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Learning for sustainability in Europe: An interview with our authors

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News & Articles

Learning for sustainability in Europe: An interview with our authors

03 May 2024
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Eurydice News

Eurydice recently published a report on learning for sustainability in Europe. You can find the full study here Learning for sustainability in Europe: Building competences and supporting teachers and schools.

We asked the authors of the report, Teodora Parveva, Anna Horvath, Sonia Piedrafita Tremosa and Emmanuel Sigalas to answer a few questions on the situation that emerges from their analysis.

Educational institutions are considered vital agents in tackling the sustainability challenges faced by societies, as they play a key role in developing competences through teaching and learning. To what degree is sustainability integrated into European curricula?  

All European countries include sustainability in their curricula. Of course, it varies how and to what extent. Teaching sustainability most often involves a cross-curricular approach, thus the inclusion of related topics across all or most subjects. Sustainability-related themes are almost always included in science subjects and geography, and to a somewhat lesser extent in citizenship education. But sustainability can be and often is integrated into social and economic studies, history, technology or art and design, etc. 

Fourteen education system include sustainability through interdisciplinary project-based learning, which means the inclusion of sustainability-focused modules, whereby students can learn about, experiment on and experience sustainability-related issues outside the regular subjects. However, sustainability is rarely a subject of its own. Only nine education systems include such an interdisciplinary subject, and in most cases, this is only optional for secondary students. The only country where education for sustainable development is a compulsory separate subject for all students is Cyprus. 

Which sustainability competencies are analysed in this report, and how are they reflected in European curricula?

The report examined seven sustainability competences based on the European Commission’s GreenComp framework: valuing sustainability, promoting nature, systems thinking, futures literacy, adaptability, political agency and individual and collective action. Almost all of them are relatively well represented in European curricula, being included in the curricula of over 30 European countries. The least common is the futures literacy competence, which includes the ability to envisage alternative sustainable futures, develop alternative scenarios and identify the steps needed to achieve a preferred sustainable future.

The competences of political agency and individual and collective action are more frequently present at secondary than at primary level. Regarding these political action-oriented competences, we could also see that while most curricula contain references to what individuals can do to promote sustainable development and individual responsibilities, references to collective action or to social/political/collective responsibility for unsustainable behaviour are less common.

How do European education systems support their teachers in imparting sustainability education?

Teachers and school leaders have a key role to play in building sustainability competences. They need to receive the appropriate training, guidance and support to have the necessary knowledge, and to be able to implement sustainability pedagogies and adapted teaching approaches. It is important that regulations and guidelines for initial teacher education include specific learning objectives related to sustainability. Currently this is the case in 17 education systems. Support for the professional development of in-service teachers is more common, although participation in training is rarely mandatory.

At the same time, we also need to point out that most education systems provide teaching materials and other resources on how to integrate sustainability in teaching and support dedicated networks or communities of practice where teachers and school heads can exchange information, share best practices and build partnerships. Teachers also have access to sustainability education centres, although school sustainability coordinators or mentors are less widespread.

Overall, our findings indicate a need for more targeted support, guidance and training opportunities for teachers and school leaders to further enhance learning for sustainability and to enable all students to develop their competences in this domain.

How do education authorities support schools to promote sustainability education?

Authorities can help schools in many ways. For simplicity, we distinguish between financial and non-financial means of support. Concerning the former, we asked if education authorities give money to schools to create or maintain school gardens, to invest in recycling or cycling infrastructure or similar small-scale infrastructure that can be used in sustainability education. We found that there are not that many countries offering this kind of support. In fact, only 13 education systems finance school gardens, just 12 fund recycling equipment and only 11 financially support bike facilities in schools.

There are also non-financial ways to promote sustainability education. Providing guidance or networking opportunities are typical methods of supporting schools without necessarily offering them money, at least not directly. What is especially worth highlighting is the operation of sustainability school programmes at the national and international level. For instance, international Eco-Schools (in some countries it’s called Green Schools) programme  asks schools to commit that they will undertake certain steps aiming to reduce their environmental impact. Schools are also expected to integrate environmental and social issues into the curriculum. What is particularly interesting is not only that Eco-Schools operates in most European countries, but also that in as many as 17 education systems there is also a national sustainability school programme. We think this is a positive development, and hopefully we will see more and more schools throughout Europe participating in such programmes. 

Author: Anna Maria Volpe 

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