Research Summary

Sustainability education: Researching practice in primary schools

Successful Sustainability Education Practices

Environmental Education Research

As the concept of education for sustainability has grown in prominence, many schools and teachers are eager to implement sustainability education in the classroom. Teachers, however, may feel unsure of how to teach about sustainability: they may not have much opportunity to build their knowledge base in this area and, as such, may not have a great deal of experience in developing and implementing sustainability education programs. This study shares some of the ways that teachers are successfully implementing sustainability education in sites where sustainability is a shared goal among educators and community members. The authors looked at teacher practices in eight schools in Victoria, Australia, focusing on place-based sustainability education practices and the relationships between teachers, students, and community members.

The authors conducted this research as part of a longitudinal study examining teacher professional learning and teacher education for sustainability in Victorian primary schools. In a previous sustainability mapping survey in the Gippsland region of Victoria, researchers identified eight primary schools with active sustainability education programs and invited those schools to participate in this study by hosting pre-service teachers for a three-week practicum. Schools in the sample were a mix of large and small rural and regional schools, including one Catholic school and five government schools. None of the schools were located in close proximity to a large metropolitan area. Researchers used semi-structured focus groups with a total of five principals and 16 teachers to understand the ways in which school administrators and teachers thought about sustainability, as well as what practices they used to educate students about sustainability. The researchers also analyzed photographs of school grounds (including projects such as gardens and interpretive trails) to supplement their knowledge of sustainability practices at each site. The authors analyzed those data in terms of storylines, or the narratives people and groups use to explain and contextualize their actions.

The authors found that the schools’ sustainability programs were grounded in typical discourses of sustainability, including projects such as edible gardens, energy and waste management, and, occasionally, biodiversity and resource conservation. The particularities of each site, however, nurtured these standard visions of sustainability. Four storylines emerged from educators’ reflections on their practices and from photographic analysis.

First, sustainability education involved physical and material engagement with the school grounds. One teacher’s class, for example, conducted an experiment where the students buried items such as a leaf, a chip bag, and an apple core in the soil; two weeks later, they dug up the items and discussed what the state of the items indicated about decomposition processes and rates, as well as about soil microorganisms. This experiment extended into other lessons on waste and plastics in the ocean. The educators did not plan the sequence but, rather, the sequence grew from students’ experiential encounters with their everyday physical environment.

Second, teachers helped students develop a sense of place through action-based learning. One class learned about a local wetlands site through a project about town planning; the class researched the history of the site, learning about its Aboriginal inhabitants and later settlers, as well as biological characteristics of the site’s nonhuman mammal and insect populations. Another class visited a community garden to learn about the indigenous inhabitants of the place, focusing on what it meant to grow a community and work on a shared project in a community place. The researchers argue that these place-based pedagogies connect students to a network of relationships across time; in this way, the pedagogies help the students develop meaningful connections to the local environment.

Third, teachers formed community partnerships to enhance both their students’ and their own understanding of sustainability. They brought students into contact with other schools, parents, tradespeople, conservation groups, volunteers, and community organizations, thus deepening students’ engagement with their communities and exposing them to a wider base of skills and expert knowledge. At one school, for example, a group of local woodcutters worked to build nest boxes with boys who had been somewhat disengaged in the school setting. Nearby schools then installed the nest boxes during a community field day. At another school, students prepared dishes using produce from the school garden and sold them at a local farmers’ market. The researchers found these community partnerships help create a social ecology of place that involves whole communities in sustainability education.

As the researchers point out, these creative, experiential, and experimental activities involve uncertainty and unpredictability, as opposed to traditional pedagogies, which often are based on teacher knowledge and control. The authors conclude, as the fourth storyline supports, that emergent, creative pedagogies encourage students to take risks and explore new ideas, driving their own exploration of sustainability.

The Bottom Line

Successful sustainability education programs integrate and situate lessons within the local social and environmental setting, and their teaching methods encourage creativity and experiential learning. Strategies that sustainability educators can employ in their classes include: (1) engaging students with the physical environment that surrounds schools, (2) working across disciplines to help students understand the historical and ecological relationships that constitute local places, (3) forming partnerships with community members and groups, and (4) pursuing creative and inquiry-based projects. No standardized formula exists for sustainability education; rather, it should grow from local conditions, students’ interests, and the conceptual connections that emerge from each learning encounter.