Research Summary

Teaching contributions from secondary school subject areas to education for sustainable development – a comparative study of science, social science and language teachers

Collaborative teaching between science, social science, and language teachers’ could enhance Education for Sustainable Development

Environmental Education Research

Cross-curricular teaching, or collaboration across subject areas, is an interdisciplinary approach that allows teachers in different subject areas to make unique contributions to the topic while focusing on common themes. This has become a useful tool for implementing Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) initiatives, though few studies have been conducted on the efficacy of cross-curricular teaching in ESD. Prior research has shown that, across subject areas, teachers exhibit varied understandings of sustainable development and approach teaching ESD in different ways. This study identified ESD teaching contributions from science, social science, and language subject areas, and determined overlap or differences in these contributions.

The study took place from March to November of 2017, with participants from five secondary schools across two municipalities in Sweden. A total of 43 teachers from science, social science, and language subject areas volunteered to participate. The teachers were divided into groups based on subject area and school—there were four science groups, three social science groups, and three language groups, each consisting of 3 to 10 teachers. Each group participated in one 80–100-minute guided group discussion consisting of three phases, each to evaluate one of the three teaching dimensions. The three dimensions evaluated were: what, which focused on what ESD-related subject matter was taught and teaching abilities; how, which examined the teaching methods, collaborations, and influences outside of the local school context; and why, which explored teachers’ long-term purposes of ESD teaching. Phase one explored the what-dimension by allowing participants to record independent responses to the question “How do you think that your teaching contributes to the implementation of sustainable development in your school?”. In phase two, the teachers reviewed and sorted the group’s responses by theme to further address the what-dimension. Phase three addressed the how-dimension by engaging teachers in a guided discussion about their ESD teaching practices and changes that have occurred since ESD and cross-curricular teaching were introduced several years prior. Any arguments or themes repeated over the three phases were used to evaluate the why-dimension. The discussions were recorded and analyzed for themes, then compared to identify overlap and unique contributions.

The researchers found some key differences in teaching dimensions between the subject areas. The science groups relayed that the what-dimension was largely based on scientific fact related to the ecological perspective. Participants in this group used a teacher-centered approach to focus on individual students’ scientific knowledge, with few opportunities for group work or discussions. The participants felt responsible for developing students’ scientific knowledge to enable individual decision-making regarding sustainability issues.

Social science group participants connected social issues to the ecological perspective. Participants encouraged their students to develop individual abilities but also facilitated classroom-based group work and connections to the school and local community. The social science group participants felt responsible for students’ abilities to relate to other people, which could lead to the development of a more sustainable society.

Participants in the language group identified the what-dimension was common ESD content from the media, but with an emphasis that language can be used as a tool to communicate between subject areas. They aimed to develop the students’ individual abilities (such as communication skills) through lectures and small group discussions, and they tried to connect them to the world through diverse media perspectives, often lacking in other disciplines. Language teachers felt responsible for students’ personal development, such as their identity. Compared to the other two teaching groups, language teachers were less confident in their role in ESD teaching.

After conducting a comparative analysis, researchers determined that there is a slight overlap in teaching dimensions between language and social science or science, but the larger overlap occurs between social science and science. Both areas focus on conservation, energy production, and natural resource use, all content areas supported by their curriculums. Because there is overlap between all three areas as well as unique contributions from each subject area to ESD, the researchers concluded that there is significant potential for collaborations between all three subject areas to support ESD.

This study did have some limitations. First, the researchers noted that self-reporting of activities or behaviors can be biased, so to complete a full evaluation of ESD learning the study would have to include classroom observations and interviews with both teachers and students, in addition to the discussion groups. Furthermore, the study focused on just 10 discussion groups from a small geographic area, which may not adequately represent educators as a whole. The teachers were also grouped by subject area, which could have contributed to “group think”, which may have overshadowed some of the unique ideas or perspectives of individuals.

The researchers recommend that a collaborative, cross-curricular approach has the potential to provide more holistic ESD. Particularly, as seen from this study, collaborative content presented by science and social science teachers could be complimented by language teacher instruction. If teachers incorporate ESD across subject areas, they present unique perspectives and teaching strategies, and help support students’ identity-making and action competence.

The Bottom Line

Cross-curricular teaching is an important tool for implementing Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) initiatives. This study identified ESD teaching contributions from the subject areas of science, social science, and language, and compared them. Participants included 43 teachers from five secondary schools in Sweden. The participants were divided by subject area and school into 10 discussion groups to complete an 80-100 minute, 3-part guided discussion aimed at addressing the what, why, and how dimensions of ESD teaching. Researchers found that there was some overlap between the subject areas, though they also each contributed uniquely to ESD. Participants in the science group noted a focus on scientific facts to support students’ decision-making skills, while social science participants focused more on a collaborative approach to connect environmental and social issues. Those in the language group emphasized the importance of language as a tool to communicate environmental issues. The researchers determined there is significant potential for collaboration between subject areas to enhance ESD.