Learning Goals

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) aims to promote specific competencies in students and teachers. Different competence frameworks have been developed by different actors. Broadly, the following overlapping areas of competence can be found across various frameworks:

  • Competencies for critical, networked, and systems thinking: The ability to understand causal relationships, to analyze complex systems at multiple levels, to understand and evaluate multiple (possible, probable, and desirable) futures, to think across subject areas, and to apply what has been learned to similar and dissimilar contexts

  • Ethical reflection competencies: The ability to understand and reflect on the norms, values, and beliefs underlying our own actions and engage perspective taking in regards to the actions of others, to judge the consequences of actions, and to manage risks and changes through ethical reflection and discourse

  • Cooperation competencies: The ability to learn from others, to understand and respect the needs, perspectives and actions of others, to relate to them and to be sensitive to them, to deal with conflicts in a group and to enable collaborative and participatory problem solving

  • Action competencies: The ability to reflect on one's role in the local community and (global) society, and to motivate oneself to work towards common goals on multiple levels of society

see this ESD Competencies Overview (in English, German)

What does the GlobalESD design concept contribute to achieving these existing learning objectives of ESD?

These competencies entail many behavioral concepts, including goals, values, feelings, cooperation, flexibility. They require an understanding and awareness of the complex causes and consequences of these human behaviors, including one's own, from the level of the self to the level of global ecosystems and society. The GlobalESD approach therefore focuses on promoting the knowledge and skills underlying these competencies by framing core understandings, knowledge, and skills foundational for the ability to reflect on human behavior across contexts.

In this way, the GlobalESD desgin concept is highly complementary to a diversity of educational approaches, adding new ideas and skills through our unique focus on transferable understandings of human evolution and behavior involved in important sustainability issues we face today.

The following essential questions, understandings, addressed misconceptions, knowledge, and skills form the foundation for the GlobalESD design concept.

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. How does evolution impact our behavior?

Q4. How does human behavior impact sustainable development?

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


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 impacts 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.


Students will know about the various methods, research questions, and central insights of evolutionary anthropology and behavioral sciences.


Students will be able to . . .

S1. ...use Tinbergen’s questions as a tool to explore complex causality in human behavioral ecology.

S2. ... construct causal maps to represent causal relationships between conditions, behaviors and other factors in the development of populations and social-ecological systems.

S3. … represent the possible motivations and outcomes (costs and benefits) of human behaviors with the help of payoff matrices, and identify the scale of social interactions and possible social dilemmas.

S4. ... compare principles across content (e.g. models, experiments, species, real world sustainability issues) with the help of analogy maps.

We encourage you to make connections between the elements and learning goals of our design concept and the ESD competencies. For example:

  • How can an understanding of the conditions that foster human cooperation help my students develop cooperation competency in the real world?

  • How can an understanding of the evolutionary, developmental, and proximate causes of human behavior help my students develop self-regulation, evaluation, and cooperation competency?

  • How can causal maps help my students develop systems thinking competencies?

  • How can analogy mapping and other transfer tasks help my students develop interdisciplinary thinking competencies?

GlobalESD Learning Goals, Essential Questions.pdf

This document further explains the rationale behind our overarching learning goals and essential questions and shows examples of more specific essential questions


UNESCO. (2017). Education for Sustainable Development Goals Learning Objectives. UNESCO. Retrieved from https://www.unesco.de/sites/default/files/2018-08/unesco_education_for_sustainable_development_goals.pdf

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: A reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6(2), 203–218. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6