Chapter 9: Value creation pedagogy for sustainable development


[This is an English translation of Chapter 9 found in my new book in Swedish about value creation pedagogy, see link here. Thanks to Google and to Hugh Mason for help with this translation]

There are many good examples of students who learn through creating value that contributes to a more sustainable world (see part two).[1] Value creation pedagogy is an effective way for students to learn more about sustainable development. Teachers gain access to concrete tools and methods that help students develop their ability to act on sustainability issues. Students get to try out an important future skillset in practice — sustainability development — a role that will soon become a necessary part of most professions. The chance that they choose a life path that contributes to a sustainable future then increases dramatically. We have seen in our research that identity development requires learning-by-doing. More specifically, doing that is specifically directed toward creating value for other people, animals, nature and for the planet at large.

Chalmers has a long tradition of fostering sustainable development. It has been a core value for as long as I can remember and, for decades, every single report students write has been required to relate to sustainable development. Over the years, we have also trained many social entrepreneurs at our School of Entrepreneurship. They have since gone on to dedicate their lives to create value through cancer medicines, algae production, underwater power plants, medical devices, water purification products, educational apps, biochar methods and much more. I myself have also run a social enterprise for almost eight years with a focus on UN global sustainability goal four — good education for all. Before that, I ran a company in environmental innovation that helped truck drivers to save fuel. So I have been immersed in questions about sustainable development throughout my adult life.

Nevertheless, this was by far the most difficult chapter for me to write.

Two halfwit middle-aged engineer types

As a white man in middle-age, I find my thinking limited when I consider sustainable development. Perhaps, as a square engineer, I’m morally sluggish. Or maybe it’s because, as an entrepreneur, I have always allowed pragmatism to prevail – “If the customer pays, I’m doing the right thing”. What is right or wrong is always contingent and debateable, surely? Well, that’s what I saw in a cartoon long ago, showing a satisfied entrepreneur with a briefcase.

However, sustainable development is different. It is difficult to negotiate with biodiversity that has disappeared, or with dictators who use refugees as political weapons. Today, growth, satisfied customers and profitability alone cannot dictate what is “good”. Increasingly, the issue is what kind of world we want to pass on to our grandchildren, and so how our actions today contribute to a socially, ecologically and economically sustainable future. I have had to reassess and learn anew.

A friend of mine, Göran Christiansson, has also become my teacher here. We joined Chalmers at the same time, but only got to know each other last year, through a book writing circle in which we both participated. His book is about both the footprint we each leave behind and the handprint we may leave on others’ backs as we nudge them towards living in more socially and ecologically sustainable ways too.

Yet I must say that, like me, Göran also seems a bit of a halfwit. It was only at age 45 years that he realized that the problem of sustainability was himself. In his book, he writes about leaving a well-paid engineering management job at roller bearing corporation SKF to become an organic farmer in the Dutch walnut tree industry. Determined to reduce more than his own footprint, he also wrote a book that inspires others to do the same. Every middle-aged engineer who is as much of a halfwit as me should read Göran’s book when it’s finished, then share it with their friends.

Two twins growing up in different places

Working with your footprint and handprint creates value for many different others: for humans, society, animals and nature. “Value creation pedagogy” and “learning for sustainable development” then seem very similar. Semantics may hold me back in making a distinction between them, for, when I asked a teacher how value creation pedagogy and learning for sustainable development can be combined, I got an interesting counter-question back:

“How do you not work with learning for sustainable development when you work with value creation pedagogy?”

It’s a good question – the similarities are striking. Maybe learning for sustainable development is an identical twin to value creation pedagogy, separated at birth and growing up in two different families in two different places? If so, it’s understandable that they developed a little differently, because nurture matters as much as nature. Figure 9.1 shows how I try  to sort these two twins apart.

When I read literature about learning for sustainable development, I recognize a lot from my own field of research. In both fields, authors write that it is possible to teach “about” and “through” respectively:[2] to lecture about the phenomenon itself, or to let students learn through action by being allowed to act. Why not strike a balance between both? For some reason, the emphasis is usually on learning “about” sustainable development and learning “about” being entrepreneurial. This leads to an unbalanced curriculum.

Figure 9.1 Comparison of value creation pedagogy and learning for sustainable development.

Similarities: Priority, assessment, pedagogy, emotions, activism

There are many similarities in the ways both value creation pedagogy and learning for sustainable development are treated in schools. Both phenomena have problems with low priority despite support in formal curricula.[3] Both present challenges in practical pedagogy and assessment.[4] Both raise strong feelings: in value creation, interaction with unpredictable outsiders can easily become an emotional roller coaster,[5] while sustainable development raises anxiety about climate and social injustice in young people that triggers some to become angry activists like Greta Thunberg. Also, many technologies, such as genetically modified crops, stem cells, irradiated food and nuclear power, start to appear unpalatable.[6]

Both value creation pedagogy and learning for sustainable development imply questioning the status quo and trying to find new tools and working methods that are better for humans, animals, nature and the planet. Thus, both share the difficult challenge of simultaneously applying action, social activism and a critical approach in order to overcome society’s managerial mentality — the widespread preference for the status quo. As early as the 16th century, Machiavelli wrote:[7]

“…nothing is harder to organize, more likely to fail, or more dangerous to see through, than the introduction of a new system of government. The person bringing in the changes will make enemies of everyone who was doing well under the old system, while the people who stand to gain from the new arrangements will not offer wholehearted support, partly because they are afraid of their opponents, who still have the laws on their side, and partly because people are naturally sceptical: no one really believes in change until they’ve had solid experience of it. So as soon as the opponents of the new system see a chance, they’ll go on the offensive with the determination of an embattled faction, while its supporters will offer only half-hearted resistance, something that will put the new ruler’s position at risk too.”

I think the length of the quote is justified by our context. I could even have made it longer by including words from the following page in Machiavelli’s book: “the visionary who has armed force on his side has always won through, while unarmed even your visionary is always a loser.” So, a school must not hesitate to arm its students with the tools and methods they need to succeed in making our world more sustainable. Value creation pedagogy offers a strong arsenal of weapons that I perceive its twin sister lacks, so I must also highlight some differences.

Differences: Methodology, values, philosophy, identity

The most obvious difference between value creation pedagogy and learning for sustainable development probably lies in methods of action. I have searched the literature on learning for sustainable development in vain for advice to teachers that is both concrete and theoretically well-founded about how students should develop their action competence.[8] Maybe such advice is out there but, if so, it is well hidden. This is then a strength of value creation pedagogy that can be offered to teachers working with sustainable development. It offers a tried-and-tested toolbox with an easily explained purpose — to create something of value for others — which develops students’ action competence.

Another difference concerns values. Value creation pedagogy has its roots in entrepreneurship, which is classically associated with individualism.[9] In contrast, learning for sustainable development has a focus on poverty reduction, climate activism and reduction of injustice, and so is inherently rooted in collectivism. Thus the two phenomena may be pictured as addressing a shared challenge from opposite directions, meeting in the narrow middle ground in today’s polarized society. During my last two years as a doctoral student I made a significant transition towards collectivism, recognising that students might be empowered by creating value for others. The addition of the two words “for others” left some of my research colleagues with individual-focused perspectives on classical entrepreneurship behind, but opened many new friendships in schools.

A third difference is philosophical. Value creation pedagogy is built on the philosophical platform of pragmatism: if something is useful, it’s good (and vice versa). I wrote about value creation as pragmatism in my first book, so I will not repeat myself here.[10] Turning now to the twin sister, I am just getting acquainted with her philosophical basis. I sense that sustainable development rests on the same moral-philosophical ethics as Kant’s writing on idealism and world citizenship.[11] Sustainable development seems more to be about the ideal world we want in a distant future, than the world we have today and what is pragmatically possible for an individual to do here and now. Therefore, learning for sustainable development presents political challenges for schools that adopt it. Such schools become politicized from the corner of collectivism rather than individualism.[12]

A fourth difference I perceive arises from the first — powerful identity development. When tools and methods for value creation pedagogy and its assessment are used by teachers, we witness young people undergoing a profound change in their self-image. They assume a new role in society, seeing themselves more as value-creators for others. This new identity guides their future choices. No doubt many climate and social justice activists undergo similar identity changes, but rarely as a direct effect of an educational initiative. Yet, if we encourage our two twins to move in together, the education system might deliver new Greta Thunbergs and Malalas like an assembly line, ready to take action on environmental and social development issues … just as teacher Maria Wiman predicted (see chapter 4).

Complementary strengths in learning for sustainable development

While this book aims to share the joy of value creation pedagogy, she does not offer all the answers. Her sustainable twin sister’s parents put tremendous effort into exploring what is valuable beyond money. The UN’s seventeen global sustainability goals may represent the most sophisticated value model the world has seen, divided it into 169 sub-goals. What a gift for the value-creating teacher: one hundred and sixty-nine possible starting points for students’ value creation!

Sustainable development requires systemic innovation on a scale that individual entrepreneurial people and groups can seldom implement alone, as well as calls for action in political and collective dimensions that entrepreneurial methods rarely cover.[13] For example, an interesting method called backcasting starts with a vision of the future that is desired, and then works back in time back to the present, along the way identifying leverage points where effort now can most effectively bridge the gap to to the desired future.[14] Highlighting what is absolutely crucial for the future in this way can then guide students’ experimentation in the present.

Another advantage of learning for sustainable development is its solid base in both the natural sciences and social sciences. An inherently interdisciplinary phenomenon tears down classroom walls and connects subject silos to reveal a more meaningful whole. Value creation based on the global sustainability goals facilitates co-planning, co-assessment and subject interdisciplinarity, linking seventeen compulsory curriculum subjects to seventeen ethically mandatory sustainability goals to offer a giant matrix with 289 boxes within which teachers and students can grow. Matrices are popular in school. Or, in any case, common.

On an emotional level, learning for sustainable development can also contribute a lot, since it is all about the world that youths will soon take over. Students’ concerns about sustainability are well documented. Eight out of ten young people are anxious about the future, and four out of ten to such an extent that they are hesitant about having children of their own.[15] Teachers now get an opportunity to turn that anxiety into something positive and meaningful, making education a platform for sociopolitical activism that simultaneously strengthens students’ motivation to study, their democratic values ​​and their knowledge across all the sciences. This bridges between traditional and progressive pedagogy, creating a better balance between two of schools’ most central missions: the democracy mission and the knowledge mission.[16] The two twins may be the missing superheroes we need to make this happen. Teacher Sara Nelson (2021) captures this succinctly in her thesis on education for sustainable development:

“value creation pedagogy offers a sustainability didactic approach that can be both playful and hopeful at the same time as it is meaningful and creates value for someone else – and is for real.”

Two complementary perspectives

One way of looking at the difference between value creation pedagogy and learning for sustainable development is to frame it as an analog for two classic contradictions: individual-versus-collective, and process-versus-outcome. I see value creation pedagogy as more focused on individuals and processes, offering many specific tools and methods to help individuals navigate processes of uncertainty, emotionality and innovation. Sustainable development, on the other hand, seems to me more focused on collective society, its ideal state and the enormous transformations of social systems that need to take place for us to realise the future we all desire, so serving as a “north star” for a school that seeks to educate citizens for the future.

Making these two distinct phenomena seem similar is then perhaps unnecessary. Their fundamental differences are what make them complementary. Being entrepreneurial without some form of ethical compass or vision can be dangerous. Consider pirates, careless technology entrepreneurs, criminal syndicates and unfettered financial speculation.[17] Discussing major challenges around a sustainable future without offering the means for individuals to take action seeds alarmism and unnecessary anxiety. These twin sisters really seem to need each other.

Making a difference: directly and indirectly

My study of sustainable development made me realize that actions can have either a direct, or indirect, impact on a sustainable future.[18] For example, a direct impact might result from choosing to cycle instead of driving a car, to sort your own waste, or to clean a beach together with friends. An indirect impact might arise from debating sustainable development in the media, influencing organizations to take a more sustainable direction for the future, demonstrating about sustainable development in streets and squares, calling for a boycott of unsustainable products, or encouraging others to sort their waste.[19] Much like my friend Göran’s difference between footprint and handprint, but in other words.

Direct impact is easy for students to achieve and politically unproblematic for teachers. However, it risks overlooking root causes and structural societal problems in which governments, companies, public actors and the non-profit sector play important roles. Indirect impact often requires more knowledge and offers greater risks for teachers to support, such as potential criticism from parents, colleagues, managers, politicians and others. Researcher Derek Hodson (2013, p.328) likens it to riding a tiger:

“Those teachers who promote political involvement and develop action skills are riding a tiger, but it is a tiger that has to be ridden if we really mean what we say about education for civic participation. It is an exhilarating ride for both teachers and students.”

Concepts in learning for sustainable development

Finally I would like to mention some organizations which have developed ready-made templates for teachers who want to work with sustainable development. The pitfalls of such templates are covered in Chapter 4, primarily the risk that students may feel low motivation if they do not participate in the design of activities. Many templates for sustainable development lack the waist of the spider diagram (see Chapter 6) — the opportunity for students to interact with and create value for outsiders. This may be a temporary problem if our two twins are allowed to hang out regularly. But beware.

Even so, templates can certainly be an easy way for time-stressed teachers to get started. An excellent and current overview of different templates for learning for sustainable development in Sweden is offered by Remvall (2021, pp.99-102), citing organizations including the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, the World Wildlife Fund, the Global School, Brevvännerna, Keep Sweden Clean, Ashoka, the UN and the Swedish Consumer Agency. Materials for teachers are offered on all these organizations’ websites.


Almers, E. (2009). Action competence for sustainable development: Three stories about the way there. University of Learning and Communication,

Baumol, WJ (1990). Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive. Journal of Political Economy, 98(5 Part 1), 893-921.

Björneloo, I. (2012). Action competence on the schedule. In K. Rönnerman (Ed.), Action research in practice – preschool and school on a scientific basis Lund: Studentlitteratur. pp. 141-153.

Bursjöö, I. (2014a). Education for sustainable development – abilities beyond the curriculum. Research on teaching and learning, 12, 61-77.

Bursjöö, I. (2014b). Education for sustainable development from a teacher horizon: context, competencies and collaboration.

Fohlin, N., & Wilson, J. (2021). Meaningful learning – democracy and conversation in school. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, ER, Mayall, EE, Wray, B., Mellor, C., & van Susteren, L. (2021). Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon. Available at SSRN: or

Hodson, D. (2010). Science education as a call to action. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 10(3), 197-206.

Hodson, D. (2013). Do not be nervous, do not be flustered, do not be scared. Be prepared. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 13(4), 313-331.

Hodson, D. (2014). Becoming part of the solution: Learning about activism, learning through activism, learning from activism. In Activist science and technology education: Springer. pp. 67-98.

Hodson, D. (2020). Going beyond STS education: Building a curriculum for sociopolitical activism. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 20(4), 592-622.

Holmberg, J. (2019). Unsealed water? – then expeditions are needed! In J. Algehed, E. Eneqvist, C. Jensen, & J. Lööf (Eds.), Innovation and Urban Development – A research anthology on organizational challenges for the city and municipality of Borås: Stema. pp. 65-76.

Holmberg, J., & Holmén, J. (2020). Co-creative adaptation work – Backcasting expeditions for Agenda 2030. Stockholm: Sveriges Kommuner

och Regioner Holmberg, J., & Robèrt, K.-H. (2000). Backcasting — A framework for strategic planning. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 7(4), 291-308.

Jensen, BB (2002). Knowledge, action and pro-environmental behavior. Environmental education research, 8(3), 325-334.

Johnson, C. (1988). Enterprise education and training. British Journal of Education and Work, 2(1), 61-65.

Kemp, P. (2010). Citizen of the world: The cosmopolitan ideal for the twenty-first century.

Lackéus, M. (2021). The science teacher – a handbook for research in school and preschool. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Lans, T., Blok, V., & Wesselink, R. (2014). Learning apart and together: towards an integrated competence framework for sustainable entrepreneurship in higher education. Journal of Cleaner Production, 62, 37-47.

Machiavelli, N. (2009/1532). The prince. Penguin books, UK.

Mogensen, F., & Schnack, K. (2010). The action competence approach and the ‘new’discourses of education for sustainable development, competence and quality criteria. Environmental education research, 16(1), 59-74.

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. (2014). Sustainable development in school – please stay tuned. Stockholm: Naturskyddsföreningen

Nelson, S. (2021). Education for sustainable development – An exploratory study of “sustainability didactic approaches” for subject teachers and teacher students Master thesis, Lund university, Lund.

Remvall, I. (2021). Method book for change heroes – sustainable and value creation pedagogy in the future-oriented school. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Schindehutte, M., Morris, M., & Allen, J. (2006). Beyond achievement: Entrepreneurship as extreme experience. Small Business Economics, 27(4-5), 349-368.

Spahn, A. (2018). “The first generation to end poverty and the last to save the planet?” – Western individualism, human rights and the value of nature in the ethics of global sustainable development. Sustainability, 10(6), 1853.

Stagell, U., Almers, E., Askerlund, P., & Apelqvist, M. (2014). What kind of actions are appropriate? Eco-school teachers ‘and instructors’ ranking of sustainability-promoting actions as content in education for sustainable development (ESD). International Electronic Journal of Environmental Education, 4(2), 97-113.

Tiessen, JH (1997). Individualism, collectivism, and entrepreneurship: A framework for international comparative research. Journal of Business Venturing, 12(5), 367-384.

Örtenblad, A. (2020). Against Entrepreneurship (3030479374) Springer


[1] See also book by Remvall (2021).

[2] See Hodson (2013, p.324) in Learning for Sustainable Development and Johnson (1988, p.62) in Entrepreneurship Education.

[3] See, for example, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (2014).

[4] See Bursjöö (2014a).

[5] See Schindehutte, Morris and Allen (2006).

[6] See Hodson (2014, 2020).

[7] See Machiavelli (2009/1532, p.23).

[8] Some examples of central writings are Almers (2009), Mogensen and Schnack (2010), Stagell et al. (2014) and Lans, Blok and Wesselink (2014). See also Björneloo (2012).

[9] See Tiessen (1997).

[10] See Lackéus (2021, pp.84-96).

[11] For a moral-philosophical review of learning for sustainable development, see Bursjöö (2014b, p.45-48). See also Spahn (2018) and Kemp (2010).

[12] Hodson (2010, p.204-205) writes about politicization of education.

[13] See Holmberg (2019).

[14] See Holmberg and Holmén (2020) and Holmberg and Robèrt (2000).

[15] See Hickman et al. (2021).

[16] Read more about the school’s democracy mission in Fohlin and Wilson (2021).

[17] See Baumol (1990) and Örtenblad (2020).

[18] See Jensen (2002).

[19] The difference is well described in Hodson (2013, p.328).


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