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Knowledge and understanding of sustainability literacy for learners

Naomi Rainbow Naomi Rainbow Publisher at Extend Education

Sustainability literacy is a skill that has rightly been gaining attention in the last few years. The threat of displaced communities worldwide due to the rapidly changing climate has shown that more focus needs to be given to what we are doing to our planet, increasing public awareness in many areas such as what happens to our waste, the energy used to produce goods and services, and what we can do about it as individuals and communities. In 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nation’s Member States, which outlined the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to improve quality of life for people on the planet, while protecting the planet itself. In order to achieve these goals, strategies are being developed and implemented at every level of society. However, more needs to be done and ongoing solutions will need to be created by the professionals of tomorrow. For current learners to be able to create these solutions in the future, they’ll need to understand and appreciate what the problem is and why it is so important to consider. 

study on the environmental literary in vocational schools found that, on average, the knowledge and understanding of vocational learners was low, with Population being the topic they knew most about (compared to the other six topics of Energy, Pollutions and Contamination, Forest, Atmosphere/Climate, Water and Waste). However, it also showed that many learners had already taken some action in order to support reduced emissions, including: 

  1. Cycling or walking to reduce emissions from vehicles 
  1. Proper disposal of rubbish 
  1. Reducing energy used in lighting and cooling 
  1. Avoiding excessive water usage 
  1. Buying products that are easily recycled. 

This shows there is at least some awareness for learners. However, it was also found that there were many learners not doing points 3, 4 and 5, showing that further education and understanding is needed for these areas.  

What can be done to increase awareness and help further progress towards the UN SDGs? 

  • Learners can be encouraged to research how the UN SDGs relate to their chosen industry. For example, articles such as the Sustainability in Dentistry goals or how chefs can make eating out more sustainable could be embedded in course materials. This will allow learners to see that it is a topic being discussed by professionals in their fields and so directly impacts their future career. 
  • Online learning, such as NCFE Interactive Coursebooks, can reduce waste through a reduction in paper and allowing homeworking in order to cut down on the emissions caused by travel. Online courses allow for videos and links to websites to be included, which may make the topic of sustainable development easier to understand than articles or journals on the subject. For example, exposing learners to videos such as ‘We The People for The Global Goals’, which features a star-studded celebrity cast, can have more weight than featuring academics that learners may not have heard of.  
  • Inspiring learners to become advocates for the UN SDGs and giving them the power to affect change can be transformational. Courses such as IMPACT, which focus on sustainability and advocacy, can support learners in building their sustainability literacy skills. This can allow time for self-research and reflection, encouraging learners to investigate the area they find most interesting by choosing a problem related to the SDGs and solving it. 
  • Institutions can change their practices to become more sustainable centres. Learners can be encouraged to use reusable water flasks rather than single-use bottles and cups, recycling can be separated from waste, community events could be participated in, or guest speakers could be invited to visit. Learners could suggest their own ideas on how their institution can become more green. 

While sustainability literacy has been a growing topic of interest in the last 10 years, there is still a long way to go and there are many ways that knowledge and understanding can be improved for learners in vocational schools, who will go on to create the solutions for our future. 


Naomi Rainbow is a Publisher at Extend Education, an independent UK-based publisher who create resources that challenge and inspire students to become active, engaged and autonomous learners. Extend Educations resources include online courses for NCFE qualifications and on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as materials for international students. 

For current learners to be able to create these solutions in the future, they’ll need to understand and appreciate what the problem is and why it is so important to consider.

Naomi Rainbow, Publisher at Extend Education