The interpretation and approach to sustainability education.

Every month, Learning for Tomorrow publishes a review of something interesting for sustainable education. This month the thesis of Joanne Kooiman, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She researched the interpretation and approach to sustainability education in secondary education (vo) and vocational secondary education (mbo), using the frame creation model. Review by Henk Tameling and Chris Maas Geesteranus.

For years, the government has supported the principle that more sustainable education must be provided in Dutch schools. However, this is not yet happening in all types of education and we are still often in the phase of incidental projects and future scenarios. Joanne Kooiman, who has now graduated in public administration, conducted research on this subject for secondary education (vo) and intermediate vocational education (mbo): see The interpretation and approach to sustainability education.

What this research is about

The author notes that has certainly not yet been structurally integrated into education (especially vo). She puts forward several arguments for this. The most important is, according to her, in addition to the lack of an unambiguous vision of 'sustainable education', the lack of a structural and systematic approach to the embedding of sustainability education in education. Her main question therefore is: 'What future scenarios can be designed for the interpretation and approach to sustainability education in secondary education (vo) and intermediate vocational education (mbo) in the Netherlands?'

She explains this as follows: 'This research contributes to a possible interpretation and approach to "sustainability education" in secondary education (VO) and intermediate vocational education (MBO) by designing a number of future scenarios in collaboration with various actors. By applying 'design thinking', a renewed view on this interpretation and approach emerges. (2015) offers tools to develop this renewed outlook.'

Integrated approach desired

The central topic of this thesis, sustainability education, the author defines as ' learning about sustainability, nature and the environment '. And she defines this form of education as follows: ' Partly, this includes lessons on topics such as biodiversity, raw materials and food, but also on well-being, circular economy and corporate social responsibility. This broad approach enables students to make informed decisions around environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society resulting in global, national and local action in which people have a positive impact on the environment. The different topics should not be treated separately from each other but in an integrated approach so that students can make connections.'
In doing so, she outlines a perspective: 'In terms of function [of sustainability education - HT], it is about creating awareness among students, leading to a sustainable and resilient society. Sustainability education is key to human development, how you live, produce, and consume.'

Fulfillment and approach at impasse

Looking at the practice, the author notes that attention to sustainability in secondary education is very fragmented. As far as she is concerned, it could take a leaf out of the book of the mbo (secondary vocational education), where this topic is already being worked on very actively and where there are already many good examples of good practice. She draws her conclusion with caution: 'The interpretation and approach to sustainability education seems (sic) to be at an impasse.'
As causes she sees: 'On the one hand, the integration of sustainability education requires efforts from many sectors and actors, at different levels, making it a large field within which consensus must be sought. On the other hand, there are still many discussions about the concrete content and design of sustainability education.'

Here the author touches on one of the root causes of that impasse that education finds itself in when talking about sustainability education. Politicians are almost exclusively concerned with short-term solutions while this very subject calls for long-term solutions, both in terms of content and results as well as funding. Sustainability education will only make headway if you solve the teacher shortage structurally and if the competencies of teachers for teaching such an integral theme are developed accordingly. For example, via a such as during teacher training and through continuing education. Who knows whether the originally sympathetic and innovative project will improve this, at least on the educational side. But that too has now been put on hold, pending decision-making (in due course) by the new cabinet. And so: the one-time pumping around of 8.5 billion euros for educational improvements, as has now happened under the, in 2021 still caretaker, previous cabinet - only for two years and under the misleading title of 'National Education Program' - certainly does not solve the crisis in education.

Conclusions and Recommendations

For the author, this research reveals four "story lines": important tools for further structural embedding of sustainability education in education. These are, according to her, also a responsibility of school boards. Point by point, the storylines are:
There is a need to develop an education system in which young people, with enjoyment and motivation, think in a solution-oriented way about what they can contribute to a "sustainable world.
The various ministries can seek far greater cooperation and finally assume their responsibilities, with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science at the helm. The constitutional freedom and organization of education have nothing to do with this; however, the precision of core objectives and attainment levels, to which the national government has committed itself for many years, does.
Sustainability education is an issue for the whole of society and therefore does not belong, as usual, on the margins of spatial, legal, financial and social developments or policies, usually at the back of a text, filling a 'paragraph'.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer tools, substantive and ethical, to strengthen the interpretation of sustainable education.

What we can do with this research

This thesis is not a classical scientific research, in the sense of: observation, hypothesis, null hypothesis, fieldwork, testing. It is, as the author himself points out, 'design research'. With a rather open question (see p. 10 where it is only about the fact that 'in addition to a vision of "sustainable education" in educational institutions, ... a structural and systematic approach [is] needed'). Deepening of the question concerning the structural embedding of sustainability education in education will therefore only come about through input from the respondents inside and outside the education sector itself.

The author spoke with 33 respondents and organized a focus group with eight of them. For a thesis, this is quite a number. This allowed her to delve a little deeper into the preliminary research results. However, still these are indicative results, certainly not a quantitatively reliable one. But in this way the thesis does lay a good foundation for more systematic follow-up research.
Indicative or not, the importance of the four proposals (the storylines) is evident. Not least because they have been in play for many years (decades sometimes, due to OCW's reluctant policy effort) and are based on five pressing concerns:

1. Increased collaboration and coherence among stakeholders
2. Space for pilots, extracurricular learning, and hands-on learning.
3. Clear direction.
4. Agreement on terminology.
5. Long-term strategy

Next, she believes that these issues should be resolved while the embedding process is underway. She sees this scenario as a frame for building a plane while it is already in the air; in doing so, the plane symbolizes sustainability education. The question, by the way, is whether this is a convenient choice psychologically in these times of vigorous debate about the use of fossil fuels and, in this case, tax freedom around them; but this aside.

A general recommendation in the thesis is that more research is needed into what is already happening with sustainability education in education and why it is successful. In this respect, apart from individual schools that are not part of a broader organization, one can think of, for example, the Eco-Schools and the Geo Future Schools. The Eco-Schools website also contains information about a project that is closely related to the research recommendations of this thesis: For the mbo one can think of analyzing the many activities that are already taking shape at that level of education, see and

It is possible that there will be resistance to the cross-curricular nature that is fundamentally at issue in sustainability education. In Flanders, this has been mentioned, although it was about the hbo/wo, research undertaken. It is worth taking note of that.

Finally, this thesis provides ample food for thought and action for organizations working on embedding sustainability education in education. As for the members of the Learning for Tomorrow Cooperative themselves!

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