Research Summary

Facing global sustainability issues: teachers’ experiences of their own practices in environmental and sustainability education

Teacher Experiences with Global Sustainability

Environmental Education Research
2016

Educating young people about environmental sustainability on a global scale has become increasingly important over the past 20 years. However, those ideas are often entangled in complex historical issues: colonialism and its legacy, economic inequality, and marginalization and unequal power relations between the Global North versus Global South. This study examines how educators consider and deal with such issues in their lessons when teaching high-school students about global sustainability.

This paper’s author interviewed six high-school teachers from three Swedish towns. All of the teachers had been involved in sustainable development-related education and had hosted teachers and students from schools in the Global South. The teachers were between the ages of 35 and 55 and had been teaching for between 9 and 28 years. The interviews were up to one hour in length, and the interview questions focused on how teachers identified relevant knowledge for students, how the teachers structured their lessons, and the significance of Swedish students interacting with visiting students from schools in the Global South.

The author recorded and transcribed the interviews. For analysis, the author used a variation of an educational tool to identify thematic ideas for education programs tackling North–South history and politics. The author pared the themes from seven to four: contextual– historical, which addressed how teachers relate sustainability to colonial history; affective, which focused on how teachers raise ideas of benevolence, charity, and responsibility in their lessons; political, which examined how power relationships between the North and South are discussed; and epistemological, which concentrated on how teachers deal with different types of knowledge.

Analyzing the interviews through the contextual–historical lens, many of the teachers stressed the importance of putting sustainability issues into a broad context, especially with regard to colonialism. One teacher commented that he wanted students to apply the facts outside of a Swedish context, especially when meeting students and teachers from the Global South. Another teacher stressed the importance of treating the issues on a global scale.

Through the affective lens, all of the teachers thought that responsibility and fairness were important dimensions to address in global sustainability issues. Three teachers commented that students should be able to move beyond paternalistic views of the Global South without dampening their generosity, and described cultural encounters as one way to do this.

All of the teachers emphasized the political lens in dealing with sustainability and wanted their students to see alternative ways of considering politics, often moving beyond individualistic ideas. One teacher said that his hope was to empower students to be more politically aware; another said he wanted students to see both themselves and other people as agents for political change.

Finally, most of the teachers spoke to the epistemological lens, pointing out how cultural norms and values shape how students see the world, and that not everyone comes from the same culture. One teacher discussed the importance of talking about issues with people who have different frames of reference, citing discussions about motherhood between her students and those from the South as an example.

Civics and history teachers most frequently mentioned the contextual–historical lens, although other teachers were aware of it as well. All teachers emphasized the importance of emotions in connecting students to the issues and driving students to action. Similarly, all the teachers spoke to the political aspects of the issues and wanted their students to feel they could take action. Most of the teachers touched on epistemological concerns, particularly in relation to student interactions providing access and openness to other perspectives.

The Bottom Line

Addressing sustainability on a global scale is complex, intertwined with issues of colonialism and inequalities between the Global North and South. In particular, educators need to take a critical eye when teaching about these issues. In addition to teaching practices, educators must consider the historical context and implications of global-sustainability discussions and actions. This holistic lens also includes a personal dimension as educators bring their own ideas and experiences about the topic to the course.