Exploring how University and School Board Partnerships can integrate Professional Development in Environmental and Sustainability Education
Initial findings of a professional development partnership in environmental and sustainability education
Environmental and sustainability education (ESE) plays a key role in the future of our planet by teaching the next generation about the environment and how to take action to help it. Both pre-service and in-service teachers can play a role in changing education by setting an example for other educators and school boards to implement more ESE practices and thereby creating positive change. This study looked at an integrative professional development for both pre-service teachers in a university teacher training program and in service teachers associated with a school board’s sustainability program. The researchers conducted a three-year study to determine if the partnership could support ESE professional development.
This study followed the beginnings of a three-year professional development program that started in 2017. The program took place with the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE) and the Sustainability Office at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) with their EcoSchools program. The program participants included pre-service educators from OISE and in-service educators from TDSB. Curriculum at OISE includes an ESE focus through workshops, elective courses, special events, and training for graduate students. The EcoSchools Program has the goals of growing leadership and teamwork; energy conservation; waste minimization; making school grounds more; increasing students’ ecological literacy; and creating healthy, active, safe, and sustainable school communities. The two programs came together to integrate programming to create the professional development program studied, such that pre-service teachers could network and learn from EcoSchool teachers and in-service teachers could have pre-service teachers able to volunteer in their classes and help with events.
The researchers collected data through three phases, although this study only reports on the initial findings from the first phase. The first phase assessed the needs and experiences of both groups in the study, the second phase will examine their experiences with the integrated program, and the third phase will examine the impact of the program on the teaching and learning of the pre-service and in-service teachers. The initial findings reported in this study are based on surveys, archival records, and focus groups. A small sample of participants chose to be a part of the study; 23 pre-service teachers and 58 in-service teachers responded to the surveys and 16 pre-service teachers participated in the focus groups.
The researchers pointed out that the case study was in its early stages and therefore no definitive answers were found for the research questions. The responses from the pre-service teachers were predominantly female, with a median age of 25, and they showed moderate-to-good or high levels of knowledge about environmental issues. Most participants did not have a background in ESE but were interested in learning more about it. The majority of participants were particularly interested in learning about the intersection between social justice and ESE. The pre-service teachers expressed that they enjoyed collaborating with in-service teachers and their expectations for the curricula were met for the most part. During the focus groups, participants expressed that they were aware of the importance of bringing ESE into K-12 classrooms.
The researchers also documented responses from in-service teachers. They found that most of the in-service teachers were ages 41-55 years and did not have previous experience or training in ESE. However, the majority of the participants had been working in an EcoSchool for multiple years and rated their confidence in those teaching positions as high. Although the majority of the in-service teachers did not have training in ESE, they were likely to implement it in their classrooms in the future or were implementing ESE in their classrooms at the time.
This study had some limitations. There was a small sample size in the initial portion of the study. In addition, they only reported on the initial findings from the study’s first year and first phase. There also could be bias due to the power dynamic between pre-service and in-service teachers. Finally, participants chose to be a part of the study, so they may already be more passionate about ESE—for example, many in-service teachers had already taught in EcoSchools.
The researchers were careful making recommendations as this study is still in its early stages. However, they noted that the findings are consistent with previous findings in that both pre-service and in-service teachers can gain knowledge and valuable experience from joint professional development programs. Additionally, many of the participants were eager to be a part of the program, showing a desire for such a professional development programs. The experience of learning in a community was a positive experience noted by participants. The researchers recommend that models similar to the one, a university and school board partnership, be used to implement ESE training for teachers.
The Bottom Line
Environmental and sustainability education (ESE) plays a key role in educating the next generation about prevalent environmental issues. However, there has not been a lot of collaboration in professional development of ESE between pre-service and in-service teachers. In this first part of a three-year study, researchers assessed if integrative professional development with pre-service and in-service teachers with the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and the Sustainability Office at the Toronto District School Board could help implement ESE practices. The researchers used surveys (with 23 pre-service teachers and 58 in-service teachers), focus groups (with 16 pre-service teachers), informal feedback, and archival records to collect data. Overall, the researchers found that pre-service and in-service teachers can gain knowledge and experience from joint professional development programs. Although this study is in its early stages, the researchers still recommend that similar models be used for professional development.