A new framework assesses professional development for sustainability education

Carlos Casanova, assistant professor MLFTC
November 29, 2023

Professional development opportunities can equip educators with the skills and approaches needed to teach global sustainability issues. However, most professional development assessment programs have not been designed with a sustainability education focus.

Carlos Casanova, an assistant professor of education at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is the lead author of a paper that outlines a new framework that can be improve evaluation of such programs. The sociorelational evaluation framework is detailed in a published paper: Exploring the role of intentions and expectations in continuing professional development in sustainability education, in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education. 

The paper’s co-authors are Jordan A. King, a PhD student with ASU’s School of Sustainability and the Julie Ann Wrigley College of Global Futures and Daniel Fischer, a senior global futures scientist at the Global Futures Laboratory and associate professor at Wageningen University and Research.

“The framework helps provide greater clarity for designing professional development learning initiatives in relation to subjects that have cultural, environmental and community relevancy,” said Casanova, who received MLFTC’s Excellence in Community Engagement award this year. “Among our findings were a need to regularly gather feedback from participants, find synergies between participant and instructor goals, and track long-term outcomes.”


Sustainability education 

Sustainability education is defined, in broad terms, as an approach that provides learners a holistic understanding of the interconnections between environmental, social and economic  interests. It aims to enable learners to develop competencies that empower them to create change toward sustainable futures.

Professional development programs in sustainability education often position teachers as both educators and potential sustainability leaders within their schools and communities. The SEF framework takes these perspectives into consideration by integrating two theoretical approaches: program theory and expectancy-value theory.

In general, strategies used to evaluate professional development programs have focused on evaluation at three levels individual, social and programmatic by considering each of these areas distinctly. 

“This kind of an approach isn’t always applicable to programs and topics that have wider societal implications, such as issues of sustainability that require a more comprehensive perspective,” Casanova said.

Testing the SEF framework 

The key advantages in using the SEF to evaluate professional development programs, compared to other methods, is that it can help explore how intentions and expectations inform the design and experience of such programs. This approach can, in turn, lead to more accurate program outcome assessments. 

To test the framework, it was applied toward the Rob and Melani Walton National Sustainability Teachers’ Academy , housed in ASU’s School of Sustainability. The NSTA is an intensive professional development program that has trained over 1,200 K–12 teachers from 40 states since 2015.  

The researchers examined the five-day workshop during which K–12 teachers learned about sustainability issues and developed projects to implement at their schools. Workshop activities provided real-world examples linking sustainability to equity and justice. Teachers gained skills to incorporate sustainability into curricula and student projects.

Research findings

Using the framework, the researchers were able to identify divergent expectations around collaboration and knowledge co-construction, said Casanova: “For example, we found that participants were interested in building a network of peers for ongoing collaboration while instructors' primary objective was to develop participants' competencies.”

The framework can help program organizers adapt their content and approaches to ensure that program intent matches expectations. Based on the initial research, the authors outlined some possible approaches for sustainability education program leaders, which include:

  • Survey expectations upfront and revisit them during the program. 
  • Co-design activities with participants.
  • Look for ways to better integrate collaboration and knowledge sharing.
  • Trace long-term outcomes back to intentions.

“As sustainability education becomes more prevalent, this framework allows for professional development teams to identify ways to better prepare educators to convey and share knowledge on this topic,” said Casanova. “We welcome opportunities to continue testing the framework in conjunction with organizations and groups that are interested in strengthening their sustainability focus and outreach.”

Learn more about MLFTC's sustainability education initiatives and projects from Iveta Silova, associate dean of global engagement and professor, in this Q&A story.