Developing Key Competencies for Sustainable Development Among STEM Teachers


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Science and technology are the crucial structural driving forces in all societal spheres. Sustainable development is the ethically founded response to a worldwide process in which not only research is carried out more and more on the basis of private and economic interests, but also the shaping of the profile of academically educated young people. (Altner/Michelsen, 2005). Existing paradigms, which are deeply rooted in our educational systems, are fomenting unsustainable development. For this reason, it is necessary to opt for a style of education that allows students to be aware of the need to live in a different way and be aware of our absolute dependency on our natural environment. This goal requires fundamental changes in the curriculum, as well as a broader vision of the role that STEM teachers must play.

To date, little attention has been given to the circumstances in which developing key competencies for sustainable development may take place. Within primary education, the possibilities both curricular and extracurricular learning and their relationship to competence development should be considered. According to the findings, some main aspects can be pointed out that may be crucial for competence development in primary education settings. One of the objectives of education in this new century must be to help achieve sustainable social and environmental human development. In this sense, primary education plays a very important role in the field of education for sustainable development and schools must take on this challenge with great determination. This work presents a model for formation that furthers the development of basic competencies for sustainability among teachers of science, which must be incorporated into the science curriculum of primary education.

The term ‘competence’ was originally used in the professional context in France in the 1970s to refer to what employees needed beyond qualifications to act effectively in a range of work situations. In the 1980s, competence-based approaches started to be developed in vocational education and training in various countries. Since then, the growing importance of competences has meant that competence-based learning has now also been extended to general school education.

Competences are expressed, understood and implemented within each education system in different ways according to national context, depending on educational philosophies, historical and political traditions, as well as outside influences. Countries have therefore developed their own national definitions and competence frameworks, including subject-based as well as transversal competences. In addition to this range of national frameworks, various international competence frameworks have been developed over the past 20 years. These include the European Union’s Recommendation on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, the UNESCO framework, the OECD DESECO framework, Partnerships 21 framework, and the ATC21S framework. All these frameworks share common points and have been developed in consultation with experts and stakeholders globally. The European Union Framework, developed by the European Commission in consultation with all member states, includes the following 8 Key Competences:

  • Communication in the mother tongue
  • Communication in foreign languages
  • Mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology
  • Digital competence
  • Learning to learn
  • Social and civic competences
  • Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Cultural awareness and expression

All 8 key competences are considered equally important, because each of them contributes to the personal fulfillment and development of all individuals. Many of the competences overlap and interlock, and they are all interdependent, with the following transversal skills playing an important role in each of them: critical thinking, creativity, initiative, problem solving, risk assessment, decision taking and the constructive management of feelings.

However, there is one particular competence which will be considered extremely important, and that is the ‘learning to learn’ competence, as it is the foundation of all learning. As with all the 8 key competences, the European framework firstly provides a definition of learning to learn and then identifies the knowledge, skills and attitudes associated to it.

Learning to learn is defined as the ability to pursue and persist in learning, to organise one’s own learning, including through effective management of time and information, both individually and in groups. This competence includes awareness of one’s learning process and needs, and the ability to overcome obstacles in order to learn successfully. Learning to learn engages learners to build on prior learning and life experiences in order to use and apply knowledge and skills at home, at work, in education and training.

In terms of the essential knowledge related to this competence, learning to learn requires an individual to know and understand his/her preferred learning strategies, and the strengths and weaknesses of his/her skills and qualifications.

In terms of the essential skills related to this competence, learning to learn firstly requires the acquisition of the fundamental basic skills such as literacy, numeracy and ICT skills that are necessary for further learning. Building on these skills, an individual should be able to access, gain, process and assimilate new knowledge and skills. This requires effective management of one’s learning, career and work patterns, and, in particular, the ability to persevere, concentrate for extended periods and to reflect critically on the purposes and aims of learning. Learning to learn skills include being able to learn autonomously and with self-discipline, as well as being able to work collaboratively and share what one has learnt. Learners should be able to organise their own learning, evaluate their own work, and seek advice, information and support when appropriate.

The essential attitudes related to this competence include the motivation and confidence to pursue and succeed at learning throughout one’s life. A problem-solving attitude supports both the learning process itself and an individual’s ability to handle obstacles and change. The desire to apply prior learning and life experiences and the curiosity to look for opportunities to learn and apply learning in a variety of life contexts are also essential. Whichever subject and age range the STEM teacher is teaching, these are the knowledge, skills and attitudes should be developing among students to ensure they can be competent lifelong learners.

Article written by: Natalija Aceska, Scientix Ambassador

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