Design Concept

"Reflecting on the everyday experience of human behavior in the light of evolution and sustainability"

The research questions, concepts, methods and findings of evolutionary anthropology, behavioral science, psychology, and sustainability science offer unique opportunities to explore the causes and consequences of human behavior in the classroom. They thus can contribute to a fascinating and interdisciplinary education that connects to our shared everyday experience and is relevant to pressing societal challenges. But to achieve deeper understandings on the nature of human behavior and sustainability, isolated lessons are not enough. Rather, we need to work on several levels, including on the level of units and curricula.

Our educational design concept offers practical guidance for the development of teaching materials, lessons and units that aim to support students and teachers in reflecting on the everyday experience of human behavior in the light of evolution and sustainability.

Teaching for conceptual understanding

Concept-based curriculum (Erickson, Lanning, & French, 2017) and teaching for conceptual understanding (Stern, Ferraro, & Mohnkern, 2017) are approaches to designing curricula, units, lessons and assessments that help achieve deeper and transferable understanding of concepts and general principles of a theme in students, where specific subject content and facts serve as a means to achieve such deeper understanding, rather than an end in itself. This is because facts and knowledge on isolated topics alone do not transfer to new phenomena and are thus not enough if the aim is to cultivate in students competencies such as problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and perspective-taking, as well as the ability to apply such competencies in novel contexts. On the other hand, when students understand and transfer underlying principles, facts around particular content will become much easier to learn and retain than through mere rote learning.

In particular, the evolution, behavior and sustainability sciences are characterized by richness and overlaps in concepts, principles, applied methods, and skills. Transfer of overarching principles is what characterizes these fields, enables their inter- and transdisciplinary work and discourse, and enables these fields to explore and address complex problems of human behavior and society. This richness in concepts and principles provides opportunities for achieving the competency aims within Education for Sustainable Development, and related interdisciplinary teaching aims.

However, to use these opportunities, we need to identify the key concepts, principles, and skills that characterize these fields, and subsequently formulate the understandings, essential questions and targeted skills that can guide the design of lessons and units for educators. Our Design Concept for teaching and learning about human evolution, behavior, and sustainability was developed to achieve these aims.

Concept-based unit design and Teaching for conceptual understanding provide us with well founded and popular frameworks for doing this conceptual clarification for education. They also provide us with tools for designing teaching materials, assignments, lessons, and units around overarching understandings, essential questions and skills that we aim to cultivate in students and teachers.

See more under Unit Design

Design Principles

Building on educational best practices, our experience in classrooms, and the inquiry processes of evolution and behavioral sciences, we have outlined three overarching principles for the identification of content and methods that help reflect on the everyday experience of human behavior in the light of evolution and sustainability.

These three design principles also help orient educators to the 'big picture' conceptual relationships that connect evolution, behavior, and sustainability science.

Learn more about the Global ESD Design Principles.

Content Anchors

Understanding human evolution, behavior, and sustainability requires students to draw on knowledge and concepts from diverse areas of science and society.

Cross-cutting content anchors reflect the methods and fields of inquiry of evolutionary anthropology, behavioral and sustainability science. From these, we identify content for the development of educational materials that can be used to reflect and discuss the causes and consequences of human behavior in the classroom.

Learn more about the Global ESD Content Anchors.

Teaching Tools

Teaching tools are used across diverse lessons to develop the skills that evolutionary anthropologists and sustainability scientists use in exploring the causes and consequences of human behavior, and the complex relationships in social-ecological systems.

Using these tools across content also promotes transfer of learning across themes in evolution, behavior, and sustainability science.

Select a specific teaching tool page from the buttons on the right, or learn more about all of them on our Teaching Tools page.

Understandings, Essential Questions and complex Skills

With the focus provided by our design principles, content anchors and teaching tools, we develop lesson materials and units around the following overarching essential questions, with the aim to achieve higher level understandings and cultivate skills of inquiry that span evolution, behavior and sustainability science.

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Students will understand that . . .

U1. Our everyday behaviors and experiences have many causes, some of which go all the way back to their evolutionary origins.

U2. Humans have been shaped by natural selection and cultural evolution to have an elaborated capacity to cooperate beyond kin.

U3. Our everyday behaviors can have many consequences, some of which may be intended or unintended, and some of which may expand into scales of distant time or space in the future.

U4. The evolution of human behavior is relevant to the sustainability dilemmas of today.

Addressed misconceptions

M1. Phenomena in biology and society are predominantly caused by the intentions of single agents.

M2. Evolutionary theory implies that selfish behavior is always adaptive.

M3. Today’s sustainability problems tell us that humans are intrinsically worse than other species at sharing resources and using them sustainably.

Essential Questions

Q1. What are the causes and consequences of an observed behavior?

Q2. What are important conditions for humans to cooperate towards common goals?

Q3. What is the relationship between human behavior and human evolution?

Q4. What is the relationship between human behavior and sustainability?

Q5. What is the relationship between human evolution, behavior, and sustainability?


  • Students will be able to use Tinbergen’s questions as a tool to explore complex causality in human behavioral ecology.
  • Students will be able to construct causal maps to represent causal relationships between conditions, behaviors and other factors in the development of populations and social-ecological systems.
  • Students will be able to represent the possible motivations and outcomes (costs and benefits) of people’s behaviors in particular contexts with the help of payoff matrices, identify the scale of social interactions and possible social dilemmas.
  • Students will be able to compare and transfer principles across content (e.g. models, experiments, species, real world sustainability issues) with the help of analogy maps.

Adaptation to local classrooms

Global ESD is using Design-Based Research to develop Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programming. Design-Based Research (DBR; DBR Collective, 2003) is an approach within education science that seeks to develop layers of generalizable design principles for teaching and learning, through the iterative implementation and evaluation of these principles across real-world school contexts, through long-term collaborations between researchers and school-based educators, and with an emphasis on pragmatism and workability in real world contexts (Anderson & Shattuck, 2012 ; Cobb et al., 2003; McKenney & Reeves, 2018).

Working with educators and school-based curriculum designers helps us further refine and extend materials and guidance, so that educators across subjects, grade-levels and cultures will be empowered to teach and learn about human evolution, behavior and sustainability in a way that enriches their classrooms and their lives.

Learn more...

The Global ESD Teacher's Guide to Evolution, Behavior, and Sustainability Science

To assist educators from across subject areas in exploring the big ideas, essential questions, and diverse content anchors of our design concept, we are developing a creative commons teaching guide, planned for public access release during the summer of 2019.

We are currently working with researchers and educators to review a draft version. Contact us if your are interested to review our teacher's guide in advance.


  • Anderson, T., & Shattuck, J. (2012). Design-Based Research: A Decade of Progress in Education Research? Educational Researcher, 41(1), 16–25.
  • Cobb, P. A., Confrey, J., DiSessa, A. A., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2003). Design experiments in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 9–13.
  • DBR Collective (The Design-Based Research Collective) (2003). Design-Based Research: An Emerging Paradigm for Educational Inquiry. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 5–8.
  • Erickson, H. L., Lanning, L. A., & French, R. (2017). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (2nd ed.). Corwin.
  • McKenney, S & Reeves (2018). Conducting Educational Design Research. 2nd edition. Routledge.
  • Stern, J., Ferraro, K., & Mohnkern, J. (2017). Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary. Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning. Corwin.
  • Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).