need? How can we raise the awareness of politicians and policymakers to the importance of the sustainable, small steps like cooperation and actions within local communities? How do we make the bridges we’ve built sustainable themselves; that is, how do we ensure the cross-sectorial collaboration carries on after the course is over? What can we learn about collective efficacy from the pilot?


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