New poll shows educators want to incorporate lessons in climate sustainability

Teachers in the U.S. are just as likely as their global peers to believe in the importance and value of teaching about sustainable development, but more likely than their global counterparts to report lacking the support, time and expertise needed to incorporate sustainable development into their classroom lessons.

As a result, teachers in the U.S. also say the topic is less likely to be included in their curriculum standards, according to a Gallup poll conducted in the spring of 2023 in collaboration with the Smithsonian Science Education Center.

A coinciding report highlights that, on average, teachers in India, Canada, France and Brazil are more than three times as likely as U.S. teachers to say they have the necessary support to incorporate sustainable development topics into other subjects — 60 percent compared to 17 percent respectively.

“The findings show that teachers believe educating for sustainable development is important, and they want the support, time and expertise to include it in their curriculum,” Carol O’Donnell, director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, said in a statement.

The Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Education Monique Chism concurred, noting that, “The success of preparing students for a more sustainable future is directly impacted by how we educate our youth today. This report provides valuable information about what teachers need and are asking for as it relates to educating for sustainable development.”

The Smithsonian Science Education Center worked with Gallup to explore 11 of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which provided a framework for shared common language across nations. Nearly 1,700 U.S. K–12 teachers and school administrators and 900 educators teaching comparable grade levels in Brazil, Canada, France and India were polled.

Other key findings:

  • Ninety percent of U.S. teachers say a lack of time poses a great deal or some challenge in incorporating sustainable development into their curriculum, and 76 percent say the same about a lack of instruction materials, while 74 percent say they lack expertise on the subject.
  • Just 17 percent of teachers agree there is sufficient support, compared to 36 percent of administrators.
  • Clean energy is a dedicated part of curriculum, according to 31 percent of U.S. teachers. Almost 80 percent of teachers in Brazil report the same.
  • The sustainable development topics least likely to be found in U.S. curricula include socio-scientific topics such as sustainable communities (26 percent), responsible consumption (31 percent), clean energy (31 percent), climate action (32 percent) and clean water and sanitation (32 percent).
  • Nearly half (49 percent) of U.S. teachers say these topics receive too little attention, on average, and 65 percent say sustainability does not fit within the topics they teach, including a majority (59 percent) of those who teach science.
  • Most teachers say teaching about sustainability can have a positive impact on the world (83 percent) and their local community (79 percent). They also report the potential for other benefits, such as making learning about science more accessible to students (73 percent), increasing students’ interest in STEM/STEAM topics (71 percent), increasing students’ interest in current events (73 percent) and supporting students’ personal resilience (67 percent).
  • In the U.S., teachers say direct experiences including field trips (57 percent) and hands-on materials (56 percent), as well as professional development on sustainability topics (69 percent), would be most helpful for teaching about sustainability.