Research Summary

An ESD pathway to quality education in the Cyprus primary education context

Analysis shows interactions and overlap between sustainable development and quality education in the classroom

Environmental Education Research
2017

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is a framework that was developed by the United Nations for environmental educators around the world. The overall goal of ESD is to train students to think with interdisciplinarity and balance human dimensions like economy, society, and culture with Earth’s natural dimensions when making development-related decisions. Quality education (QE) endeavors to develop individuals by providing valuable life skills and empowering students to reach their maximum potential. Both ESD and QE are educational objectives that elicit a stronger and more sustainable future. Prior research has proven the effectiveness of ESD on its own while other research has shown that ESD in school curricula can support QE. This study aimed to uncover the intersection of ESD and QE to identify how teaching ESD can interact with QE so that QE can also become a well-defined framework.

In 2011, the Cypriot government conducted an educational reform that emphasized ESD in schools with the goal to train holistically minded, pro-environmental students. This study was the third phase of a larger, three-part research project that was funded to support teachers after the initial implementation of ESD in primary schools in Cyprus. The first phase incorporated a needs assessment across Cyprus to help understand how to help teachers adjust to the ESD curricula if they were unfamiliar. The second phase included a two-day training where mentors (seasoned teachers with experience in ESD) were paired with mentees (teachers less experienced with or new to ESD).

In the third phase of the research project, and the focus of this paper, 12 mentees each created a three-part lesson plan for an ESD unit. The 12 mentees were all primary school teachers in Cyprus that voluntarily participated in the full study. Though the topics were chosen by the teachers and differed in content, each lesson was required to be 80 minutes long. The lessons were delivered to 12 classes, in which the student ages ranged from 6 to 12 years old.

The data analysis for this study was two-fold. First, the researchers conducted a literature review where they determined five key areas of comparison between ESD and QE. These included: 1) common themes; 2) future orientation; 3) commonly targeted skills; 4) values orientation; and 5) teaching and learning approaches. Each of these represent the commonalities of ESD and QE. Each of these represent the commonalities of ESD and QE. The researchers then evaluated the lesson plans based on how well they aligned with these key areas. Second, the teachers were observed teaching their lesson plans by their respective mentors. Mentees and mentors kept diaries for reflection that the researchers collected. Semi-structured participant interviews were conducted after the study. These diaries and interviews provided qualitative insight as to how the lessons connected to ESD and QE.

The results showed that of the common dimensions of ESD and QE (environmental, social, economic, political, cultural), most lesson plans had strong connections to environmental and social dimensions, whereas the political and cultural dimensions were mostly left out of lesson plans. Though most lessons included activities that were locally relevant and developed skills to solve problems, only a few lessons engaged students in actively solving real-world problems. Additionally, only five teachers collaborated with the local community to supplement their lesson plans. All 12 lesson plans included at least three of the commonly targeted skills (literacy and language, numeracy, life, reflective, social/interpersonal, decision-making, and leadership). Literacy and language skills, which included various text resources and activities like brainstorming and debate, were present in every lesson. Similarly, 11 of 12 lessons included life skills, such as reading maps and communications, reflective skills, and social/interpersonal skills. Numeracy skills such as collecting data and analyzing tables and graphs were present in 8 of the 12 lesson plans. All the teachers valued emotional development and environmental awareness in their lesson plans. In an interview one teacher described that she wanted her students to be able to read graphs and interpret data to understand the impact of their day-to-day activities on the environment. Every teacher incorporated interdisciplinarity and participatory learning in the lesson plans, and most took a student-centric approach. However, only five teachers included assessment activities in their lessons. For example, in lesson plan 2, students reflected on what they learned in the lesson through writing a letter to their local authority about bicycle transportation issues and solutions. Overall, the researchers concluded the lesson plans were suitable for ESD and QE and ESD can enhance QE. However, there was a general gap in the political and cultural dimensions, a lack of collaboration and interaction with the surrounding community, and a lack of assessment in the lesson plans.

There were limitations to this study. The sample size was small and limited to one country, so the results are not generalizable. Constraints like finances or logistics may have hindered teachers’ abilities to include the local community as part of the lesson plans, which was a pitfall that the researchers acknowledged from the results. The political and social atmosphere of Cyprus may have inhibited some of the teachers’ capabilities or willingness to approach political topics or engage in conflict issues in their lesson plans. Further, the mentor/mentee relationship may have skewed the ways in which the teachers executed the lesson plans as opposed to developing it on their own because they could seek advice and make alterations based on feedback.

The researchers suggested that ESD supports QE, though there were some weaknesses. Despite this, ESD can help QE become a well-defined framework for educators to use in their curriculum. To address the weaknesses found in ESD, the researchers recommended that educator training should emphasize political and cultural dimensions for ESD and QE, community relationships, and assessments in lesson planning. The study also showed that a mentor/mentee relationship between experienced ESD teachers and novice ESD teachers is beneficial for feedback and collaboration to improve teaching.

The Bottom Line

Education for sustainable development (ESD) and quality education (QE) are approaches that train students to create a more sustainable future. This study aimed to uncover the intersection of ESD and QE to identify how teaching ESD can add to or detract from QE so QE can also become a well-defined framework like ESD. Twelve primary school teachers in Cyprus developed lesson plans and taught units on ESD. The researchers analyzed these lesson plans alongside qualitative data to determine the strengths and weaknesses of ESD in relation to QE. Overall, the lesson plans were suitable for ESD and QE, and ESD can enhance QE. However, there was a general gap in the political and cultural dimensions, a lack of collaboration and interaction with the community, and a lack of assessment in the lesson plans. The researchers recommended educator trainings should emphasize political and cultural dimensions for ESD and QE, community relationships, and assessments.