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Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 Agenda—Survey on Awareness, Knowledge and Attitudes of Italian Teachers of Public Mandatory Schools, 2021

Department of Medicine, University of Udine, 33100 Udine, Italy
Clinical Risk, Quality and Accreditation Unit, Friuli Centrale Healthcare University Trust, 33100 Udine, Italy
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(12), 7469;
Submission received: 28 April 2022 / Revised: 14 June 2022 / Accepted: 16 June 2022 / Published: 18 June 2022


Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) goes hand in hand with realising a more sustainable future, taking into account environmental, economic and social dimensions. Education can accelerate these goals, with teachers playing a central role. In 2021, a study was conducted among teachers in Italian mandatory schools to investigate knowledge, sources of information and attitudes towards the SDGs. An online survey was conducted, based on a Likert-scale with 62 items. The questionnaire was completed by 417 teachers. The overall knowledge score shows a median of 42.9%, an interquartile range of 25% and a range of 1.8–91.1%. A very good level of knowledge among teachers is limited to some topics, such as the Greenhouse effect (19.6%) and Resilience (13%), which may be better known due to wider media coverage. Sustainability issues are not yet considered as a shared responsibility, as teaching in designated hours was often suggested. The commitment of Italian teachers and schools to a stronger integration of sustainability issues into didactic programmes still needs to be improved. A change of perspective is urgently needed, whereby sustainability education should be seen as a collective responsibility.

1. Introduction

1.1. Background

Achieving a good level of education in the population represents a long-term investment in the removal of many obstacles that have so far slowed down the path to a more sustainable way of life and development [1], and ultimately contributes to the progress of sustainable development and to the realisation of the global programmes and international commitments adopted to achieve it. The document “Our Common Future”, also known as the Brundtland Report (1987) [2], defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This would lead to the creation and maintenance of peaceful, prosperous, equitable, and sustainable societies in which everyone has the means to improve their lives, solve problems, and contribute to the well-being of all without leaving anyone behind [3]. The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent the crucial but ambitious global development programme whose goal is to achieve people and planet health while ensuring prosperity and peace through a shared partnership approach among all members of society [4]. These 17 global goals with their 169 targets were introduced as a replacement for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were partially successful but had several shortcomings that compromised their intended aims. In contrast to the MDGs, the SDGs presented themselves as more focused, detailed, equally binding and clearly measurable goals that retain the lessons of the MDGs while correcting their weakest elements [5]. Achieving the SDGs goes hand in hand with guaranteeing the satisfaction of all social needs such as quality education, social protection, effective health services and decent employment opportunities, with the ultimate goal of not to let anyone behind [4]. Achieving this goals would in turn help ensure peace, prosperity and partnership for people and the planet as a whole. In order to achieve the SDGs, every member of civil society is expected not only to be aware of the existence of the SDGs, but also to recognise their importance and practically implement these goals in their personal lifestyle and professional context.
In particular, achieving the specific SDG No.4 on inclusive, equitable and quality education, is considered a cornerstone of this global strategy [6], and is inextricably linked to the achievement of all the other goals aimed at good health, jobs and economic growth, responsible consumption and production, and combating the climate change, among others [7,8,9,10,11,12]. Indeed, education can accelerate the achievement of all SDGs and is a life-changing tool for individuals, communities and societies. This requires the engagement of governments, public and private organisations, academic, scientific and educational institutions at different levels and in different sectors [13]. This commitment must be translated into global partnerships for the achievement of the SDGs, in which the implementation of the 2030 Agenda is reflected in cross-sectoral cooperation and the involvement of society at all levels, with explicit mention of a required joint approach to education, health and gender equity [14]. The recognition of education as an irreplaceable cornerstone for creating greater opportunities and better conditions for a sustainable future has been confirmed by the establishment of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its promotion and guidance in recent years. This Decade dedicated to sustainability followed the United Nations General Assembly Resolution No.57/254 of 2020 [15], which in turn was adopted after the identification of education as an essential element for the achievement of sustainable development through the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation [16]. In order to orient Italian education at all levels toward the achievement of the SDGs, in 2017 the Italian government adopted the National Strategy for Sustainable Development, in which education is identified as a key dimension [17]. This decision confirms once again that also in our country the culture of sustainability must be promoted at all levels and in all educational sectors, with the aim of lifelong learning, in order to allow a wide and integrated dissemination of knowledge, skills, lifestyles and virtuous models for sustainable production and consumption.
On the one hand, integrating sustainability into different aspects of school, both in the pedagogical and academic contexts, leading people in this system sustainable lifestyles, can be called sustainable education [18]. On the other hand, if we consider the commitment of all levels of education to activate initiatives and introduce didactic approaches that promote the values of sustainable development, it is more appropriate to apply the concept of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) [19]. More specifically, ESD is a process that can generate changes in knowledge, skills and behaviours, to promote the creation of a more sustainable and inclusive society for all. The proper application of ESD requires a transformative, action-oriented pedagogy that focuses on interactive learning contexts. Traditional learning objectives therefore need to be complemented by a set of new key competencies identified by UNESCO in the document “Education for Sustainable Development Goals-Learning Goals”. These sustainability-related learning objectives to be achieved are systemic thinking competency, anticipatory competency, normative competency, strategic competency, collaboration competency, critical thinking competency, self-awareness competency, integrated problem-solving competency [20]. These are cross-cutting, multifunctional, and context-independent competencies that go beyond purely cognitive elements, to include socio-emotional and behavioral aspects. Consequently, this close relationship means that schools need to become a place where quality educational activities and projects can take place, involving both young people and adults and using information, participation and communication to promote action on the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. Teachers certainly play a central role in this sense, as their contribution will be important both in terms of content and in methodology. Educational measures will not only be effective themselves, but will bring out a reliable change in people through tangible daily action. Teachers and educators will be challenged to move beyond traditional approaches that focus on the transmission of knowledge and shift the emphasis to skills.
The fundamental role of teachers in the transmission of knowledge can be summarised in two distinct concepts as first theorised by Shulman in 1987 [21]: Subject Matter Knowledge (SMK) and Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK). The former refers to teachers’ knowledge of the various subtopics within their subject; the latter refers to a set of methodological knowledge that takes into account individual orientation, values, views on the curriculum to be achieved, teaching topics, learning objectives and assessment methods. Both forms of knowledge are important for teaching activities and are part of shaping the integration of sustainability in the school world.

1.2. National Policy on Sustainability and Education

For any country committed to achieving the SDGs and implementing the 2030 Agenda, education must be engaged at all levels [22], as the education system should act as a key interlocutor for students and their families, as well as for schools, universities and education authorities at local and regional levels [23]. In Italy, this role is performed by the Ministry of Education, University and Research (Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca, MIUR, since 2020 split into the Ministry of Education and Ministry of University and Research as independent departments), and by the Ministry of Ecological Transition (Ministero della Transizione Ecologica, MITE). The missions of both ministries include promoting the culture of sustainability and building relationships and synergies with the representatives of the regions in a multidisciplinary perspective aimed at a collective and continuous consideration of the whole national territory [24]. To this end, they have established numerous agreements with institutions, associations, and national and international organisations, especially through the Italian General Office for Student, Integration and Participation, which is responsible for coordinating educational programmes and formative activities to promote awareness, knowledge, and commitment to sustainability and existing sustainable initiatives in schools [25]. To support the Italian educational system in this challenging scenario, several initiatives have been adopted and implemented. In November 2016, the National Conference for Environmental Education and Sustainable Development held in Rome the “2030 Agenda Table: education for sustainable development, innovative business and consumption models”, which defined the strategic objectives that the school must achieve in education for sustainable development [26]. These objectives include that the school strengthens in students the relationship with the environment, resources, and natural and socio-cultural diversity, teaches the complexity and interdependence of global challenges in order to act consciously in everyday life and promote the transition to sustainability. Equally important is teaching students to critically evaluate collective and individual behaviours to recognise exemplary paragons, and appreciate the contribution of innovation and technology. The school’s approach to sustainability should therefore be global and structured. In 2017, MIUR’s Plan for Education for Sustainability [27] translated the 17 SDGs into 20 concrete actions that can be implemented in educational contexts. These actions are divided into four macro areas: Buildings and Frameworks (Ministry of Education facilities and staff), Didactics and Teacher Training, University and Research, Information and Communication. A national partnership between MIUR, the National Institute for Documentation Innovation and Educational Research (INDIRE) and the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development (ASvIS) developed in 2016 the national interactive online platform Scuola2030, available since 2019 [28]. This tool provides teachers with a wide range of content, resources, and self-learning materials for the classroom that are aligned with the values of the 2030 Agenda and consistent with the goal of the partnership. In addition, MIUR has recently made available to schools the National Guidelines for Civic Education [29], following the reintroduction of this subject as a compulsory subject in the didactic programmes and institutional curricula of primary and secondary schools in Italy in 2021. This decision followed the introduction of Law 92 of 20 August 2019 [30], which states that at least 33 h per curricular year must be dedicated to the subject of civic education and that regular assessments on this subject must be carried out. The teaching of civic education is divided into three thematic sections, namely the Italian Constitution, sustainable development, and digital citizenship. In order to help teachers to integrate civic education in their didactic programmes and activities in accordance with the ministerial guidelines, a special web portal has been created: “Civic education-a way to educate responsible citizens” [31]. In addition, the ministerial guidelines on environmental education for sustainable development describe specific didactic paths, forms and competences for each school level that the school can develop [32].
While engagement, tools and materials are becoming more widespread for all kinds of users, it is important to explore awareness and knowledge of the SDGs in the school context to identify the main gaps and resulting future challenges that need to be addressed. Within this conceptual framework, there are some recent experiences reported in the existing literature, including a systematic review by Salas-Zapata et al. [33], which highlights a low level of knowledge about sustainability issues, with a widespread conceptual limitation to ecological-environmental issues, while neglecting the social and economic aspects. Interesting research has been conducted by Iranian, German, Australian and Swedish colleagues [34,35,36,37,38], among others. In the Iranian study, secondary school teachers in particular were surveyed with a “Teacher Professional Competences Questionnaire”, to determine the extent of teachers’ competencies that should be highly ensured in order to achieve quality education in the context of sustainable development. Aspects of “Learning to be” were recognised as key competences in terms of knowledge and practical solutions to bring students to self-actualisation, to “know to be”. This competence, together with “Learning to know”, “Learning to do”, “Learning to live together” and “Learning to transform oneself and society”, form the five pillars of learning conceptualised by UNESCO [39] for ESD. In support of the proposition that each grade and level of schooling could contribute significantly to improving people’s awareness of sustainability, there is evidence of the short and long-term benefits of preschool education (kindergarten) in introducing children to sustainability practices before their transition to school. Specifically, these benefits relate to inclusion, improving literacy and interpersonal skills while preventing early disparities for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families, and preventing racial/ethnic and socioeconomic segregation and educational delays for educationally vulnerable children [36], ultimately resulting in far more cost-effective support to school readiness and academic achievement than later tutoring. Sustainability education and environmental education have long been embedded in science education, although they could be better integrated into other curricular areas. For elementary school, the Australian Victorian Science in School Research Project [37] recommends fostering active student engagement, encouraging students to develop meaningful understanding, and making connections to students’ lives and interests and to the broader community to maximise learning and increase students’ enjoyment of science learning. For secondary students, action skills should be strengthened [38] by encouraging action-oriented experiences in the classroom and improving students’ problem-solving skills by working directly on authentic problems.
On the path to achieving sustainable education, the introduction of innovative teaching methods such as Project Based Learning (PBL) can also be an element of change. PBL is a teaching and training model that is project-based, and puts student at the centre. Projects are complex tasks based on exciting questions or problems in which students actively collaborate over time to define the project, solve problems, make decisions and conduct research. Through the projects, students gain autonomy and responsibility, develop skills and put knowledge into practice by learning though meaningful experiences. At the end of these experiences, projects conclude with the accomplishment of authentic goals. The effectiveness of such teaching methods compared to traditional verbal-visual teaching has already been recognised in the existing literature, both at the European and international level and by both students and teachers [40,41].
Given the findings of previous research that knowledge of sustainability issues is low in such an important context as education, and given the increasing importance of these issues in recent years, we decided to investigate this knowledge among teachers, as they are an essential link between the SDGs and Education for Sustainability.
The primary objective of the study was to determine teachers’ level of knowledge about the SDGs and sustainable development. Secondary objectives were to investigate teachers’ awareness and attitudes towards the SDGs and sustainable development, and the possible relationship with socio-demographic and educational characteristics of the respondents in order to identify the main gaps on this topic. We were also interested in exploring aspects that could be the subject of specific interventions related to SMK and PCK.

2. Materials and Methods

This observational and cross-sectional study was conducted nationwide between 12 May 2021 and 30 June 2021 through an online survey. The target group of the study was all teachers working in public and independent preschools and compulsory schools in Italy (primary, lower secondary and upper secondary). Substitute teachers and those working only in other educational sectors (e.g., adults and seniors) were excluded. The survey was designed by a research group from the Department of Medicine at the University of Udine (Italy), based on a previous survey conducted on first-year students in 2019 [42] and other instruments used for similar assessments (e.g., Sulitest) [43].
The survey investigated Italian teachers’ awareness, knowledge and attitudes towards the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda, as well as the school’s commitment to integrate sustainability into didactic activities. The items and structure of the questionnaire were selected by the research team from concepts, indicators, documents, and models found in the existing literature on the SDGs that combine environmental, social, and economic elements [20]. The survey consisted of 62 items: 47 multiple-choice questions, one open-ended question and 14 multiple-choice questions. The survey consisted of five sections: (1) knowledge (14 questions), (2) sources of information (14 questions), (3) attitudes (14 questions), (4) school commitment (8 questions) and (5) socio-demographic characteristics of respondents (12 questions). A 5-point unipolar Likert scale was used to assess knowledge in Section 1 (0-none; 1-limited; 2-fair; 3-good; 4-very good) and school commitment in Section 4 (0-none; 1-minimum; 2-moderate; 3-good; 4-very good). Section 5 asked for respondents’ general and biographical data, including age, gender, educational attainment (high school diploma, degree in Education Sciences, degree in another discipline), area (rural, suburban or urban), teaching field (science, humanities, language, law, technical-professional, other), type of school (kindergarten, primary, lower secondary, upper secondary, other), number of students attending the school (<200, 200–400, 400–600, >600), geographical location of the school (Northern Italy, Central Italy, Southern Italy-Islands), initiatives and activities of the school to integrate sustainability in teaching activities (classroom-taught lessons, interactive workshops, active citizenship projects, experiences, others), previous participation in specific activities/training related to the SDGs and sustainability. If more than one subject was taught, we asked to indicate the predominant teaching. If the options given were not appropriate for the subjects taught, the option “Other” was chosen (e.g., Christian religion, physical education, remedial education for disabled students). The time taken to complete the survey was estimated at 10 min. Only fully completed questionnaires were taken into account. The full text of the questionnaire is available as Supplementary Material (S1). The online survey was made available on the EU Survey platform, which ensures complete anonymity of the participants. The teachers who voluntarily participated in the study by completing the questionnaire gave their consent to the anonymous use of the data collected. All responses were deleted from the platform at the end of the validity period of the survey and the data collected was only used in aggregated form. All data were managed in full compliance with the European legislation on privacy (EU-GDPR n.2016/679) and data processing (Italian Law 101/2018), and in accordance with the protocol approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Udine n.035/2021.
An invitation to participate in the survey was formally sent by email to all Italian public and independent schools registered in the national database on the platform of the Italian Ministry of University and Research (Open Data MIUR). The schools were asked to participate in the study by forwarding the invitation to their teachers. The invitation was accompanied by a description of the reasons for the study and its objectives. The same invitation for the teachers was also sent out via the e-mail addresses of the regional school offices and the school offices of the administrative districts. To maximise the response rate, we also shared the link to the survey link via Facebook on the main social pages used by teachers to update, share material and participate in activities/initiatives or research projects. Finally, a snowballing process was used by asking participants to engage their colleagues through social networking platforms and other communication channels. Reminders were sent out via the same mechanisms shortly before the survey closed. Participation in the survey was completely free of charge.

Statistical Analysis

According to data provided by MIUR [44] for the 2019/2020 school year there are currently 835,489 teachers teaching in a total of 8223 schools in Italy, of which 150,609 are support teachers. Assuming an unchanged population of teachers and assuming at least a sufficient level of knowledge about the SDGs of 50%, a confidence interval of 95% and a margin of error of 5%, the required sample size was calculated in 384 participants (OpenEpi). Considering the possible response rate and to allow for better data processing, this sample was expanded to at least 400 participating teachers. Absolute and relative frequencies were reported for each variable analysed for descriptive purposes. Participants were stratified by teachers and schools characteristics. The age of participants was dichotomised by median age. The responses of Section 1 and Section 4, which were based on Likert items, were each combined into two overall Likert total scales and presented as percentage value of the maximum achievable score for each questionnaire. The Kruskal-Wallis test was used to assess the association analyses between the knowledge and school commitment scores and the socio-demographic variables. In addition, the association was analysed by applying simple linear regression and backward stepwise linear regression analysis. For each statistical test applied, an association was considered as statistically significant at p < 0.05. Stata/IC 13.0 (StataCorp LP, College Station, TX, USA) was used for the analyses.

3. Results

3.1. Sociodemographic Characteristics

The invitation to participate in the survey was sent to teachers via the 20 Italian regional school offices and the 99 Italian school offices of the administrative districts, as well as to all available email addresses from the MIUR database. The invitation to fill in the questionnaire was also shared via Facebook on 12 pages of the social network. We collected 417 surveys, of which the majority (84.9%, n = 354) were completed by women. The average age of respondents was 49.0 years old (SD 9.6). The sample is consistent with the European Commission’s 2019 Monitor [45], which showed that female teachers were in the majority (from 99% in preschool to 63% in upper secondary) and that 58% were older than 50 years old. Overall, 13.2% (n = 55) of the respondents reported having obtained a high school degree as their last attainment, 8.4% (n = 35) had obtained a degree in Education Sciences, while 78.4% (n = 327) had obtained a degree in other disciplines. The distribution of respondents by teaching field was 32.4% (n = 135) for the humanities, 4.1% (n = 17) for technical-professional, 27.8% (n = 116) for the science, 17% (n = 71) for the language, and 2.2% (n = 9) for law; the remaining 16.5% (n = 69) were in other fields. Of the participating teachers, 7.2% (n = 30) worked in a pre-school, 23% (n = 96) in a primary school, 27.8% (n = 116) in a lower secondary school and 41% (n = 171) in an upper secondary school; the remaining 1% (n = 4) taught in another type of school (e.g., a vocational school). The 53.7% (n = 224) of the responses were compiled by teachers from Northern Italy, 13.7% (n = 57) from Central Italy, and 32.6% (n = 136) from Southern Italy & Islands. Most respondents (60.7%, n = 253) worked in an urban area, while other areas were less represented; 21.1% of participants (n = 88) taught in a peripheral area and 18.2% (n = 76) in a rural area. Participants were mainly from public schools (92.8%, n = 387) and only a few (7.2%, n = 30) from independent schools. Oversized schools were more represented (41.3%, n = 172), with fewer participants from large (20.1%, n = 84), medium (22.5%, n = 94) and small (16.1%, n = 67) schools. According to the teachers interviewed, sustainability issues were already somehow integrated into the curricula in most of the institutions where they taught (92.6%, n = 386). This integration into the curricula was done through active citizenship projects (40.5%, n = 169), followed by lectures (29.5%, n = 123), workshops (16.1%, n = 67) and other methods (5.8%, n = 24). Less than half of the responding teachers (46%, n = 192) reported having participated in activities or courses on the SDGs.

3.2. Knowledge

Lack of knowledge was indicated mainly for the Brundtland Report (1987) (60.7%, n = 253) and the Doughnut Economy (55.4%, n = 231). A good and very good level of knowledge was indicated overall for 1811/5838 items (31.0%), while the individual questions where more than half of respondents indicated a good and very good level of knowledge were only for the Greenhouse effect (64.0%, n = 267), Ecological footprint (55.9%, n = 233) and Resilience (53.2%, n = 222) items. The full results in terms of stated knowledge for all 14 questions are shown in Table 1.

3.3. Sources of Information

The most frequently mentioned source was the internet with 2491 responses (42.7%), followed by newspaper/magazines/books (38.5%, n = 2,247). The internet source is mainly represented for the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda (66.7%, n = 278), Greenhouse effect (60.0%, n = 250) and the Paris Agreement on climate change (2015) (53.7%, n = 224).
Newspapers/magazines/books are mentioned as sources of information mainly for the Greenhouse effect (70.7%, n = 295), the Kyoto Protocol (1997) (58.8%, n = 245), and the Paris Agreement on climate change (2015) (55.9%, n = 233). The items that were most frequently addressed with a specific training event, such as courses or conferences, were SDGs and the 2030 Agenda (33.3%, n = 139), Resilience (27.1%, n = 113), Ecological footprint (23.7%, n = 99) and Greenhouse effect (22.1%, n = 92). Overall, 14.8% of the topics were covered in a specific training event. The results on the sources of information mentioned for the 14 topics queried are summarised in Table 2.

3.4. Attitudes

Teachers indicated in 5392/5838 responses (92.4%) that sustainability should be taught to students. The option “It should be taught in designated hours” was the most frequently chosen by teachers (43.6%, n = 2545); however, 32.8% of the responses considered the topics in question as a possible part of their subjects that should be taught in their own lessons. The option “It could be taught in lessons of the subject I teach, as an integral part” is mainly chosen for the topics SDGs and 2030 Agenda (47.2%, n = 197) as well as Ecological footprint (46.3%, n = 193) and Greenhouse effect (44.4%, n = 185). The most frequently mentioned topics that teachers felt should not be covered in school were the Brundtland Report (1987) (17.5%, n = 73) and the Doughnut Economy (16.8%, n = 70). The results on teachers’ attitudes for the 14 items asked are summarised in Table 3.

3.5. Schools’ Commitment to Integrating Sustainability into Didactic Activities

Overall, 965 (28.9%) and 340 (10.2%) indicated good and very good commitment, respectively. For the individual questions, more than half of the respondents indicated at least good commitment to Recycling and waste reduction (63.5%, n = 265) and Fight against inequalities, poverty and social exclusion (57.1%, n = 238). A lack of school commitment was indicated in 11.9% of the responses. The issues with the most deficiencies were Entrepreneurial skills and competences in labour market (22.3%, n = 93) and Resilient infrastructures and sustainable industrialisation (21.3%, n = 89). The results of the descriptive analyses regarding the level of commitment indicated for all 14 items are summarised in Table 4.

3.6. Scores and Association

The results of the global scores for knowledge and school commitment show a different situation. The median score for knowledge is 42.9%, with an interquartile range of 25% and a range of 1.8–91.1%. Similarly, teachers’ perception of school commitment has a median of 50%, an interquartile range of 31.2% and a range of 0–100%.
Analyses using the Kruskal-Wallis test show a significant relationship between level of knowledge and geographical area (p = 0.0015), teaching field (p = 0.02), school commitment (0.0004), type of initiatives to integrate sustainability in school (0.0002), and participation in previous courses/activities on the SDGs (p = 0.0001). In addition, a relationship was found between the rating of school commitment score and the type of initiatives to integrate sustainability in school (p = 0.0001).
The full result of the stepwise linear regression analyses is presented in Table 5. In particular, the analyses show how teachers’ knowledge is associated with the favourable environment of the school in relation to sustainability issues (+9.3%, p = 0.003), participation in specific courses (+9.2%, p < 0.001) and a bachelor’s or higher degree (+8.1%, p < 0.001). Looking at the age of participants, each year of age is positively associated with +0.25% (p = 0.003). On the other hand, it seems that high school teachers are the one who feel that they have less knowledge about the topics studied (−4.1%, p = 0.02). In terms of perceptions of school commitment, the variable most strongly associated with a positive opinion was the type of initiatives promoted by the school (+27.3%, p < 0.001). Independent schools (+8.8%, p = 0.017) and lower secondary schools (+5.1%, p = 0.016) were perceived by teachers as more committed to sustainability. Finally, men gave more positive ratings than women (+6.4%, p = 0.017). Teaching strategies other than classroom-taught lessons are often associated with both teacher knowledge and the judgments of school commitment. The distributions of scores for teacher knowledge and schools commitment are shown in Figure 1.

4. Discussion

The aim of this study was to assess knowledge, sources of information and attitudes towards the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda among Italian teachers. Our results show that knowledge is generally moderate, except for some of the items studied. The sources of information vary for each item, but overall internet sources and newspapers/magazines/books are the most common. The attitudes expressed by teachers show a trend towards teaching sustainability in designated lessons or, for others, teaching sustainability in the current lessons of their subject, as an integral part. In terms of school commitment, only a few areas (Recycling and waste reduction and Fight against inequalities, poverty and social exclusion) were reported to have good to very good commitment. Very few teachers have no knowledge about the greenhouse effect or resilience. On the other hand, more than half of them do not know what the Doughnut Economy is, and consequently what the planetary boundaries are, as they are closely related topics. The most surprising result, however, is that 60.7% of the teachers declare that they know nothing about the Brundtland Report. This raises doubts about the actual state of integration of sustainability in schools and the quality of this integration, as this groundbreaking report is basically the fundamental text containing the first modern definition of sustainable development. How could sustainability be taught properly and how could teachers demand a good integration of sustainability in didactic programmes and in their subjects if they do not know the history of sustainable development? Nevertheless, a good level of knowledge is achieved on the topics of Ecological footprint, Greenhouse effect and Resilience, but a very good knowledge is found in fewer cases, the two highest rated being Greenhouse effect (19.6%) and Resilience (13%).
In terms of attitudes, teachers rarely think that sustainability topics should not be taught in school (7.6%), although a worrying 17.5% of teachers think that the Brundtland Report should not be taught. This is interestingly the same point for which we found the highest percentage of teachers who say they have no knowledge. Despite the partially reassuring finding that some teachers seem willing to consider sustainability as an integral part of their didactic programme, the fact that for several topics more than four out of ten teachers are oriented towards teaching these topics in designated lessons is a cause for concern. In our opinion, this reported need has at least two explanations. On the one hand, it could once again illustrate that there the current didactic programme does not provide enough hours for the the integration of sustainability topics, or at least is perceived to be insufficient. On the other hand, it could be that sustainability is still perceived by teachers as something different from regular didactics: a kind of separate topic that should be taught in special lessons by an external expert. The majority of the participating teachers (92.6%) stated that sustainability topics are already integrated into the didactic programmes and activities of the school in which they currently work. However, the level of knowledge on the topics asked about and the attitudes do not fully confirm these statements, nor does the school’s commitment, which mainly ranges between a minimum and a moderate level. The most frequently mentioned methods for integrating sustainability into didactic activities are active citizenship projects and classroom teaching. The “classical” methods are still widely used, with a large proportion being classroom lessons/lectures that is, the passive teaching of theoretical concepts. Predictably, prior attendance of a specific course or activity on the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda makes a difference in terms of knowledge level. In terms of the level of commitment of schools, the results are generally adequate, with the lowest scores for Resilient infrastructures and sustainable industrialisation, and Entrepreneurial skills and competences in labour market. Good or very good commitment is found especially for Recycling and waste reduction and Fight against inequalities, poverty and social exclusion, indicating good attention to both environmental and social aspects of sustainability. The attitude of the school itself and the type of initiative chosen to integrate sustainability into didactic activities are other influencing variables. Both knowledge and commitment of the school were found to be related to the variables of a favourable environment for integrating sustainability issues into current didactic programmes and activities. Among all types of schools, independent and lower secondary public schools were associated with the teachers’ opinion of a better school commitment to sustainability issues. When considering the school commitment in integrating sustainability issues into didactic activities, this seems to indicate a discrepancy between school levels and types, possibly related to an objective difficulty in this integration in schools where didactic programmes are less flexible. If this hypothesis is correct, integration would be easier in independent schools or in lower secondary public schools, and sustainability could be added more effectively to the ministerial learning outcomes already established. This situation could also be partly related to the isolation and lack of collaboration that teachers experience when trying to integrate sustainability into their teaching, without resources and a common project [46]. Secondarily, the results show a correlation between teachers’ knowledge and the school’s commitment to methods of teaching sustainability, especially when comparing different teaching strategies such as interactive workshops and active citizenship projects with classroom-taught lessons.
The results of this study need to be commented on in the context of education for sustainability worldwide and in Italy. Sustainability was already seriously considered in education three decades ago when the Talloires Declaration was signed [47], especially in higher education, where most teachers do their preparatory, justifying the commitment and social responsibility of universities in training human resources with sustainability oriented visions and competences. With this study, we wanted to gain information about teachers’ knowledge and commitment in the field of sustainability, since teaching sustainability requires the ability to provide new information and build skills. In this context, reference is made to the European project “A Rounder Sense of Purpose” (RSP) [48], launched in 2015, which identified 12 competencies in ESD that are complementary and propaedeutic, generic, dynamic and transversal: Systems, Attentiveness, Transdisciplinarity, Criticality, Futures, Empathy, Creativity, Responsibility, Participation, Values, Action, Decisiveness. For the implementation of ESD, the educator becomes an essential facilitator, guiding learners to explore values, awareness and visions of possible futures, with new methods of active learning based on collaborative planning and impact assessment. The prerequisite for the implementation of this learning are the integration of ESD into educational policies, strategies and programmes at local, regional and national levels, into curricula and textbooks, and into the training of educators themselves. The aforementioned [34,39] “Learning to be” is linked to a broader teaching strategy in which the goal of knowledge, the goal of “knowing how to do”, the concept of agency and the sense of belonging to a group and to a society are essential. “Learning to transform oneself and society”, on the other hand, refers to the ability to adapt to a changing context, to “transform” oneself and society profoundly in order to achieve a collective advantage, as a positive quality that needs to be taught and promoted. This is linked to other skills, such as communication, negotiation, self-preservation, refusal and rebellion, in a proactive interaction with the world. The teachers who participated in the Iranian study by Ghorbani et al. [34] identified students’ self-esteem and self-efficacy perceptions, self-confidence and the ability to define life goals in accordance with universal values, as the most important competencies for “Learning to be”. This was related to practical teaching solutions, including didactic strategies, training and effective factors. In terms of teacher training and selection, they consider that updating the curriculum (both academic and lifelong learning) is desirable, as is a better and more structured commitment to selecting teachers with better preparation and better motivational qualities. Such qualities, especially in relation to relational aspects, are expected to be incorporated into teacher education, although they are not assumed to be entirely innate and personal. Ultimately, the best teaching approach is seen as giving learners concrete direction for their actions, for self-regulation and for achieving their own goals, rather than just imparting knowledge. The role of parents and the family in general is also seen as an essential element, parallel to what can be taught in school by teachers. On the other hand, higher education should become a transformative context for the development of both specific and cross-cutting competences [49], where people, including future teachers, become aware of the environment not only as an object of study and do not see sustainability only in its ecological elements, as sustainability is first and foremost about people, including their behaviours and their moral and ethical issues. Moreover, as Richter-Beuschel and Bögeholz noted in their study [35], a lack of awareness of the connections between sustainability issues and the SDGs impairs the ability to implement an integrated didactic strategy for sustainability. The same study found, among other things, that only 55.6% of the participants included the university among the important contexts for ESD. A study by Olson et al. published in 2022 [38] used a two-year longitudinal observation of in 760 Swedish high schools to examine students’ self-perceptions of their agency for sustainability, focusing on how working in groups, with peers, and within a community enables students to understand the importance of action as a collective task rather than just an individual path. The findings support the idea of developing both knowledge and action skills related to sustainability in students over time by formalising both a holistic and pluralistic approach by teachers and accepting the influence of the school as determinative.
While providing teachers with the time, places, and tools to integrate sustainability into their teaching is an essential component of school support, some problems are found in the experience and vision of teaching by teachers themselves. Barriers to disseminating sustainable values to future teachers during their training have been explored in previous literature [50]; teachers specifically cited a lack of training, opportunities, materials and time. Overall, a general lack of support for implementing sustainability in education can be identifies behind these problems [46]. Sustainable initiatives are therefore often launched in isolation and uncoordinated by a limited number of teachers, which hinders the creation of large learning communities in an integrated didactic space and adequate research on the outcomes of these experiences. Moreover, in addition to a good theoretical knowledge base and the integration of the different subject fields and disciplines, a solid empowerment of teachers as individuals should become a priority. Teaching, as an activity, is only partially formalised in a programme, as it is also a personal experience designed and carried out by the teacher as mentor, role model, and influencer. This aspect is hardly programmable by an external subject, as the decision to promote sustainability by modelling attitudes and behaviours depends entirely on the teacher as an individual. The competences in the field of sustainability that they should impart aim to promote reflection on the meaning of their own actions and the possible areas for their implementation. Teachers should thus become autonomous, and conceptually clear in this regard, while many people without a specific training are still only “consumers” of information, mixing scientific terms with opinions, beliefs and perceptions [51]. In the aforementioned study conducted in Germany by Richter-Beuschel and Bögeholz and published in 2019 [35], “content knowledge” and “procedural knowledge” were considered. This found large differences in procedural knowledge when compared to the level set by a group of experts, which is mostly related to low interdisciplinary knowledge. Despite the signing of the Talloires Declaration more than thirty years ago, the mainstreaming of the SDGs in universities has not yet been fully implemented [50]. A notable part of the problem lies in the complexity of sustainability itself, as it encompasses many different macro-areas such as environmental awareness, development cooperation, global environmental policy, equity and global ethics, and even spiritual development [52].

Limitations and Strengths

This study has some limitations that the authors are aware of. First, we recorded a much greater participation of female teachers compared to male counterparts, which may represent selection bias. This imbalance can be partly explained by the fact that in Italy the profession itself is composed of a very high percentage of women (from 63% to 99%), in schools of all levels from kindergarten to secondary school [45]. Moreover, the responses came mainly from teachers whose level of education was not that of a high school or university degree in Educational Sciences. This could mean that their answers largely reflect the level of preparation on sustainability issues that future teachers received during their specific university education. On the one hand, this is very important information for academia, as it is the basis for the acquisition of knowledge and competences in the field of sustainability for teachers, as for any other future professional. On the other hand, it was reported in 2017 that Italy has the oldest teachers in the EU- More than half of primary and secondary teachers (ISCED 1-–3) were over 50 years old and 17% were over 60 years old (compared to 37% and 9% respectively in the EU) [45,53]. Therefore, the data on teacher knowledge at university refers to a period of several years ago and are probably not fully comparable to the preparation currently offered at university. Thirdly, lower and upper secondary schools are the category of school from which more responses were received. This could indicate a higher awareness of sustainability issues, probably followed by an easier integration of such issues in didactic activities when compared to primary school or kindergarten. Finally, most responses came from schools in urban areas. It would be interesting to get more data from suburban and especially rural areas, both for the unique characteristics of the territory and context, also from the teachers’ point of view, but also because of the importance that rural areas will increasingly have in the maintenance of cultivable land and the adoption of sustainable production systems, to the extent that some countries such as Australia are already investing in the redesign and reconstruction of rural identity to ensure its sustainability in the near future [54].
This is, to our knowledge, the first study assessing awareness, knowledge and attitudes among Italian teachers and school commitment towards sustainability issues.

5. Conclusions

To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate knowledge of the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda among Italian teachers. The results of this study show that both the awareness and the commitment of Italian teachers and schools to a deeper integration of sustainability issues in didactic programmes beyond ecological or environmental issues, which are strongly represented in the media, still need to be developed. Addressing these shortcomings could now be done more easily to reduce the existing gap between the goals and their achievement. Regrettably, sustainability topics are not yet seen as a shared responsibility among teachers of different subjects, so that for many topics teaching is proposed in designated lessons that have nothing to do with current didactic activities. In lower secondary and independent schools, the percentage of teachers with better knowledge of sustainable development is higher, and this is positively related to better school engagement with sustainability issues. Therefore, this could probably be the first context where ESD could be implemented, through teacher empowerment. Nevertheless, further action is needed to support teachers and schools to promote sustainability and empower students to behave sustainably. A shift in thinking towards a global view is urgently needed, where education for sustainability is seen as a collective responsibility, like sustainability itself, and to which every educational professional must contribute with knowledge and action. Further studies need to be conducted that focus on the role of the family in education, on subgroups such as rural areas, and on the impact of increasing school engagement at ESD.

Supplementary Materials

The following supporting information can be downloaded at:, Supplementary Material S1: Questionnaire (English); Supplementary Material S2: Dataset.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, C.S., L.B., E.M. and M.P.; methodology, C.S., L.B., E.M. and M.P.; software, E.M. and M.D.P.; validation, L.B. and M.P.; formal analysis, M.D.P.; investigation, C.S., L.B., E.M. and M.P.; resources, NA; data curation, C.S., E.M. and M.D.P.; writing—original draft preparation, C.S., E.M. and E.R.; writing—review and editing, L.B. and M.P.; visualization, C.S. and M.D.P.; supervision, M.P.; project administration, C.S. and L.B. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Udine (protocol code n.035/2021, date of approval 13th May 2021.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

The data presented in this study are available in S2 as a Supplementary Material.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Boxplot depicting teachers’ perceptions of their own knowledge of the SDGs and the school’s commitment of SDGs issues.
Figure 1. Boxplot depicting teachers’ perceptions of their own knowledge of the SDGs and the school’s commitment of SDGs issues.
Sustainability 14 07469 g001
Table 1. Descriptive analysis of the levels of teachers’ knowledge, presented for each item as number and percentage.
Table 1. Descriptive analysis of the levels of teachers’ knowledge, presented for each item as number and percentage.
QuestionKnowledge Level
NoneLimitedFairGoodVery Good
SDGs and 2030 Agenda256.07016.812931.015737.6368.6
Ecological footprint235.55513.210625.418945.34410.6
Greenhouse effect20.5368.611226.918544.48219.6
Social gradient11427.412329.59923.77618.251.2
Determinants of health8720.910124.212028.88921.3204.8
Green Gross Domestic Product12129.014835.59823.54711.330.7
Human Development Index (HDI)9121.811527.611427.37417.8235.5
Index of Sustainable Economic welfare (ISEW)10224.513933.38720.97618.2133.1
Equitable and sustainable well-being (BES)4911.811427.312229.311126.6215.0
Brundtland Report (1987)25360.79222.14611.0163.8102.4
Kyoto Protocol (1997)266.210324.714635.010725.7358.4
Paris Agreement on climate change (2015)276.510525.214133.811327.1317.4
Doughnut Economy23155.411327.14711.3235.530.7
Table 2. Descriptive analysis of the declared sources of information, presented for each item as number and percentage.
Table 2. Descriptive analysis of the declared sources of information, presented for each item as number and percentage.
QuestionSource of Information
No Knowledge about the TopicSpecific Training/ EventTelevisionNewspapers/Magazines/BooksInternet
SDG and 2030 Agenda348.213933.39021.619446.527866.7
Ecological footprint4410.69923.78319.920248.423556.4
Greenhouse effect61.49222.115336.729570.725060.0
Social gradient20348.7194.65914.29021.612930.9
Determinants of health15136.24911.88219.712830.715336.7
Green Gross Domestic Product19847.5215.06415.410024.012730.5
Human Development Index14133.8419.86916.615436.914935.7
Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW)16238.95312.75012.012730.516238.9
Equitable and sustainable well-being (BES)9422.57016.88219.718043.220448.9
Brundtland Report (1987)29270.0194.6348.25513.27317.5
Kyoto Protocol (1997)4210.17217.315938.124558.821852.3
Paris Agreement on climate change (2015)409.66415.416439.323355.922453.7
Doughnut Economy29270.0174.1358.45112.28019.2
Table 3. Descriptive analysis of attitudes-opinion expressed concerning the role of school and teaching subject- presented for each item as number and percentage.
Table 3. Descriptive analysis of attitudes-opinion expressed concerning the role of school and teaching subject- presented for each item as number and percentage.
I Do Not Think It Should Be Taught in SchoolIt Should Be Taught in Designated HoursIt Could Be Taught in Lessons of the Subject I Teach, but for Personal CultureIt Could Be Taught in Lessons of the Subject I Teach, as Integral Part
SDG and 2030 Agenda61.416238.95212.519747.2
Ecological footprint40.915837.96214.919346.3
Greenhouse effect82.016639.85813.818544.4
Social gradient4410.619246.08019.210124.2
Determinants of health256.019847.56916.512530.0
Green Gross Domestic Product4210.120549.26415.310625.4
Human Development Index (HDI)358.418043.26114.614133.8
Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW)307.219546.85613.413632.6
Equitable and sustainable well-being (BES)215.018243.66214.915236.5
Brundtland Report (1987)7317.520649.46716.17117.0
Kyoto Protocol (1997)327.717241.26515.614835.5
Paris Agreement on climate change (2015)225.317441.77016.815136.2
Doughnut Economy7016.820649.47117.07016.8
Table 4. Descriptive analysis of school commitment, presented for each item as number and percentage.
Table 4. Descriptive analysis of school commitment, presented for each item as number and percentage.
ItemSchool Committment
NoneMinimumModerateGoodVery Good
Sustainable food production and consumption235.59823.512129.013031.24510.8
Recycling and waste reduction92.25012.09322.318444.18119.4
Resilient infrastructures and sustainable industrialisation8921.312630.211427.37718.5112.7
Energy conservation and diffusion of renewable energy sources6114.611126.69923.810926.1378.9
Entrepreneurial skills and competences in labour market9322.311627.811728.17618.2153.6
Fight against inequalities, poverty and social exclusion245.85914.19623.016740.17117.0
Circular economy and correct choice of assets4811.511327.113231.610224.5225.3
Building of participatory, inclusive and pacific societies4911.88821.110224.512028.85813.80
Table 5. Multivariate linear analyses for knowledge and school commitment and sociodemographic.
Table 5. Multivariate linear analyses for knowledge and school commitment and sociodemographic.
VariablesCoefficientStd. Errp
Does the school where you are currently teaching favour education for sustainability and integration of sustainability in the didactic programmes?+
Previous attendance of specific non-academic courses on SDGs+9.21.6<0.001
Bachelor’s degree vs. high school diploma+8.12.1<0.001
School region: South&Islands vs. Nord+6.31.7<0.001
Active citizenship projects vs. frontal lessons+
Workshops vs. classroom-taught lessons+
Age (years)+
School level: High school vs. Kindergarten−
School Commitment
VariablesCoefficientStd. Errp
Does the school where you are currently teaching favour education for sustainability and integration of sustainability in the didactic programmes?+27.33.7<0.001
Workshops vs. classroom-taught lessons+16.22.9<0.001
Active citizenship projects vs. classroom-taught lessons+11.52.3<0.001
Other initiatives vs. classroom-taught lessons+
Testimonials/experiences vs. classroom-taught lessons+
Indipendent school vs. public school+
Gender: male vs. female+6.4 2.70.017
School level: Lower secondary school vs. Kindergarten+
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MDPI and ACS Style

Smaniotto, C.; Brunelli, L.; Miotto, E.; Del Pin, M.; Ruscio, E.; Parpinel, M. Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 Agenda—Survey on Awareness, Knowledge and Attitudes of Italian Teachers of Public Mandatory Schools, 2021. Sustainability 2022, 14, 7469.

AMA Style

Smaniotto C, Brunelli L, Miotto E, Del Pin M, Ruscio E, Parpinel M. Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 Agenda—Survey on Awareness, Knowledge and Attitudes of Italian Teachers of Public Mandatory Schools, 2021. Sustainability. 2022; 14(12):7469.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Smaniotto, Cecilia, Laura Brunelli, Edoardo Miotto, Massimo Del Pin, Edoardo Ruscio, and Maria Parpinel. 2022. "Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 Agenda—Survey on Awareness, Knowledge and Attitudes of Italian Teachers of Public Mandatory Schools, 2021" Sustainability 14, no. 12: 7469.

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