Transforming education needs to start with transforming teacher education

05.10.2022 A think piece by Daniel Fischer.

Between October 5 and 7, 2022, UNESCO celebrates World Teachers’ Day under the theme ”The transformation of education begins with teachers”. This year’s celebration highlights four critical challenges that teacher education is facing on a global scale: (1) lack of qualified teachers, (2) lack of access to continuing professional development for in-service staff, (3) poor working conditions, and (4) leadership and innovation potential of teachers remains underutilized. Those four priority areas draw attention to important cornerstones of education systems at risk and require urgent action.

However, positioning education as a major leverage point for a sustainable future that rests in the hands of teachers as primary change-agents, raises fundamental questions: about the responsibilities, rationales, and roles that should guide teachers on their mission in reorienting education systems and advancing sustainability transformations. In this think piece, I argue that tackling the critical challenges addressed in this World Teachers’ Day, and calling on teachers’ contributions to the transformation of education more generally, requires continued critical reflection on those fundamental issues. More specifically, it requires changes in our mindsets of how we view teachers and educators. In what follows, I will summarize these shifts in mindsets in three critical reflections[1].

Shifting responsibilities: Teaching and learning is nested in systems that require structural change

What responsibility does education have to promote social change? This question has been intensively discussed and is constantly revisited in debates about Education for Sustainable Development. The criticism of “responsibilizing” individuals has also sparked heated debates in the broader field of sustainability transformations, where critics dismiss the idea of (overly) burdening individuals (e.g., consumers) by placing the responsibility for sustainable development primarily on their shoulders and advocate for stronger roles of the political and corporate sector, specifically.

Along those lines, the theme of this year’s World Teachers’ Day could be read by some as an attempt to responsibilize teachers. The challenges outlined (see above) make it clear though that individual teachers have only limited influence on broader challenges like teacher shortage, poor working conditions, and workplace constraints that impede the kind of transformative change in educational practice from happening that is called for and needed. To empower teachers to live up to their aspired role as “primary change-agent”, it is seminal to create support structures and enabling conditions, and maybe even more importantly, to disrupt and rehaul structures that impede change. In our review of existing research, we found only a few studies that focused on how enabling structures on multiple levels can be created. Improving our understanding, and actively experimenting with changing structures that shape teaching and learning in classrooms and beyond, is a priority task for researchers, policy-makers, and everyone involved in designing education systems.

Transforming education with teachers always also requires transforming education for teachers.

Shifting rationales: Moving beyond individual capacity-building to spark collective action

It has been a common denominator in debates about Education for Sustainable Development that it will not be sufficient to just introduce sustainable development as a new curriculum topic. As scholars like Stephen Sterling (2001) put it, what we need is not more of the same education, but a fundamentally different one. Indeed, new sets of knowledge and skills have been proposed to inform and promote a different kind of education. However, the preoccupation with building individual capacity (as also visible in SDG 4.7’s focus on knowledge and skills) has been challenged for its neglect of collective dimensions and more critical forms of social learning. If sustainable development is understood as more comprehensive than just another topic, it will not be enough to press it into existing formats of curriculum delivery and assessment. Education for Sustainable Development, built into the core of a fundamentally different education needed, will require alternative forms of learning (and teaching) like place-based, solution-focused, real-world learning experiences (Hopkins et. al, 2020) that empower learners to confront and disrupt power structures that impede sustainable development - a quality of learning that UNESCO Chair Arjen Wals (2022) has labeled “transgressive learning”. The advancement of such different learning will also require new alliances to work towards collective action. One good example is the Ethiopian Network for Teacher Education for Sustainable Development which has established a long-standing collaboration between state-run colleges of teacher education and theological seminaries (Amado et al., 2017).

Transforming education with teachers means empowering teachers to disrupt change-resistant education.

Shifting roles: Educators are (co-)designers of sustainability transformations, not implementation agents

This year’s World Teachers’ Day stresses how important it is to better harness the innovation and leadership potential that teachers and educators around the world hold. But what should it be harnessed for, and how can we harness it? Commonly, references to education are made when it comes to implementing specific sustainable development goals. Education is called upon to contribute to combating runaway climate change, unsustainable consumption and production patterns, and several other pressing sustainability challenges. Without a doubt, there is a lot to gain from better-utilizing teachers’ experiences and capabilities to leverage the implementation of the SDGs. However, there is a lot more to utilize than education’s role as an implementation agent. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy once said: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country! Along the same lines, education should not just be asked to contribute to tackling priorities on the international sustainability agenda. Beyond its instrumental qualities (qualifying workforce, socializing learners), education is a transformative process of subjectification and part of our lifelong journey of becoming. With this emphasis, educators should take a seat at the table and raise their voices when sustainable development priorities are determined to safeguard that sustainable futures provide human beings with the conditions, spaces, and resources to pursue their lifelong education trajectories. Teachers will have a lot to contribute to such two-way street discussions.

Transforming education with teachers to make sustainability transformations educational.

On the occasion of World Teachers’ Day 2022, I want to close by extending my respect and gratitude to all teachers in the world for their service.

This think piece is authored by Daniel Fischer Associate Professor for Consumer Communication and Sustainability at the Strategic Communication Group (COM) at Wageningen University and Research. He has previously served as Assistant Professor at Arizona State University (USA) and Leuphana University Lüneburg (Germany)

The Institute for Sustainable Development and Learning at Leuphana University is home to UNESCO Chair in Higher Education for Sustainable Development held by university since 2005. The newly established UNESCO UNITWIN Network on Education for Sustainable Development and Social Transformation which aims to work with pre-service and in-service teachers on sustainability learning. Heidelberg University of Education, University of Crete,  Rhodes University, Earth Charter Center for Education for Sustainable Development and York University are founding members of the network. For more details, write to


[1] My reflections are based on a recent systematic review of research on Teacher Education for Sustainable Development (Fischer et al., 2022), contributions to UNESCO’s Futures of Education report by a group of UNESCO Chairs (Hopkins et al., 2020), and a case example of a successful network that brings stakeholders together in a collective effort to build the capacity of future teachers to address the socio-ecological challenges of our times (Amado et al., 2017).


Further reading:

Amado, A., Dalelo, A., Adomßent, M., & Fischer, D. (2017). Engaging Teacher Educators with the Sustainability Agenda: A Case Study of a Pilot Professional Development Program from Ethiopia. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(5), 715–737.

Fischer, D., King, J., Rieckmann, M., Barth, M., Büssing, A., Hemmer, I., & Lindau-Bank, D. (2022). Teacher Education for Sustainable Development: A Review of an Emerging Research Field. Journal of Teacher Education, 73(5), 509–524.

Hopkins, C., Michelsen, G., Salīte, I., Siegmund, A., Wagner, D. A., Yokoi, A., Fischer, D., Kohl, K., Abdul Razak, D., & Tilleczek, K. (2020). Sustainability as a purpose on the new path of learning for the future. In Humanistic Futures of Learning: Perspectives from UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks (pp. 58–62). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change. Green Books

Wals, A. E. J. (2022). Transgressive learning, resistance pedagogy and disruptive capacity building as levers for sustainability. In New Visions for Higher Education towards 2030: Higher Education in the World Report 8 Special Issue (pp. 217–222). Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI).