Learning Action 4: A Case Story

The fourth step in the ‘Sustainability Starts with Teachers’ Online Course is to critically reflect on how we assess ESD and design assessment of significant learning for ESD.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this learning action, you will have:

  • Designed at least two assessments that assess aspects of significant learning for ESD that also reflect principles of ESD.
  • Decided on how to strengthen your chosen Change Project with assessments that are rich in creative and critical thinking, that develop higher order skills, and that assess significant learning.

Assessment of significant learning, as shown in Table 1 and Figure 1 below, is suited to ESD. Fink (2003) explains that “significant learning is learning that makes a difference in how people live – and the kind of life they are capable of living”. This approach to assessment aligns well with our interest in T-learning as explored in Learning Action 3.


In this Learning Action, we work closely with an adapted version of Dee Fink’s (2003) taxonomy of significant learning.  The table and diagram below provide a summary of the six kinds of learning that, together constitute what Fink (2003) refers to as a significant learning experience.

This section draws on a paper that has been developed by Shumba, Mandikonza and Lotz-Sisitka (in press) to guide assessment of ESD in southern Africa, and to guide this Learning Action in the Sustainability Starts with Teachers course.

A key shift currently taking place in educational thinking can be found in the emphasis towards the multi-dimensional nature of learning, involving cognition, social-emotional engagement, normative commitments, and action and engagement orientations (UNESCO, 2017). These are oftentimes also summarised as involving acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and competencies for realising human well-being through effective functioning and contribution to improving the quality of life for self, others and the commons. A number of countries have introduced outcomes based or competence based education systems, where the outcome of learning is emphasised using a ‘design down’ approach to curriculum development.

In South Africa, when an outcomes-based approach was introduced, it was found that superficial interpretations of the outcomes-based approach, together with inadequate preparedness amongst teachers, led to a situation where the curriculum was not well implemented, which disadvantaged learners and affected the quality of learning outcomes. Another major challenge associated with the introduction of these approaches to curriculum is the associated assessment practice, which also needs to change so that the situated and multi-dimensional nature of learning can be adequately assessed.

Table 1 Adaptation of Fink’s (2003) framework for assessing significant learning in ESD (by Shumba, Mandikonza and Lotz-Sisitka, in press)


These six types of significant learning are not hierarchical, but synergistic. Each kind of learning interacts and relates to the other kinds of learning, adding something, overall, to significant learning. Fink explains that “achieving any one kind of learning simultaneously enhances the possibility of achieving other kinds of learning as well”. Significant learning is thus the totality of learning achieved when learners have experiences in some or all of the six interacting kinds of learning in Table 1 below.

Figure 1  Adaptation of Fink’s (2003) framework for assessing significant learning in ESD (by Shumba, Mandikonza and Lotz-Sisitka, in press)

The questions in the model above guide educators in thinking about what to assess, and how this can be done. In the PowerPoint Presentation below , you will see this model applied to a case study. Importantly, this model also helps us to think beyond assessment OF learning, to include assessment FOR learning and assessment AS learning, which are also discussed in the Presentation below.

Read Learning Action 4: Design and Try out Assessment of Significant Learning in ESD Booklet. Identify examples of outcome based education, defines competences that support learning and sustainability and explains the process of significant learning. The course material also includes some examples so be sure to go through it as they will help you to consider how you could use the model for assessment of significant ESD learning.