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Learning programme design

Education for Sustainability programmes need to be carefully planned if they are to achieve the desired outcomes. This section suggests how to go about this planning and provides examples of programmes. 

Effective pedagogy

Any good programme depends on effective pedagogy. When planning, keep in mind the Environmental Education Guidelines and the four social science mechanisms: connection, alignment, community, and interest (see:  Four mechanisms that facilitate learning in the social sciences).

Social science four mechanisms


Encourage students to use their own experiences as a point of comparison when learning about other people’s experiences and worldviews in different times, places, and cultures. The contexts and resources should make diversity visible and avoid biased and stereotypical representations. Students need to feel that what they are learning connects with and values their experiences.


Activities and resources need to be aligned so that students are able to develop understandings of the key concepts and all four aspects of sustainability: environmental, social (including governance), cultural, and economic. The aims of the programme should be made transparent to students. Learning opportunities should not be pre-programmed to the extent that they cannot be changed in response to assessment, and they should provide opportunity for students to revisit important content and processes. Assessment should focus on assessing valued learning, including action competence.


Programmes should be designed to develop students’ interaction skills and use practices that include different abilities and levels of contribution. Tasks and experiences that require student–student interaction are best. Wherever possible, students should be involved in making decisions about their own learning. Students need to be given the opportunity to identify possible roles for themselves, to think critically, and to participate in authentic actions for sustainability.


Programmes should deliberately offer learning experiences that are sensitive to students’ differing interests, motivations, and responses and provide a variety of experiences that become anchors for learning and recall. Local contexts can engage students with the community as well as provide bridges to global issues.

Environmental Education Guidelines

Environmental education involves the integration of three key dimensions:

  • Education in the environment
  • Education about the environment
  • Education for the environment

A balanced environmental education programme addresses all three dimensions.

Questions to ask when planning your programme

  • What will be my primary resources?
  • What community expertise can I help my students access?
  • What EOTC experiences can I plan for? What risk management requirements will I need to meet?
  • How can I ensure students are able to explore sustainability contexts in detail and produce significant outcomes?
  • Will my students be able to see connections between the different aspects of sustainability?
  • How am I planning for reflection and feedback?
  • How am I planning to revisit concepts and/or explore them in different contexts?
  • If it is a cross curricula course, does the combination of assessments allow students to obtain University Entrance?
  • Does the combination of assessments allow students to obtain course endorsement?
  • What are the entry requirements for this course? Why?

Possible structures

EfS programmes can be structured in a variety of ways, for example, as linked courses over three full years, as one-year courses, or as short (modular or one-semester) courses. A programme should be flexible enough to allow for students to begin studying EfS at any year level.

EfS programmes can be structured in a variety of ways, for example:

  • as a dedicated EfS programme over two years 
  • as a composite programme (that is, level 7 and 8 students in one class which could also include multi-level study) 
  • as modular courses that may be semesterised
  • as achievement standards integrated into another learning programme (for example, philosophy, agricultural science, geography or biology).

A programme should be flexible enough to allow for students to begin studying EfS at any year level.  

Theme approach

Themed approaches could be adopted for the development of an EfS programme. 

A themed approach could include application of the four aspects of sustainability to the biophysical environment model, whereby the focus of a programme could be selected from the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and biosphere.      

All eight learning objectives could be foregrounded in such a programme.

For example:

Level 7

  • The atmosphere, global warming, air pollution
  • The biosphere, loss of biodiversity, eco-congestion, increased risk of fire, endangered species, habitat adaptation

Level 8

  • The hydrosphere, global sea-level rise, flooding
  • The lithosphere, soil degradation, soil erosion, soil contamination, desertification

Alternatively, a themed approach could include application of the four aspects of sustainability to a range of current environmental issues. For example:

  • Global climate change
  • Threatened environments
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Global water supply
  • Ocean acidification
  • Pollution
  • Deforestation
  • Environmental refugees
  • Renewable energy

Cross-curricular approaches to programme design

Sustainability is about the interrelationship between people and the environment. Students are best able to explore this relationship if they are offered learning experiences that:

  • link the four key aspects of sustainability (environmental, social, cultural, and economic)
  • make use of global, national, and local contexts
  • are relevant to the students’ interests and concerns
  • relate to the appropriate curriculum levels.

Ideally, teachers and students are able to work across learning areas. Teachers will need time to meet and plan together.

Possible models

Some ideas:

  • Teachers from different learning areas plan EfS learning across the curriculum, then teach their sections of the plan within their specialist areas. EfS could provide a curriculum focus for a year group.
  • Teachers from different learning areas, for example, from English, mathematics and statistics, science, and social studies, plan schemes of work around a common theme, with teachers and students making explicit connections between social and environmental aspects.
  • Teachers from different learning areas develop a programme that can be taught using a team approach. Assessment opportunities from EfS and other subjects are offered, and students make choices based on their needs.

Examples of programmes

You may find these helpful. These programmes are just examples only.

Learning pathways

The principle of coherence (The New Zealand Curriculum, p. 9) states that:

“The curriculum offers all students a broad education that makes links within and across learning areas, provides for coherent transitions, and opens up pathways to further learning.”

Coherence means that students’ programmes (within and across years) should collectively equate to more than the sum of their parts. Nothing should be a dead-end.

For this reason, it is important that teachers identify and emphasise the common threads of learning as well as the unique contribution of their particular subject. The key competencies suggest a means for this.

When designing EfS learning programmes, consider these questions:

  • How might EfS fit within a student’s total programme?
  • How might learning from other senior subjects support their learning about sustainability? (See, for example, Accounting: Learning programme design – Cross-curricular approaches based on values.)
  • How might EfS contribute to their lifelong learning? (Keep a diverse range of students in mind.)
  • How can community resources help students plan for the future?
  • Where might a year 12 or 13 student take their learning the following year?
  • Even if a student does no further formal learning about sustainability, how might it nevertheless be an important part of their learning journey?

Teaching and learning will revolve around key competencies that will support students’ ability to contribute to and expand their worlds.

Last updated April 15, 2021