Research Summary

Facilitating Youth to Take Sustainability Actions: The Potential of Peer Education

Peer Education for Sustainable Action

The Journal of Environmental Education

Youth peers tend to influence each other significantly, in both positive and negative ways. Peer education builds upon this powerful influence by providing youth the opportunity to teach and learn from each other. Peer education may be a valuable strategy for educators hoping to foster the values and skills necessary for youth to take sustainable actions. In contrast to pro-environmental behavior changes, sustainable actions are defined as self-initiated, intentional acts that operate at a community or global scale (e.g., starting a recycling program or joining an environmental group). This study implemented a yearlong peer education program, MindShift, to understand the benefits and challenges of using peer education to foster sustainable actions.

MindShift is a yearlong peer education program developed in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada). It aims to develop sustainability knowledge and environmental values, attitudes, and behaviors of high school students. MindShift was implemented with six teams of 10th-to-12th graders; three of those teams were selected for this study. A teacher advisor supported each team. In total, 23 students participated in the study. The students—referred to as “youth leaders” or “peer educators”—started the year by learning to prepare and offer dramatic, interactive, one-hour-long sustainability presentations to 10th-grade science classes. In total, the groups presented to 36 science classes. As the year progressed, the groups’ focus turned to planning school-wide educational activities and events. Two of the three teams planned two school-wide events. The third team disbanded in the second term due to scheduling conflicts.

To collect data, peer educators participated in interviews and focus groups at the beginning and end of the year. During these meetings, students were asked to share and interpret their experience with the program. Additionally, pre- and post-program written questionnaires were used to gain further insight about changes in the students’ environmental values, personal empowerment, and pro-environmental behavior. The researchers also conducted field observation of team activities throughout the year, taking notes on team dynamics and leadership, and making personal reflections.

The data collected during the interviews and focus groups was transcribed, analyzed, and categorized into six types of learning or growth: skills for action, pro-environmental behavior, sense of empowerment, pro-environmental attitudes and values, knowledge of sustainability, and interpersonal relationships. Many students mentioned changes they had made to their personal environmental behavior. These changes began small, such as turning off lights and unplugging electronics, but became larger, requiring more of a commitment, such as eating less meat or biking instead of driving. On average, participants reported five different personal environmental behaviors taken up as a result of the program, such as taking shorter showers, turning off the lights, and choosing local foods. These self-reported behavioral shifts were also significant as participants considered them to be new “permanent habits.”

Participants also spoke of the social-emotional and cognitive growth they experienced. For example, they felt a sense of empowerment and gained confidence as they learned the skills and knowledge required to understand complex issues, communicate ideas, work as a team, and make decisions. All 23 peer educators reported an increase in skills needed to take action, such as organization, facilitation, and initiative.

Another significant theme was that of growing pro-environmental attitudes and values. Peer leaders spoke of a significant shift in perspective and a new sense of concern for global ecological problems. An unexpected theme resulting from the interviews was the positive effect the MindShift program had on their interpersonal relationships. Students spoke of making new friends and building a new community of people with shared ideas and interests. In addition to these changes, 12 out of the 23 participants spoke of taking further action outside of the program, including sharing information or advice with family and friends, presenting at other schools, and organizing events and activities.

Given the success of this program, the authors asked: What specific characteristics of peer education led to this learning and growth? In response to this question, they discussed four positive characteristics of peer education: peer support, the ability to contribute and participate in meaningful work, participating in leadership roles, and having a sense of ownership toward the initiative. These characteristics allowed youth to have fun and feel supported by their peers and make decisions and take responsibility for the progress of a program they felt was meaningful, while also allowing them to try out and practice different leadership skills.

Overall, MindShift created a transformative experience for youth; however, it is important to note that each peer leadership team was unique, experiencing distinct successes and challenges. Developing positive peer interactions appeared to be the most critical step in building successful collaborative, supportive, and productive teams.

The Bottom Line

Peer education—where students learn from each other—is a holistic learning process that can foster creative and systems-level thinking, develop leadership skills, and allow students to gain a sense of empowerment and confidence. These skills are vital for students to take action toward sustainability. There are a number of ways to implement peer education, such as having students give presentations to other groups of students, or having them organize educational activities and events. Successful implementation of peer education requires developing students’ sense of ownership and leadership, including letting each student contribute to the project, and creating a safe, supportive environment for students to share and learn with their peers.