Photo: Hans Christiansson/Mostphotos

Students should develop capability for action


In order for students to understand what is meant by sustainable development, they should be taught more clearly to convert their knowledge into practical action. This is the conclusion in a new thesis about teaching for sustainable development.

Porträtt på Marie Grice.
Marie Grice.
Photo: Carl-Magnus Höglund

There is a clear emphasis on teaching for sustainable development in both the Swedish curriculum and international education policy documents. This means that students should gain an understanding of how the environment, economics, health and justice fit together, and acquire the necessary tools to live sustainably and contribute towards a societal transition.

In practice, however, there are significant differences and shortcomings in how schools work. One challenge lies in the complexity of the field of knowledge. Teaching for sustainable development requires that teachers work interdisciplinary and students should develop factual knowledge, as well as capabilities and training to become democratic social citizens.

Marie Grice encountered this difficulty herself when she and her colleagues planned an interdisciplinary project at her own upper secondary school. This marked the start of her thesis project, which is based on surveys with students and teachers, and an analysis of the curriculum for civics, history, religion and geography in compulsory school.

Confidence in one’s own capability to act

It became clear when analysing the curriculum that there was no uniform, clear definition of teaching in sustainable development. Analytical abilities were consistently emphasised, but not active action.

“This is surprising, since action is central to teaching for sustainable development,” says Marie. “Students should develop not only the ability to reason and reflect critically on sustainability, but also the desire and the .”

“Teaching should offer opportunities for action, so that students participate in active actions within society under the teacher’s guidance, and acquire experience and confidence in their own capability to act.”

Motivating students

Marie worked as a teacher alongside her thesis project, and her students have carried out interviews and surveys for several years on how the inhabitants of her home town use green spaces. They have also presented the results, which the municipality has then used in its community planning. If done correctly, teaching that encourages action within the surrounding society brings great opportunities.

“It’s important that teachers are receptive to students’ wishes, that they allow them to create their own projects, and that they constantly provide guidance and engage in reasoning with them. Students are strongly motivated by practical elements where there is an actual recipient.”

The importance of adaptation

The student survey confirms the importance of varied teaching. It was sent to upper secondary students studying the theoretical programme who took part in interdisciplinary teaching in sustainable development on the theme of food. Responses were received from 208 students, and it was clear that those who had understood knowledge to be complex, changing and partly of a contradictory nature appreciated the teaching more than those students who perceived knowledge as constant and unchangeable.

“Certain students find it easier to orient themselves in a complex field of knowledge,” concludes Marie. “It’s important for teachers to understand this, and to devise teaching that manages to reach students on their own terms.”

Contact: Marie Grice, telephone: +46 070 278 1950, email:

Text: Carl-Magnus Höglund