Research Summary

Pre-service teachers’ attitudes toward education for sustainability and its relevance to their learning: implications for pedagogical practice

Teacher Education Programs Can Improve Sustainability Attitudes

Environmental Education Research

Appropriate training on sustainability and the environment can help teachers better convey these concepts to their students. Yet the best practices for effectively educating pre-service teachers about sustainability are still being developed. This study contributes to this field of research by evaluating how effectively a teacher education program facilitated positive attitudes toward sustainability education amongst pre-service teachers in Australia.

Previous studies in Australia have shown that despite policies supporting education for sustainability (EfS), the implementation of EfS in schools is constrained by teachers’ lack of sustainability knowledge. Research indicates that this knowledge gap is often attributable to a lack of EfS programs for pre-service teachers. Therefore, by documenting the impact of one such sustainability unit, this study provides evidence supporting the inclusion of sustainability in teacher education on a wider scale.

This study took place at an Australian university that—as part of an effort to incorporate sustainability throughout its departments—had developed a sustainability course for its Bachelor of Education program. This semester-long course emphasized scientific literacy, and incorporated a variety of pedagogical styles; course instructors modeled various teaching strategies that teachers could use in the classroom.

The researchers chose to evaluate pre-service teachers’ attitudes toward EfS, because evidence suggests that attitudes are an important determinant of engagement level with a subject. The researchers surveyed 100 pre-service teachers enrolled in the EfS unit, distributing questionnaires at the beginning and end of the course. The questionnaires asked about pre-service teachers’ familiarity with sustainability, their confidence in their ability to teach it, and the perceived relevance of sustainability in the classroom.

The researchers also interviewed three pre-service teachers who had completed the EfS unit in the previous year. The interviews explored which aspects of the unit were most influential on pre-service teachers’ attitudes, and why. The researchers selected interviewees by seeking out previous students who had since had professional experiences that incorporated sustainability in the classroom.

Results from the survey show a statistically significant increase in pre-service teachers’ confidence in their ability to teach about sustainability after the EfS unit. Qualitative responses from the interviews supported this finding. Additionally, the pre-service teachers reported greater familiarity with sustainability issues after the EfS unit. On average the respondents reported an increased interest in two of eight sustainability subjects, though the pre-unit questionnaires show that interest in these topics was already high. Survey respondents also reported little to no change in their perception of how relevant sustainability issues were to them; though, again, the respondents already felt that sustainability and EfS was relevant to them before the unit. All interviewees reported that the hands-on approach taken in the EfS unit, along with the tutorials modelling teaching strategies, were the components most effective in preparing them to teach about sustainability.

The authors called for further qualitative research to examine how and why EfS units are effective, as the current study only conducted three interviews. Additionally, although attitudes are often closely related to behavior, they are not a perfect predictor; this means that the study cannot explicitly draw conclusions about how EfS units will affect teachers’ inclusion of sustainability content in the classroom. Since the structure of EfS units likely varies between universities, more research is needed to compare the effectiveness of different EfS strategies. Importantly, since the respondents were already enrolled in an EfS course and volunteered to participate in the study, the sample of pre-service teachers is likely skewed toward those with pre-existing positive environmental attitudes.

The authors recommended that pre-service teacher education programs incorporate sustainability into their curriculum using a similar practicum-based method with instructors modeling teaching techniques. The data suggested this will improve teachers’ ability to educate students on the subject, as well as their confidence in that ability, making them more likely to incorporate sustainability content. Such a course has the potential to improve attitudes toward sustainability, which may encourage teachers to discuss it more favorably and in greater depth. The authors suggested that further research should examine methods for incorporating EfS in a multidisciplinary way, as opposed to offering only a single sustainability unit.

The Bottom Line

The authors of this article examined the attitudes of pre-service teachers who had enrolled in a sustainability unit while obtaining their teaching degree at an Australian university. The results suggested that teacher education programs can improve teachers’ confidence in teaching about sustainability. However, the results did not indicate any significant increase in teachers’ interest in sustainability topics, or a change in how relevant they considered it. Tutorials and practicum-based learning were reported to help teachers improve their understanding of sustainability and master the best methods for teaching it. The authors recommend these types of participatory lessons, and call for further research on the best practices for incorporating sustainability into teacher education.