Embracing the Future of Environmental and Sustainability Education: Perspectives from Emerging Researchers

Embracing the Future of Environmental and Sustainability Education: Perspectives from Emerging Researchers

At ECER 2023 in Glasgow Network 30, the Environmental and Sustainability Education Research (ESER) network celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Our network was initiated in 2013 in Istanbul, where we ran the first full programme of contributions from members across Europe and beyond. This means that 2023 was the 10th anniversary of our network, and it presented a seminal moment to reflect on where we started and where we are going with research into education’s role in this critical and urgent challenge of the 21st Century. 

As part of this stock-taking, we convened two groups to address the whole network at key points during the conference. Our overarching goal for the linked events that we convened is to develop the network in respect of its geopolitical and generational diversity and representation to ensure that the research in our network remains relevant and world leading. 

The first group was a panel of established researchers who have been participating in ESER for the last decade. They talked from their own perspectives, both within and outside of Europe, on critical ESE research topics and approaches. The second was a group of emerging researchers who we encouraged to take a creative approach to inspiring thinking about the future of the field. We are using the material from those events to write two linked blogs about ESE research in and beyond Europe. 

As an aside, it is worth noting that at ECER 2023 there was also a MOOT in the form of a panel discussion organized by EERA’s journal (European Education Research Journal) that focused on Education in the Anthropocene: ‘Is it Time for Green Education in Europe?’. This event, which was not arranged as part of our network, is indicative of the way that ESER’s field of study has taken root across the range of topics that we in ESER have focused on for the past decade through the network, and for many years before that in different contexts. 

In this blog we will focus on the emerging researcher inputs, in the next instalment we will focus on the input from the established academics’ panel. 

The event for emerging researchers took the form of 30 minutes of ignite talks (5 minutes each), followed by 30 minutes of open discussions. Each talk was inspired by a material or creative object. Here we draw across the five submissions to elucidate the themes that these up-and-coming researchers indicated as important for the future of our field. 

Saskia Weijzen,Wageningen Universit, Netherlands

With this poem, Saskia seeks to illuminate the importance of communicating our message beyond the boundaries of our network, and the boundaries of academia itself. She talks about how significant our work is NOW, but that our message is lost because of the way we use language and discourse that is not widely accessible. So, the significance of our criticality is lost to the wider world about which we talk. Despite us being critical of the system in which we are embedded, our very existence as researchers is a symptom of that system. She implores us to break from convention.

Annelie Ott, Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway

Saskia’s perspective was built on by Annelie Ott from Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway, in her quite stark and somewhat jarring presentation that incorporated the use of placards on brown cardboard that we have all become very familiar with as they have been used in so many recent protest movements, including youth green protest movements.

Annelie asks us “How can anarchism be relevant for environmental and sustainability education?” This is a somewhat arresting question to ask, especially in the context of broader political and educational policies, and it leads us to reflect further on our embeddedness within such a system. 

Sarah Sharp, University of Cambridge, UK

Two emerging researchers, Rosalie Gwen Mathie from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway and Sarah Sharp from the University of Cambridge, UK, both with artistic backgrounds, delved into the importance of art and creativity in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education Research.

Sarah focused on a mindset shift from reductionist learning to relational learning in Environmental and Sustainability Education, and asked the question, “How do we do relational learning in accessible educational spaces – i.e. schools?” and “For us as researchers, what are the relational methodologies needed to create a relational pedagogy?” She used the smoothie as a metaphor for explaining interconnectedness and learning in schools in her presentation. The smoothie symbolizes a complex mixture of different ingredients that cannot be separated and she emphasized that the learning process is like a smoothie, individual elements come together to create a blended experience.

Rosalie Gwen, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway

Rosalie, in her talk, also highlighted the division in our way of learning and research methodology; specifically, she emphasized the disconnection between art and science. She noted that we need more time and space to foster creativity and collaboration within education, not only for students but also for adults. She brought some art materials (colorful pens) in her presentation to get researchers thinking about what individuals learn to recognize as art and what this might do for their creativity, and thus their capacity to problem-solving in the future. Overall, she highlighted the necessity of providing more time and space for nurturing creativity and collaboration in our educational settings.

Maria Kondratjuk, Dresden University of Technology, Germany

Lastly, Maria Kondratjuk from Dresden University of Technology, Germany, built her talk on her impressions from indigenous culture. She gave an example from a philosophical perspective called Ubuntu which comes from southern African societal traditions. This perspective focused on the one’s connectedness to the whole in the world.

As Maria noted, “I am part of a family, a group, a community, a peer-group, a region, a city, a country, a culture, a nation, the world”. Maria’s talk pointed out the need to find a balance between human beings and nature in order to create a sustainable life. For this purpose, she emphasized that individuals need to act responsibly to contribute to well-being and sustainability of the whole system.

Summary – and a call to action

These five emerging researchers from our network have highlighted the importance of crossing the boundaries in academia and in society, interconnectedness in the learning process, creativity and cooperation in environmental and sustainability education and living meaningfully and becoming with nature for a sustainable world.

We would like to thank all the presenters for sharing their valuable thoughts and insights, which have provided inspiration for the future direction of the environmental and sustainability education field.

We hope that readers can carry these insights into their own areas.

Key Messages

  • It is important that we are critical researchers and ensure our research findings are communicated beyond academia
  • We must question conventional perspectives and advocate alternative and marginalized principles in environmental and sustainability education.
  • We need a relational pedagogy in order to develop interconnected approaches in Environmental and Sustainability Education.
  • We need to foster creativity and collaboration across learning, teaching and research environments.
  • It is critical that we rediscover our (human) place within nature for the wellbeing of all forms of life on Earth
Dr. Elsa Lee

Dr. Elsa Lee

Senior Lecturer, Anglia Ruskin University, UK

Dr Lee’s work focuses on the intersection of education, environmental justice, arts and curriculum.  She has led externally funded research projects investigating these issues, and this informs her teaching on undergraduate Education degrees and her doctoral supervision.  Dr Lee convenes the Environmental Sustainability Education Research network and is an executive editor of the National Association of Environmental Education (NAEE) journal.  She also convenes the Education and Environmental Justice Reading and Research Collective.

Dr. Güliz Karaarslan Semiz

Dr. Güliz Karaarslan Semiz

Associate Professor of Science Education, Ağrı İbrahim Çeçen University, Türkiye

Dr. Güliz Karaarslan-Semiz is an Associate Professor of science education at Ağrı İbrahim Çeçen University, Türkiye. Her research interests are centered around education for sustainable development in teacher education, systems thinking skills, and whole school approach to sustainability. She has a co-convenor role at Network 30, Environmental and Sustainability Education Research (ESER).

Researchgate Profile

Annelie Ott

Annelie Ott

Lecturer in Social Studies and Social Studies Education, Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway

Annelie Ott is a Lecturer in Social Studies and Social Studies Education at Oslo Metropolitan University. She initiated the Norwegian research network for environmental and sustainability education, and she is also a convenor of the same network. Currently, Annelie is working on finishing her doctoral thesis where she is looking into theoretical and critical approaches to environmental and sustainability education. She has become especially interested in the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce and anarchism.


Dr. Maria Kondrajtuk

Dr. Maria Kondrajtuk

Professor, Organisational Development in Education, Dresden University of Technology, Germany

Dr. Maria Kondrajtuk holds professorship for Organisational Development in Education at Dresden University of Technology at the Faculty of Educational Science. Her research interests are socio-ecological transformation and education for sustainable development, professionality & professional action in pedagogical fields of action, organisational development in educational systems and decolonising and transforming education.

Rosalie Gwen Mathie

Rosalie Gwen Mathie

PhD candidate, Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Rosalie Gwen Mathie is a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences working with sustainability-oriented Professional Development. Her main expertise and interests are concerning the role of reflexive and participatory processes in whole institution staff professional development, and co-developing methods to support sustainability-oriented education and institutional transitions.


Sarah Sharp

Sarah Sharp

Phd candidate, University of Cambridge, UK

Sarah Sharp is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her research centres around beyond-anthropocentric stories and their pedagogic potential in environmental education. Sarah uses theories of entanglement and relationality to consider approaches to exploring ways we live with the world in school settings.

In addition to previously teaching Drama and Theatre Studies, Sarah is a practicing theatre maker and co-founder of the environmental arts organisation, One Step Theatre. She has supported a range of research in the environmental education field including for the Education and Environmental Justice Research Group and is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education at UCL.

Saskia Weijzen

Saskia Weijzen

PhD candidate, Wageningen University, Netherlands

Saskia Weijzen is a pedagogical scientist and PhD candidate at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Her research focusses on regenerative higher education, and on transcending educational and societal paradigms in this regard. She is an actionable researcher working on transformation as part of her reserach. She invites people within higher education to engage with the arts, nature and spirituality in order to generate knowledge while shaping new relations and new options for higher education to become.

Other blog posts on similar topics:

References and Further Reading

Add your list of references here. Use [1], [2], [3]… to mark where they are used in the text above.
Do current curricula hinder student understanding of complex global water systems?

Do current curricula hinder student understanding of complex global water systems?

Every day, we use water – either direct or hidden – from the moment we wake up until we go back to sleep. Water has multiple values and meanings in our communities, reflected in our languages and traditions in many spiritual, cultural, and emotional forms.1  Even though we appreciate the importance of water for life, the pressure that we put on water resources and aquatic ecosystems continues to threaten the future of our planet.2,3

We learn/teach about water as a concept from early childhood years to the end of high school. Water is considered as an important concept providing a basis for understanding of:

  •  weather and climate4
  • complexity of life and interconnectedness of the earth systems5
  • sustaining cities and ecosystems6
  • effects of water use on the environment7, economy8,9, and society10 such as water pollution, human health, food security, energy supplies, and climate change11.

Yet, we are not very good at understanding its working mechanism, engaging with water systems sustainably, or equipping educators with the necessary knowledge and skills to teach the dynamic, complex, ambiguous, and interconnected nature of water systems.

Researchers working on water concepts in science education (as well as environmental and sustainability education in general) have been providing powerful arguments about the dysfunctionality of current curricular practices that embrace a reductionist approach rather than a holistic approach to the natural systems. Current depictions of the water cycle in curricula usually focus on the phase change of water on Earth which hinders students from developing a holistic understanding of the issue, and limits progress towards the achievement of sustainable development goals including water and natural systems.

In this blog, I intend to summarise the arguments about the possible reasons students fail to develop a sound understanding of water system(s), and recap how to support middle school students’ learning based on both existing literature and our own research findings.

Students’ conceptions of the water system are generally composed of factual knowledge.

From the beginning of the integration of water into education in the 1960s,12 educational studies have consistently revealed that students have been developing only a rudimentary understanding of water and water-related concepts13,14.  

Some of the reviews in the literature reported that most elementary and middle school students have a naïve and fragmented factual conception of water-related subjects which solely require memorization.15,16 Thus, the water cycle becomes one of the challenging concepts to be fully grasped by the students in a middle school context.17 Several studies indicated that even though students can draw a water cycle which looks quite similar to the textbooks’ diagram and explain how water cycles, they fail to provide a scientifically correct answer to explain the procedures within the cycle.18,19

Research in Türkiye

In our research, we aimed to see if there are any similar patterns in a Turkish context and improve students’ understanding of water systems by examining their background. We collected data from the students who completed middle school, through conception tests (short, informal, targeted tests that are administered to help instructors gauge whether students understand key concepts), drawing tasks, and semi-structured interviews. We administered a concept inventory to a sample of 358 eighth-grade students from both rural and urban areas in five schools located in four different districts of Ankara, the capital city of Türkiye. Among them, six students were interviewed to gain a deeper understanding of their conceptions of water systems.

In terms of possessing factual knowledge, our research findings were compatible with the literature. For example, every interviewee stated that water cycles on Earth, listed the components and processes, and drew a cycle similar to their textbook, but they had limited answers about the processes in the water cycle. During the interview, we asked follow-up questions to understand the level of their procedural knowledge.

Even though they explained that water cycles on Earth using examples (factual knowledge), when we asked them if there is any starting/ending point of the water cycle, some of them said, “Yes”. Even if they said, “No”, they failed to provide a comprehensive answer for how it cycles. Further, some of the participants offered alternative conceptions such as “When water is absorbed by the soil, it is not involved within the cycle anymore”, and “Polluted water does not cycle anymore.” These responses might indicate that despite having the factual knowledge of ‘water cycles on Earth’, they still do have adequate procedural knowledge to explain how water cycles.

Students are often not able to transfer their knowledge from one context to another.

Another common finding in the literature was that even in the same course, students tend to learn things as “silo concepts”.20Students are taught about the law of conservation and mixture separation techniques in an elementary science course. In the same course, they also learn the basics of the water cycle. However, some evidence suggests that they have some difficulties integrating these concepts into explaining the water cycle.21,22

In our research, when we asked the participants, ‘What happens to polluted water in the water cycle?’, only a few students could transfer their knowledge on mixture separation to the water cycle context. Among the incorrect responses, there were some alternative conceptions such as, “Polluted water turns into acid rain”, or “Polluted water evaporates, and polluted rains make us sick”. In other words, most of the students failed to identify that (1) polluted water is a mixture, (2) evaporation is one of the separation techniques that water evaporates and pollutants remain, and (3) polluted water does not evaporate.

Curricular practices do not encourage viewing of the interactions among water systems.

Studies related to water-related subjects in education reported that curricular practices as well as science textbooks do not coherently link the interactions between water and other systems such as biosphere and anthroposphere.23,24,25  Not surprisingly, students have disconnected conceptions about the water cycle and its interactions with the other systems. These detached conceptions became evident in students’ drawings and statements pertaining to water systems.26,27 When students are asked to draw a water cycle, they usually tend to draw it without bio-spheric components.28,29 Similarly, when they are asked to draw or explain where the water comes from to their homes and where it goes after using it, they fail to fully explain the interactions between their residential area and the water system.30,31 It is argued that this disconnected nature of the curriculum has the potential to hinder students in developing a sound understanding of the water systems and their multiple interactions.32,33,34

The elementary science curriculum context, where our research was carried out, covers water-related concepts from 3rd to 8th grade with no explanation of these interactions. The curriculum involves water as a non-living substance, the percentage of water in our bodies, the importance of efficient water use, wastewater management, groundwater resources, surface water resources, phases of water, water pollution, water cycle, weather, and climate35 but it does not foster a holistic understanding of the interactions among these systems. Thus, participants of this study were expected to have a detached understanding of the interaction of these systems when they completed their middle school degree. Consistent with the literature, a few participants included bio-spheric components but none of them included human-engineered water systems in their drawings.

Students are not aware of their indirect water use, leading to underestimating their water footprint.

In addition to our direct use of water, we use water when we buy a product, use energy, and eat foods which is called indirect use of water. Our water footprint indicates how much water we use in our daily lives.36 To ensure the sustainability of global water systems on Earth, monitoring water consumption behaviour is considered essential but the concept of indirect use of water is not fully reflected in curricula, although some efforts are being made to increase awareness of this issue.37

Evidence suggests that middle school students are not aware of their indirect water use. 38,39,40 These studies report that primary and secondary students are not fully aware of their water consumption pattern, their self-report strategies are limited to their direct use of water, such as turning off the tap while brushing their teeth or taking a shower quickly, which are common suggestions in current textbooks.41 They think they use water efficiently, but this might not be an accurate assessment42,43 because most of them fail to share their strategies for reducing indirect water use, such as changing their shopping habits or eating less meat. This lack of knowledge of indirect water use also contributes to the inability to see the interactions between personal water consumption habits, local, and global water issues. In our study, the participants believed that they use water efficiently but when examples were requested of their efficient water use strategies, they provided examples of how to monitor their direct use of water in their daily lives, which was comparable with the previous studies.44 ,45,46

What teachers can do to improve students’ understanding of water systems

Students tend to explain phenomena based on either their formal educational background or daily life observations, which creates both challenges and opportunities for education policymakers and educators. Recommended within the literature are some extracurricular activities for teachers such as providing real-life experiences47,48,49, tailoring the human effect to the water cycle951, linking conceptual knowledge and practical experiences52,53, showing alternative models54,55 to enhance primary and secondary students learning’ on the complex nature of water systems.

Key Messages

  • Students need support to understand water as a system on Earth.
  • Students may struggle to grasp the dynamic and complex interactions among (in)direct water use, local, and global water issues.
  • We are failing to teach young people how water systems work, how we engage and affect those systems, and how we ensure the sustainability of these systems.
  • Revising current curricular practices and building capacity for teachers is critical in order to enhance students’ procedural knowledge and nurture their conception of systems.
Dr Sinem Demirci

Dr Sinem Demirci

Lecturer in the Statistics Department at California Polytechnic State University

Sinem Demirci is a Full-time Lecturer in the Statistics Department at California Polytechnic State University. Before joining Cal Poly, Sinem worked as a Postdoctoral Visiting Researcher and Lecturer at the Department of Statistical Science at University College London. She received her PhD (2021) in elementary (science) education, MS (2018) in Statistics, MS (2014) in elementary science and mathematics education and BS (2011) in elementary science education from Middle East Technical
University, The Republic of Türkiye. Sinem is a teacher educator whose interdisciplinary research interests include Statistics & Data Science Education and Environmental & Sustainability Education.

This blog is based on the literature review and pilot study conducted during Dr. Demirci’s dissertation, which was also featured in her ECER presentation.

For more information about Dr. Demirci’s research interests,

Personal Website: https://sinemdemirci.github.io/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/drsinemdemirci/

ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2095-0674

Other blog posts on similar topics:

References and Further Reading

[1], [6], [11] United Nations (2018). Value Water. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/hlpwater/07-ValueWater.pdf

[2] Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Galetti, M., Alamgir, M., Crist, E., … & 15,364 Scientist Signatories from 184 Countries. (2017). World scientists’ warning to humanity: a second notice. BioScience67(12), 1026-1028.

[3] Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Barnard, P., Moomaw, W. R., & Grandcolas, P. (2019). World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency. BioScience.

[4] Sadler, T. D., Nguyen, H., & Lankford, D. (2017). Water systems understandings: a framework for designing instruction and considering what learners know about water. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water4(1), e1178.

[5], [17] Brody, M. J. (1993). Student Understanding of Water and Water Resources: A Review of the Literature. the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, (s. 1-18). Atlanta. Retrieved April 2019, 2020 from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED361230.pdf 

[7], [22], [53] Österlind, K., & Haldén, O. (2007). Linking theory to practice: a case study of pupils’ course work on freshwater pollution. International Research in Geographical & Environmental Education, 16(1), 73-89. doi:10.2167/irg207.0

[8], [10], [41], [44] Wood, G. V. (2014). Water literacy and citizenship: education for sustainable domestic water use in the East Midlands. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Nottingham].

[9], [50] DeLorme, D. E., Hagen, S. C., & Stout, J. I. (2003). Consumers’ Perspectives on water issues: directions for educational campaigns. The Journal of Environmental Education, 34(2), 28-35. https://doi.org/10.1080/00958960309603497

[12] Ewing, M. S., & Mills, T. J. (1994). Water literacy in college freshmen: Could a cognitive imagery strategy improve understanding? The Journal of Environmental Education, 25(4), 36-40.

[13] Ben-Zvi-Assaraf, O., & Orion, N. (2005a, March). Development of system thinking skills in the context of earth system education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(5), 518-560. doi:10.1002/tea.20061

[14], [20], [21], [24], [30], [34], [54] Covitt, B. A., Gunckel, K. L., & Anderson, C. L. (2009). Students’ developing understanding of water in environmental systems. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(3), 37-51. doi:10.3200/JOEE.40.3.37-51

[15], [26] Dickerson, D., & Dawkins, K. (2004). Eighth grade students’ understandings of groundwater. Journal of Geoscience Education, 52(2), 178-181. doi:10.5408/1089-9995-52.2.178

[16] Havu-Nuutinen, S., Kärkkäinen, S., & Keinonen, T. (2011). Primary school pupils’ perceptions of water in the context of STS study approach. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 6(4), 321-339.

[18], [23], [27], [28] Shepardson, D. P., Wee, B., Priddy, M., Schellenberger, L., & Harbor, J. (2007). What is a watershed? implications of student conceptions for environmental science education and the national science education standards. Science Education, 91(4), 554-578. doi:10.1002/sce.20206

[19] Forbes, C. T., Zangori, L., & Schwarz, C. V. (2015). Empirical Validation of integrated learning performances for hydrologic phenomena: 3rd-grade students’ model-driven explanation-construction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(7), 895-921. doi:10.1002/tea.21226

[25], [33] Shepardson, D. P., Wee, B., Pridy, M., Schellenberger, L., & Harbor, J. (2009). Water transformation and storage in the mountains and at the coast: midwest students’ disconnected conceptions of the hydrologic cycle. International Journal of Science Education, 31(11), 1447-1471. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500690802061709

[29], [31], [49] Gunckel, K. L., Covitt, B. A., Salinas, I., & Anderson, C. L. (2012). A learning progression for water in socio-ecological systems. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 49(7), 843-868. doi:10.1002/tea.21024 

[32] Ben-Zvi Assaraf, O., Eshach, H., Orion, N., & Alamour, Y. (2012). Cultural differences and students’ spontaneous models of the water cycle: a case study of Jewish and Bedouin children in Israel. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 7(2), 451-477. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-012-9391-5

[35] Ministry of National Education [MoNE]. (2018). İlköğretim fen bilgisi dersi öğretim programı 3-8. sınıflar. Retrieved from http://ttkb.meb.gov.tr 

[36] Water Footprint Network (2023). What is a water footprint? https://www.waterfootprint.org/water-footprint-2/what-is-a-water-footprint/

[37] United Nations (2023). UN 2023 Water Conference. https://www.un-ihe.org/events/un-2023-water-conference

[38], [40], [46] Benninghaus, J. C., Kremer, K., & Sprenger, S. (2018). Assessing high-school students’ conceptions of global water consumption and sustainability. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 27(3), 250-266. https://doi.org/10.1080/10382046.2017.1349373

[39], [45] Fremerey, C., Liefländer, A. K., & Bogner, F. X. (2014). Conceptions about drinking water of 10 th graders and undergraduates. Journal of Water Resource and Protection6(12), 1112.

[42] Venckute, M., Silva, M. M., & Figueiredo, M. (2017). Education as a tool to reduce the water footprint of young people. Millenium, 2(4), 101-111.

[43], [47] Amahmid, O., El Guamri, Y., Yazidi, M., Razoki, B., Kaid Rassou, K., Rakibi, Y., … & El Ouardi, T. (2019). Water education in school curricula: Impact on children knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards water use. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education28(3), 178-193.

[48] Endreny, A. H. (2010). Urban 5th graders conceptions during a place‐based inquiry unit on watersheds. Journal of Research in Science Teaching: The Official Journal of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching47(5), 501-517.

[51] Ben-Zvi-Assarf, O., & Orion, N. (2005b, September). A study of junior high students’ perceptions of the water cycle. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(4), 366-373.

[52] Jacobson, M. J., & Wilensky, U. (2006). Complex systems in education: Scientific and educational importance and implications for the learning sciences. The Journal of the learning sciences15(1), 11-34.

[55] Duffy, D. L. F. (2012). The nature and role of physical models in enhancing sixth grade students’ mental models of groundwater and groundwater processes. [Doctoral dissertation, Old Dominion University]. Old Dominion University Theses, United States.

The UK Sustainability and Climate Change policy paper – An analysis

The UK Sustainability and Climate Change policy paper – An analysis

In April 2022, the UK Department for Education (DfE) published a policy paper laying out a strategy for the education and children’s services systems on the topic of sustainability and climate change. Dr Athanasia Chatzifotiou, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sunderland in the UK took a closer look at the policy paper to help us understand its provisions and proposals.

Key Messages

  • The Strategy identifies the importance of sustainability and climate change aiming to reach teachers and other professionals engaged in a variety of children’s service systems.
  • The Strategy has limitations that emanate from the language used and its actual content that is not presented in a clear and coherent manner for different stakeholders.
  • The Strategy acknowledges the DfE’s role in sustainability, and it promotes mainly knowledge on its environmental aspect (e.g. focus on biodiversity, outdoor/nature knowledge, etc.). The social aspects of sustainability are hardly addressed, and the economic ones are presented as job opportunities.
  • The Strategy takes into consideration important policies, and national and international initiatives but it fails to show how these can inform the action areas and initiatives that drive the Strategy.
  • The Strategy does not enable practitioners to facilitate a thorough climate and sustainability education where both socio-economic and socio-scientific issues can be taken into consideration.

The Strategy

The policy paper Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems (referred to as the Strategy onwards) should be welcomed. It had been missing from the wider political and educational context (Greer, King and Glackin, 2021).

The Strategy identifies the importance of sustainability and climate change and is aimed at teachers and other professionals engaged in a variety of children’s service systems. Aside from the positive note upon its entry, however, the Strategy has limitations. These limitations emanate from the language used and its actual content that is not coherently presented for different stakeholders (e.g. teachers, civil servants etc.). For instance, the vision presented aims to make the UK ‘…the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030’, but the Strategy applies to England only. This rhetoric is accompanied by principles (e.g. ‘..we will seek opportunities to work with others… Evidence will be at the heart of our activity… we will make the greatest impact. We will adopt a systems-based approach…’, etc.) that are hard to argue against, but it is also hard to see how these aims will be achieved. These limitations are discussed below in relation to the general provisions the Strategy makes and to climate education in particular.

The Strategy’s provisions

The Strategy acknowledges the DfE’s important role in all aspects of sustainability. It highlights the overall aim of reducing our environmental footprints in accordance with achieving Net Zero. Net Zero is the ‘umbrella’ UK policy for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy by 2050.  However, there is a focus on environmental sustainability that creates a disequilibrium among the social, economic and environmental aspects. This also favours the country’s economic goals rather than its educational or environmental ones (Dunlop and Rushton, 2022).

While the Strategy acknowledges the DfE’s role in sustainability, its focus centres upon knowledge (e.g. biodiversity, outdoor/nature knowledge, etc.). Rushton and Dunlop (2022, p.3) identified a similar issue arguing that the Strategy: “…is on learning more about…not empowering young people to act for the environment or challenging the root cause of climate change.” This is evident in the Strategy’s identified Action areas (five in total) and initiatives (three in total).

The Actions are:

1) Climate Education,

2) Green Skills and careers,

3) Education Estate and Digital Infrastructure,

4) Operations and Supply Chains and

5) International


The initiatives are:

1) the National Education Nature Park (a virtual nature park)

2) the Climate Leaders Award (similar to other awards like the John Muir Award, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, etc.)

3) Sustainability Leadership (noting support from senior management leadership).

Within the above, the social aspects of sustainability are barely identified, and the economic ones are presented as job opportunities. For instance, the Action area ‘Green skills and jobs’ highlights only the potential number of green jobs that will be created and nothing more; the Action area ‘Education Estate and digital technology’ contains information around heating solutions, water scarcity, etc. that links them to school buildings without clearly showing the role of teachers and children in these. 

Even though the Strategy takes into consideration important policies, national and international initiatives (e.g. the United Nations’17 Sustainable Development Goals and UNESCO’s ‘Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), the Paris Agreement and Glasgow Climate Pact, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child (UNCRC), the UK Climate Change Act (2008), etc.), it fails to show how these can inform the action areas and initiatives that drive the strategy. An example of such failure can be seen with the initiative National Education Nature Park. The focus seems to be mostly on environmental knowledge (e.g. ‘deliver improvements in biodiversity, contribute to the implementation of the nature recovery network, etc.); a ‘trend’ that shows in other counties as well (Monroe, Plate, Oxarart, Bowers and Chaves, 2019). Nowhere is visible how the 17 SD goals or the Convention on Children’s Rights can inform the above in a manner that professionals can make a change. The focus on environmental knowledge is prevalent throughout the Strategy including climate education.

Action Area 1 – Climate Education

I want to focus on Climate Education (Action Area 1) because the proposals are for children to learn about nature, the cause and impact of climate change and the importance of sustainability. These suggestions reflect once more an approach to ‘learning about’ rather than empowering action. Admittedly, the latter is much more difficult to achieve, especially in an educational context where mainly discipline and conformity are promoted amongst pupils.

The Strategy highlights particular National Curriculum subjects (e.g. science, geography, etc.) that can promote such learning from early years onwards. It highlights the GCSEs (General Certificate for Secondary Education) in design and technology, food preparation and nutrition, and economics as topics that can further enhance the importance of learning about sustainability while at the same time, it announces a new natural history GCSE by 2025 for ‘deeper knowledge of the natural world’.

This interest in knowledge is further enhanced by the proposed annual Climate Literacy Survey from 2022 to benchmark progress in improving the climate knowledge of school leavers. Knowledge is important, but Rushton and Dunlop (2022) identified that teachers and students alike were asking for more critical thinking, doing research, taking action, communicating and networking with others. Knowledge alone does not necessarily lead to environmental action (Skamp, Boyes and Stannistreet, 2009). Still, the Strategy sees science knowledge as most fitting for climate education. This is reflected in science teachers’ Continuing Personal Development (CPD) and on developing a Primary Science Model Curriculum to include ‘an emphasis on nature to ensure all children understand the world’.

This ‘knowledge overload’ manifests itself in the implicit alignment that the Strategy brings between Climate Education and Education for Sustainable Development. However, throughout the Strategy there is neither a clear distinction between the two nor any links made for teachers to see how they relate to each other.

Climate change and political impartiality

Finally, and most disappointingly, the section on Climate Education closes with a message on political impartiality.

The message, amongst other things, says: “Teaching about climate change, and the scientific facts and evidence behind this, does not constitute teaching about a political issue and schools do not need to present misinformation or unsubstantiated claims to provide balance.” 

Climate education is a socio-scientific issue (Henderson, Long, Berger, Russell, and Drewes, 2017) and as such it carries socio-political dimensions. A systematic review of effective education strategies in climate change education highlighted a distinction between ‘just the facts’(that is, ‘learning about’) and ‘also the actions’ approaches which refer to an apolitical and a political approach to the issue of climate change education (Monroe et.al, 2019).

When priority is given to ‘just the facts’, then the socioeconomic dimensions of climate and sustainability education – which are explicitly included in the United Nations Sustainable Goals – are compromised. Scholars like Gayford and Dillon (1995) have clearly shown since the ‘90s the dilemmas and difficulties that teachers face when teaching environmental issues precisely because they span through all domains (social, economic, physical). There needs to be a balance between the scientific information and the value-laden nature of climate and sustainability education. This kind of balance is missing from the said Strategy.


The Strategy has given schools an opportunity to consider their sustainability and climate education approaches. In a way, it is contributing towards ‘spreading the word’ on the importance of educating and acting upon environmental and climate issues. Acquiring scientific knowledge about these issues is paramount; but also of paramount importance are the socio-economic dimensions of these issues.

Other blog posts on similar topics:

Dr Athanasia Chatzifotiou

Dr Athanasia Chatzifotiou

Senior Lecturer, University of Sunderland, UK

Athanasia Chatzifotiou gained her Ph.D. from Durham University in the UK. She examined primary school teachers’ knowledge and awareness of environmental education in two European countries, namely England and Greece. Her subsequent work addressed issues concerning the status of education for sustainable development in the National Curriculum in England and Greece, policy initiatives in England, the Eco-school approach in early years and primary schools, etc. She teaches in the BA Hons Childhood Studies degree at Sunderland University where she is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences.

ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8517-598X

References and further reading

Department for Education, (2022). Policy paper: Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems. Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sustainability-and-climate-change-strategy/sustainability-and-climate-change-a-strategy-for-the-education-and-childrens-services-systems

Dunlop, L. and Rushton, A.C. (2022). Putting climate change at the heart of education: Is England’s strategy a placebo for policy? British Education Research Journalhttps://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3816

Dunlop, L. and Rushton, A. C. (2022). Five ways the new sustainability and climate change strategy for schools on Englabd doesn’t match up to what young people actually want. The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/five-ways-the-new-sustainability-and-climate-change-strategy-for-schools-in-england-doesnt-match-up-to-what-young-people-actually-want-181966 [Accessed 5/4/2023]

Gayford, C. and Dillo, P. (1995). Policy and the practices of environmental education in England: a dilemma for teachers. Environmental Education Research, v.1, p.173-183.

Greer, K. King, H. and Glackin, M. (2021). The ‘web of conditions’ governing England’s climate change education policy landscape, Journal of Education Policy, DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2021.1967454

Henderson, J. Long, D. Berger, P. Russell, C. and Drewes, A. (2017). Expanding the foundation: climate change and opportunities for educational research. Educational Studies, v.53, n.4, p.412-425. DOI: 10.1080/00131946.2017.1335640

 Monroe, M. Plate, R. Oxarart, A. Bowers, A. and Chaves, W. (2019). Identifying effective climate change education strategies: a systematic review of the research, Environmental Education Research, 25:6, 791-812, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2017.1360842

 Skamp, K. Boyes, E. Stannistreet, M. (2009). Global warming responses at the primary secondary students’ beliefs and willingness to act. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, v. 25, p.15-30

Gently down the stream(ing): Can digital literacy help turn the tide on the climate crisis? 

Gently down the stream(ing): Can digital literacy help turn the tide on the climate crisis? 

The ubiquitous availability of digital content and web services has transformed the way we live, work, and learn (List et al., 2020). Technology provides us with tools to manage and accomplish work, content to entertain us, and applications to document, store and share our lives online. It is within this context that digital literacy features prominently in policy documentation and educational literature, recognising digital literacy as an essential skill for 21st-century living (Pérez-Escoda et al., 2019). However, as we stand on the precipice of climate disaster, is it time for digital literacy to focus its attention on the impact our increasing digital activity has on the environment?

Environmental impact of users’ digital lives

In education circles, conversations around the impact of educational technology on our environment have begun in earnest (Facer & Selwyn, 2021), however, this is less evident regarding the use of digital content and tools in our day-to-day lives. The usage of streaming services, for example, has soared in recent years and while providers such as Netflix have improved efficiencies in these services, their carbon footprint is still significant (Stephens et al., 2021).

Our music consumption habits have also shifted away from physical media, but overall greenhouse gas emissions from storing and distributing music online have doubled since 2000 (Brennan, 2019). Social media activity continues to increase at a remarkable pace, and a significant carbon cost (Perrin, 2015), and popular apps like TikTok and Reddit have a disproportionately large carbon footprint. Our regular scrolling of ‘news feeds’ contributes carbon emissions equivalent to a short light vehicle journey, per person, per day (Derudder, 2021).

This online activity, coupled with our desire to store data in the cloud, means data centres account for 1% of the global energy demand (Obringer et al., 2021). The continued desire for the latest phone is also costing more than our wallets, with the environmental impact of the device lifecycle being well documented (MacGilchrist et al., 2021). Current figures suggest that over half of consumers in many EU countries renew their devices every 18 – 24 months.

In our work environment, too, our digital impact must be acknowledged. While conferencing platforms such as Zoom come with great environmental benefits when compared with face-to-face meetings and conferences, further efficiencies can be achieved by challenging ‘camera on’ policies. A seemingly innocuous task like sending 65 text emails can cost as much carbon as a short car journey, and when factors such as attachments are considered, the cost is even higher (Duncan, 2022). This snapshot reveals just some of the impacts of our digital lives, some of which our students are unaware of.

Current focus of digital literacy and digital literacy frameworks

An acknowledgment of the need to develop our students’ digital literacy has existed since Gilster (1997) first coined the term and defined it as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of [digital] sources”.

Definitions of digital literacy have remained remarkably consistent in the decades that followed, focusing on the ability to source, evaluate and use digital information. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on content creation and communicating using digital channels. However, academic definitions of digital literacy lack any real focus on the environmental cost of our digital activities. In fact, there is little evidence of this aspect of digital literacy being discussed in academic literature.

There are many digital literacy frameworks available to help academics and other users understand digital literacy and its competencies. Only the UNESCO and DigiComp frameworks refer to the environmental impact of technologies and their use, and this is nestled under the ’digital safety’ strand. The range of digital literacy frameworks (e.g. DigiComp, UNESCO, JISC) and volume of journal publications suggests that academics and policymakers are committed to the development of digital literacy, however, it appears that the impact of our digital lives on the environment has been largely left out of the debate. 

Shifting our focus

Calls for action to avert a climate catastrophe are becoming more strident. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (2022) paints a very troubling picture regarding the widespread and severe impacts of climate change. We must act now. We must adapt our practices and become more sustainable in everything we do.

I believe we can refocus our attention on digital literacy to guide our students to being more critical users of technology and understanding its impact on our world. Using familiar language and strategies, we might encourage students to identify their current digital activities and analyse their carbon footprint, before evaluating areas where improvements can be made. Students could be encouraged to construct new meaning from their investigations by capturing trends associated with work, study and social practices, and communicating these findings with a wider audience.

This shift in focus is essentially a repurposing of what we already ask our students to do with regard to digital content, but targeted at addressing the authentic and urgent issue of climate change. While frameworks such as DigiComp and UNESCO should be commended for including environmental impact, further development of this area should be encouraged.

Digital literacy frameworks should provide a detailed scaffold which encourages a multidimensional understanding of digital tools, their impact on the environment, and consideration of actions that can be taken to affect change. Developing this aspect of digital literacy would increase students’ awareness of the ‘cost’ of technology and promote a more critical use of the tools and services they use in their day-to-day lives.


The coming years present major challenges for society to tackle the climate emergency. It is crucial that we shift our mindset and begin to understand the impact our actions have on the environment, and make the necessary changes to recalibrate our relationship with nature.

Changes are required in all aspects of our lives, from energy and waste, to the provision and rewilding of natural spaces. While a refocussing of digital literacy and digital competencies in this way is not the panacea to the situation, it can act as a move in the right direction, one more component of our lives where we begin to understand and address our toll on the environment.

The post is an abridged version of an article in the upcoming (October 2022) issue of the Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy

Key Messages

Society’s use of digital and online content is increasing

Digital literacy is recognised as a set of competencies for this digital world

Our day-to-day use of technology has an environmental impact

Digital literacy definitions and frameworks largely ignore the environmental impact

We should begin including environmental impact in our digital literacy definitions, frameworks, and discussions

Other blog posts on similar topics:

Dr Peter Tiernan

Dr Peter Tiernan

Assistant Professor in Digital Learning and Research Convenor for the School of STEM Education, Innovation and Global Studies in the Institute of Education at Dublin City University.

Peter is an Assistant Professor in Digital Learning and Research Convenor for the School of STEM Education, Innovation and Global Studies in the Institute of Education at Dublin City University. He lectures in the areas of digital learning, digital literacy and entrepreneurship education. His current research focuses on digital literacy at post-primary and further education level as well as entrepreneurship education for third level lecturers and pre-service teachers.

Peter was shortlisted for the DCU President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in 2021.

Find Peter on Twitter.

References and Further Reading

A framework of pre-service teachers’ conceptions about digital literacy: Comparing the United States and Sweden https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360131519303380

Dimensions of digital literacy based on five models of development (Pérez-Escoda et al., 2019) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/11356405.2019.1603274

Digital technology and the futures of education – towards ‘non-stupid’ optimism (Facer & Selwyn, 2021) https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377071″>https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377071

Carbon impact of video streaming (Stephens et al., 2021), https://prod-drupal-files.storage.googleapis.com/documents/resource/public/Carbon-impact-of-video-streaming.pdf

MUSIC CONSUMPTION HAS UNINTENDED ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS (Brennan, 2019) https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2019/april/headline_643297_en.html

Social Media Usage: 2005-2015
65% of adults now use social networking sites – a nearly tenfold jump in the past decade (Perrin, 2015) https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/

What is the environmental footprint for social media applications? 2021 Edition (Derudder, 2021) https://greenspector.com/en/social-media-2021/

The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use (Olbringer et al., 2021) ​https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344920307072?via%3Dihub

Shifting scales of research on learning, media and technology, (Mcgilchrist, et al, 2021) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439884.2021.1994418

Text Messaging & Emails Generate Carbon Emissions (Carbon Footprint), (Duncan, 2021) https://8billiontrees.com/carbon-offsets-credits/reduce-carbon-footprint/texts-emails/

A Global Framework of Reference on Digital Literacy Skills for Indicator 4.4.2 http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/ip51-global-framework-reference-digital-literacy-skills-2018-en.pdf

Digicomp https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/digcomp_en

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report https://www.ipcc.ch

Featured Image Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash