Research Summary

Experienced ESD-schoolteachers’ teaching – an issue of complexity

Teaching Complexity in Education for Sustainable Development

Environmental Education Research

The process of sustainable development is a complex one involving many science concepts and interconnections between the natural world and humans. Because of this, it is often difficult to describe these notions using simple language. In education for sustainable development (ESD), this presents an obstacle: How do educators teach about complex subjects without oversimplifying, while also helping students develop the critical thinking skills to be productive contributors to the sustainable development movement?

To address this dilemma, the author interviewed experienced ESD teachers. Specifically, the author sought to understand how these experienced educators approached complex sustainability issues, the techniques they found to be successful, and what they cared about most in their teaching. The teachers taught at Swedish schools known as hubs for ESD. Sweden has been known as an early adopter of ESD methods, and the schools where the participants taught specifically seek to embrace the complexity of sustainability issues as a teaching theme.

To select the interviewees, the author initially contacted 179 teachers working at three schools. Based on years of teaching experience, the authors selected seven teachers to interview. The interviews focused on the educators’ goals in teaching about sustainability, as well as their attitudes toward their own teaching practices. The author coded the first round of interview data using a process specifically focused on the degree to which the teacher incorporated ESD concepts into their teaching. After the initial coding process, the author conducted further interviews with five of the seven teachers. During those second-round interviews, the author used an open-ended analytic process to explore in more depth the teachers’ purposes for teaching about sustainability related issues.

One main theme emerged from the interviews: Overall, the teachers frequently mentioned the importance of the word, concept, or approach of complexity as a starting point for teaching ESD. The author found five categories of answers that related to complexity: humility, awareness, personal connection, developing skills, and negotiable truth. First, with regard to humility, the teachers spoke of cultivating students’ humility in various ways and keeping an open mind when approaching sustainability issues. Second, related to awareness, the teachers approached teaching ESD with a general form of awareness rather than a specific environmental awareness. Third, they discussed personal connection, both in the sense of their own connection to sustainability-related issues, as well as in helping their students feel more connected to complex issues in different contexts. Fourth, the teachers described helping students develop skills, such as analyzing, organizing, categorizing, thinking critically, and reasoning. All of the teachers mentioned that complexity is an integral part of today’s world and that students need to be prepared to respond appropriately to it. The fifth, and final, category related to the idea of negotiable truth: although the teachers did not explicitly mention this term, because of the complexity of sustainability issues, teachers approached the idea of truth as negotiable, diverse, and without a single, final answer.

These five themes suggest that teaching complex scientific subjects requires careful thought and deliberate teaching practice. By teaching students how to recognize, examine, critique, and question the complexity in the world at large, the educators move away from a sole focus on students’ environmental awareness. As such, the educators are able to help prepare the students to be productive, active participants in sustainable development.

The Bottom Line

Because complex issues and connections are at the heart of education for sustainable development (ESD), veteran teachers who use complexity as the starting point for their long-term teaching goals may be able to more effectively approach teaching about such challenging subjects. In this way, the experience of veteran teachers may be able to help inform environmental education practice more broadly. By focusing on cultivating humility, developing an awareness of complexity in scientific issues, creating a sense of personal connection to the issues, developing critical thinking skills, and emphasizing truth as a negotiable concept, educators can help their students better understand and evaluate complex environmental issues. The effectiveness of this approach can not only help students understand issues more fully, but can also equip them to become informed, active participants in addressing environmental issues.