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Educators face a daunting task—preparing the next generation with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to work toward a more sustainable way of life. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of seventeen global goals set by the United Nations (UN), are a call to action for people around the world to collaborate on solutions for increasingly complex problems (United Nations General Assembly, 2015). These goals provide a solid framework for relevant and engaging problems that can be addressed in schools today. For example, Goal 2 is to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. Many schools have farm to table programs and schoolyard gardens that work toward this goal. The UN has long made clear that educators are a pivotal group needed if we have any hope of meeting the SDGs (UNCED, 1992). Goal 4, Quality Education, which deals with ensuring an inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning, is one that every teacher cares about deeply and works hard to achieve. These goals provide challenges and opportunities for teachers as they design curricula and educate the next generation.

It can be difficult for busy teachers to see how sustainability topics are related to one another as well as to identify ways to integrate sustainability into existing curriculum. Our team of educators at Arizona State University works to develop sustainability literacy in future teachers, so that they have the knowledge, dispositions, values, and sense of agency they need to spark change in society through education (Nolet, 2016). As part of this work, we developed the Sustainability Education Framework for Teachers. This framework includes four ways of thinking that aim to help teachers prepare students to be the change agents necessary for our society to be able to meet the SDGs. These ways of thinking can help students of all ages engage, explore, and unpack any sustainability topic, idea, solution, or challenge.

Sustainability Education Framework for Teachers

Four ways of thinking––futures, values, systems, and strategic—act as a road map for engaging with sustainability topics and foster meaningful inquiry and exploration across all subjects. They were developed after reviewing existing literature and engaging in extensive conversations with sustainability scientists and educators (Bertschy et al., 2013; Nolet, 2009; Stibbe & Luna, 2009; Tilbury, 2011; Wiek et al., 2011). These four ways of thinking played a key role in establishing benchmarks for Education for a Sustainable Future: Benchmarks for Individual and Social Learning, spearheaded by the Cloud Institute (Cloud, 2017b). This framework provides tangible examples of how to promote critical thinking in classrooms. The strength of the framework is that it gets students thinking about other people, places, times, and spaces as they reflect on how their actions impact others in their community and around the world. Through its implementation, teachers can take action to make progress toward the SDGs as well as build their own sustainability literacy (Foley, Archambault, & Warren, 2017), and in turn, that of their students. While each of these four ways of thinking is presented separately, they are interconnected and can be used in a variety of ways. Each one is briefly described below. For a more indepth discussion, please see the article, Sustainability Education Framework for Teachers: Developing sustainability literacy through futures, values, systems, and strategic thinking (Warren, Archambault, & Foley, 2015).

Futures Thinking

Futures Thinking asks the question, “where are we going?” Also known as anticipatory thinking, Futures Thinking asks us to imagine various future scenarios based on decisions made in the past, choices we make today, and anticipated actions in the future (Wiek et al., 2011; Our Common Future, 1987). It requires students to think systematically about the future, considering future generations. How can we teach the next generation to consider a range of possible futures? Consider an example related to river ecosystems. Students might look at photos of a nearby river in the past, go on a field trip and write and draw about its current state, and then draw or describe how the river will look in the future if development and population trends continue. Class discussions can focus on thorny questions such as: How can we manage development and waste disposal along the river to keep the ecosystem healthy for all the species (including humans) who live there? After the field trip and discussion, students can make new drawings of how they want the river to look in 100 years. This exercise gets students imagining different futures. They can then use strategic thinking (described below) to develop a plan for the future river they want to see. Our students need to consider the range of possible futures so that we can help others to picture and create a sustainable tomorrow. This allows them to anticipate the potential consequences of human activity on the Earth, both positive and negative, and take action to reach a sustainable future. We often ask students to imagine future job or career scenarios. How often do we ask them to consider future visions for our cities or our planet?

Values Thinking

Values Thinking incorporates concepts of justice, equity, and ethics, and gets students to recognize and respect values that are different from their own (Holifield, Porter, & Walker, 2010). Everyone has a set of values that guides their choices and actions—and those values are constantly being challenged by others in the midst of discussions about our society. Values Thinking guides us to reflect on our own values, recognize ways that our individual and collective values shape decisions and actions, and consider how these choices lead to or detract from meeting the SDGs. We have found that our preservice teachers enjoy discussing food choices as they learn about and practice Values Thinking. Some describe why they became vegetarian and share evidence to back their claims that vegetarian diets reduce their carbon footprint. Others acknowledge the evidence and share that they never considered the impact of their food choices on climate change. A couple notice that a lot of meat is wasted by serving large portions at the restaurants where they work and wonder how this problem could be addressed. Through discussion, these future teachers share that they would like to explore non-meat protein options to reduce their meat consumption without becoming vegetarians. Others indicate that they would likely not change their eating habits but would consider other ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Topics such as food production and waste, energy sources (e.g., solar vs. natural gas), and water use are interdisciplinary topics where Values Thinking can enhance discourse and promote deeper learning. The ultimate goal of Values Thinking is to be able to understand and appreciate different perspectives and to expand everyone’s thinking on a topic through respectful discourse.

Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking, also referred to as interconnected thinking or holistic thinking, works to answer the question, “where are we currently?” Systems and system models are one of the crosscutting concepts emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (National Research Council, 2012). In primary grades, Systems Thinking begins with understanding that objects and organisms can be described in terms of their parts, and the systems in the natural and designed world have parts that work together. In third- through fifth-grades, students begin to describe systems in terms of their components and interactions. By middle school, students can begin to recognize that systems interact with other systems, and model energy, matter, and information flows within or between systems. The learning progress for these crosscutting concepts also suggests that high school students investigate, analyze, and model more complex systems, and begin to recognize the many factors that influence system dynamics (NGSS, 2013). Meeting the SDGs will require problem solvers who can analyze complex systems across different domains (society, environment, and economy), temporal scales (past, present, future), and geographic locations. Use of Systems Thinking requires an understanding of cascading effects, inertia, and feedback loops. This means that we need to examine how decisions impacting one component could have consequences for other parts or the entire system. Teachers can foster Systems Thinking by helping students explore how things change under different circumstances, so they can seek possible solutions based on awareness of interconnected relationships and anticipate how systems often directly impact one another. Topics such as electricity and water are natural places to use Systems Thinking. For example, our pre-service teachers enjoy using multiple modalities (threedimensional models with Play-doh, drawings, skits, and poems) to represent the relationships between our human managed water system and the water cycle. Science and social studies teachers can review current events to explore case studies of these systems in the real world. One familiar example to consider is the challenges faced by citizens and utility companies in Flint, Michigan as they work to meet SDG Goal 6 in their community, ensuring clean water for all.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinking involves being able to develop a strategy or a plan to achieve a particular vision. It is the most action-oriented component of the framework because it involves students in developing an action plan. Strategic Thinking works to answer the question, “how do we get there?” Good Strategic Thinking frames every decision by how it contributes to achieving that vision explored or unpacked by the other ways of thinking. Strategic Thinking is the ability to collectively design programs, plans, and policies that move us toward meeting agreed upon goals. These goals can be local, within a school or classroom, or global, such as the SDGs. The status quo can sometimes get in the way of Strategic Thinking because it often requires less time and money to stay on the current path than to design a more sustainable plan for the future. In this way, our current state sets a path for the future without a systemic shift. Teachers should look for opportunities for students to challenge the status quo and consider ways to strategize and redesign existing policies and systems. Strategic Thinking is synergistic with problem-based learning and service-learning pedagogies. Students can design, test, evaluate, and adapt different plans to effect positive changes on specific sustainability challenges. For example, in the river ecosystem futures task described above, students can come up with a plan to improve the water quality in the local river. They can debate and discuss various strategies based on costs, consider possible plans with their goals in mind, and then decide as a group which plan to implement. By exploring this problem, students will need to consider impacts of development on water quality, and whether continued development along the river will lead them to the future they want for humans and other species. Students learn more when they grapple with messy challenges that do not have prescribed solutions.

Making Sustainability Education Happen

The Sustainability Education Framework for Teachers serves as the basis for preparing pre-service and in-service teachers at Arizona State University. We developed a required course in 2012 called Sustainability Science for Teachers as part of a redesign of our teacher education program. The aim of this course is to build sustainability literacy among future teachers through an exploration of global and local sustainability topics. Our students learn from sustainability scientists about how to critically evaluate human-environment interactions and generate sustainable solutions. Students learn critical thinking skills that will foster better engagement with the world around them, using the lens of sustainability motivated by the SDGs. The course represents an effort to produce globally minded and sustainability literate teachers who can integrate related concepts and new ways of thinking into their teaching. Using the four ways of thinking, we aim to help future teachers recognize that issues, people, and places are interconnected; think critically and make informed decisions; and understand how complex systems operate (Church & Skelton, 2009).

How feasible is it for teachers to integrate sustainability education and our framework into their classrooms? We followed up with our alumni to learn about their work in classrooms and 65 early career teachers responded (Merritt, Archambault, & Hale, 2018). We asked them to tell us about challenges they faced and supports that were helpful in their work to promote sustainability literacy. In the survey, they could select more than one barrier that they encountered. The chief barrier reported by a majority of teachers (75%) was a lack of time in their teaching schedule. This was followed by their perceived lack of alignment of sustainability with the curriculum at their grade level (58%) and a focus on other initiatives at the school level (48%). In addition, 23 former students (39%) reported a lack of planning time as a barrier to education for sustainability.

These barriers fell in line with those reported from previous studies. For example, Evans, Whitehouse, and Gooch (2012) found that barriers fell into three major categories: 1) grassroots barriers that could affect teachers’ daily activities including lack of time, a crowded curriculum with too much to cover, or worries about teaching controversial topics; 2) administrative barriers, such as program funding or a schoolwide curriculum focused more on math and language arts; and 3) conceptual barriers, such as a lack of awareness of sustainability concepts or conflicts between sustainability education theory and practice.

We highlight these barriers so that educators can be strategic in implementing solutions. Some specific supports made it easier for early career teachers to integrate sustainability education into their instruction. Our alumni (49%) reported that schoolwide initiatives such as a schoolyard garden project or a recycling initiative were helpful entry points to teaching sustainability topics. They also indicated that curricular resources (31%), colleagues with similar interests (29%), instructional materials for students (29%), and supportive administrators (25%) were important elements that provided additional support.

What is clear from our work is that teacher education and professional development have a critical role in overcoming identified barriers. We must provide scaffolds that make integrating sustainability literacy attainable. We can increase sustainability literacy among future and current teachers by providing interdisciplinary content knowledge coupled with new ways of thinking about the world. As Nolet (2013) observed, “Teacher education institutions can play a critical role in the work of reorienting education systems at all levels to address sustainability” (p. 53). Our collective role as stakeholders, be it faculty within higher education, those who work with educators to provide professional development, administrators, or fellow teachers, is to provide supports that help teachers overcome potential barriers. Below, we describe ways to support teachers in building sustainability literacy.

What School Administrators Can Do to Build Sustainability Literacy in Schools

Administrators play a key role in supporting sustainability initiatives in schools (Evans et al., 2012; Kadji-Beltran, Zachariou, & Stevenson, 2013; Smith & Stevenson, 2017). This can take many forms, but first and foremost is the cultivation of a school culture that supports and encourages sustainability education. It might include championing schoolwide garden projects, leading green schools initiatives, organizing a school recycling program, or allocating resources for teachers to purchase updated books about sustainability concepts. The importance of administrators in supporting such initiatives and helping them succeed is well documented (Cloud, 2017a; Kensler & Uline, 2017; Willis & Broda, 2017). The vision of administrators is critical. As Cloud noted, “It is the impact of the vision we put forth that matters, not the vision itself. If the things we do and do not do are intentionally carried out in the service of our desired future, then our vision for that future can help us make strategic choices” (p. 29). School administrators can make sustainability literacy a priority by setting a vision that emphasizes the importance of teaching for sustainability and recognizes the pivotal role of education in meeting the SDGs.

What Teachers Can Do to Build Sustainability Literacy in Classrooms

In addition to using the four ways of thinking paired with content area topics to infuse sustainability into the curriculum, teachers can play an important role in modeling sustainable behaviors. Teachers’ words and actions, along with what they teach, can influence students’ behaviors (Regan & Berkeley, 2011). Higgs and McMillan (2006) described how high school educators modeled sustainable behaviors for students in a number of ways, such as carpooling, biking or walking to school, picking up litter, or turning off lights when leaving a room. It is important to be explicit about what you are doing and why, so that students can make connections from the actions to their positive impacts. Through these actions, students can see words and actions connect in tangible ways.

Beyond modeling, there are other ways that teachers can incorporate sustainability literacy in their classrooms. One such approach is the integration of digital storytelling. Studies have shown that the use of multimedia strongly influenced students’ environmental attitudes, concerns, and behaviors (Keinonen et al., 2016). Relatable videos can convey complex topics in a compelling and easy to understand format, while promoting retention through the use of story and the integration of engaging visuals, graphics, narrative, images, and sound. They allow students to experience the impact of sustainability issues beyond what might be possible in their everyday lives. Teachers can design lessons that make use of videos along with student reflections and discussions that integrate the different ways of thinking to promote meaningful learning. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization provides lesson plans and resources for teaching about the SDGs through the World’s Largest Lesson website. Here, you can find videos, comic books, lesson plans, and classroom posters of the SDGs, among many other resources.

Several other research-based practices are useful for applying the four ways of thinking and introducing students to the SDGs. These include the use of place-based education, outdoor inquiry-based learning, and service-learning approaches that integrate sustainability literacy with the green schools movement and authentic, real-world investigations (Endreny, 2010; Merritt, 2017; Merritt, Rates, Greiner, Baroody, & Rimm-Kaufman, 2017; Willis & Broda, 2017). These approaches can help students appreciate the environment around them and the need for stewardship so that future generations can enjoy the same benefits (Merritt et al., 2017). They offer natural entry points for incorporating the four ways of thinking, which might include discussing futures visioning for a particular space, values such as the preservation or conservation of an area, how the environment is impacted by economic and social systems, and ways to enact a specific vision.

Closing Words

Administrators and teachers have the power to prepare and encourage young citizens who are ready to tackle the sustainability challenges that our world is experiencing. Introducing the SDGs to students can help them see themselves as global citizens who are working with people around the world toward common goals. As teachers look for relevant and engaging curricula and pedagogies for students, they should keep the SDGs and four ways of thinking in mind. Teachers might consider picking out an SDG focus that they and their students could work toward over the course of the year, using the four ways of thinking to make tangible steps toward that goal. All changes, big or small, must take into account the local context, since meaningful change starts close to home. Coastal communities might choose SDG 14, Life Below the Sea, as a central theme, while large urban schools may want to focus on SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities. Any small contribution toward these goals can help students develop a sense of agency, which is a key element of sustainability literacy (Nolet, 2016). The future of our planet and democratic society depends on our efforts as educators to build sustainability literacy among the next generation.