Thinking about emotions and teaching about sustainability

In communicating about climate change specifically, and other sustainability challenges, there is often the debate around how to kickstart people into action. Paint the doom-and-gloom (i.e. realistic) picture so people will act out of fear (and I just recently wrote about how anger can be a constructive emotion leading to action), or draw more positive pictures so they feel hopeful and that they can make a difference, and therefore don’t get paralyzed?

Chapman et al. (2017) call for a more nuanced approach to emotions caused by climate change communication. In addition to the direct effect an emotion might have, it also gets attached to memories of situations and information, and will come up again whenever that memory is accessed, and influence how it is connected to new information. As a part of a feedback system, they might therefore develop impact over time in unexpected ways, especially since they are also moderated by people’s beliefs and world-views. Chapman et al. (2017) therefore call for “authentic, honest communication strategies that meet intended audiences where they are rather than attempting to socially engineer emotional appeals” (with the latter one being, as they say, both theoretically and ethically problematic). It’s not as easy as one might have hoped…

Ok, so now that we know we shouldn’t just provoke emotions (not that that seemed like an especially good idea before), we still need to deal with emotions that come up. Dunlop & Rushton (2022) investigate which emotions students, teachers, and teacher educators report when talking about climate change:

  • fear of judgement and isolation if they stuck out their head too much for a cause they believed in, but that others might not perceive equally as important or worthwhile. This might be mitigated by creating supportive communities
  • fear of powerlessness can relate to being just a small part in a larger system, or not feeling enough expertise to take action, and lead to apathy. Teachers can help students see how they can actually make a difference even by taking small actions.
  • guilt, and feelings of pressure, can arise when people feel that they individually are being blamed or held responsible for a systemic failure, and that others are not picking up their part of the shared responsibility, yet they have to stay “nice” to not hurt their cause.
  • anxiety is felt by students in the face of the challenges that they will have to deal with in their lives, and by the teachers concerning what burden they are putting on their students, and that they are not trained to help their students get through
  • hope is not so much something respondents feel, but that they hope for and think would empower them
  • anger was not mentioned: possibly because it was implicitly assumed that everybody felt it anyway, or that other emotions were more prominent

Emotions depend on the appraisal of situations, which in turn depends both on the anticipated relevance of a situation and the power someone feels to influence the outcome. The appraisal, and thus the emotions, can thus according to Dunlop & Rushton (2022) be changed either by changing the perceived importance of the situation, or the self-efficacy to change it.

Pedagogies that help do just that, “emotionally responsive pedagogies”, are mostly just good teaching practice: They are caring (making sure that there is an open and honest dialogue possible even when there is disagreement or conflict of interest, and that the students can connect their education with their life and the world), they use what is learned for action, and they are authentic learning experiences, co-created and applied.

But what becomes clear is that when teachers have to respond to emotions on such a scale, they must also be role models and do more than “just teaching”. One model for the competencies for Education for Sustainable Development teachers is presented by Sleurs (2008). They present the professional dimensions — the teacher not just as a teacher in school, but also as an individual and as a member in society. They also present five domains of competencies (knowledge, systems thinking, emotions, ethics and values, and action) and three overarching professional competencies that teachers need: teaching, reflecting/visioning, and networking. Another model was published by UNECE (2012). This model distinguishes between what the teachers need to learn to know, to do, to be, and to live together; and each of those for the subcategories of holistic approach, envisioning change, and achieve transformation. I think there is a copy&paste error in the graphic and we are thus missing how to do transformation, but as with many other competency models, I find them most useful as a tool for reflection, not so much to structure instruction, so maybe it’s good to try and come up with what we would write there ourselves. But coming back to teachers being role models, I find especially the “learning to be” branch quite interesting.

What does all of this mean for academic developers supporting teachers’ development? I have to keep reading and thinking…….

One thread worth pursuing is to support development of professional identity, for example through reflective interviews: Rushton (2021) finds that the semi-structured interviews done in her research, conducted on teacher students three times during a year, helps them reportedly find their way and continue their training, because it gave them the space to reflect on their values and recommends to incorporate them in regular training: “Such an opportunity could provide a space for teachers to articulate sources of tension, conflict and frustration as they seek to enact their nascent identities and to share their joy, excitement and belief in the value of both ESE and education writ large.”

One thing Rushton (2021) mentions in passing highlighted for me again the importance of the “transfer problem”: bringing practices from a supportive community in which training occurs back into the “home” community that has not gone through the training is not straightforward. And even when we have figured out how to train teachers, we still need to support them, or help them set up support systems, for transferring new ideas into practice. In our courses, we do that by training teachers in groups that share a social context in the hopes that they will continue having supportive conversations “back home”. But more on that on another day…

Chapman, D. A., Lickel, B., & Markowitz, E. M. (2017). Reassessing emotion in climate change communication. Nature Climate Change, 7(12), 850-852.

Dunlop, L., & Rushton, E. A. (2022). Education for Environmental Sustainability and the Emotions: Implications for Educational Practice. Sustainability, 14(8), 4441.

Rushton, E. A. (2021). Building Teacher Identity in Environmental and Sustainability Education: the perspectives of preservice secondary school Geography teachers. Sustainability, 13(9), 5321.

Sleurs, W. (Ed.). (2008). Competencies for ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) teachers: A framework to integrate ESD in the curriculum of teacher training institutes. csct-project.

UNECE (2012), Learning for the Future: Competences in Education for Sustainable Development, UNECE, Geneva, available at: (accessed 20.1.2023)

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