Breaking research

International survey paints bleak picture of school-level Earth science education

Boy studying earth sciences

51 countries, nearly half have no set-standards – and most teachers of Earth science are non-specialists


National education standards for Earth science are not followed or are absent in more than half the countries covered by a new UNESCO and International Geoscience Education Organisation (IGEO) survey into school-level Earth science teaching, a paper in the International Journal of Science Education reports.

The survey compared the views of experts – including educational researchers, academics, employees in national ministries and agencies for education, school teachers and members of international geoscience education organisations – in 51 countries which together comprise more than half the global population.

The study’s lead author, Professor Chris King of Keele University and colleagues report that 75% of countries surveyed have national standards covering Earth science education at primary, lower and upper secondary levels, but these standards are closely followed in only 46% of countries.

For the three quarters of countries with standardised assessment, only around a quarter include questions specific to Earth science. Teaching material for the subject is available in around 80% of countries but, in the majority, such material is only of ‘moderate’ or ‘poor’ quality, according to the experts surveyed.

Most teachers of Earth science are non-specialists, and support for these teachers through courses and professional development is generally low, with very little financial support provided. In three quarters of the countries surveyed, very little or no careers advice relating to Earth science is available to students.

Numbers of Earth scientists taking undergraduate degrees in the US and UK are declining, and the UK government has listed a range of Earth science jobs as ‘shortage occupations’ – which may partly be due to the decline in Earth science education in schools.

“Earth science is critical to understanding how climate change has affected our planet in the past and its potential future impacts. Furthermore, climate change is increasing geoscience hazard levels and water shortages worldwide, requiring a geoscience response. Yet this demand for Earth science understanding and for Earth scientists is increasing at a time when the supply of such scientists is diminishing,” the authors warn.

However, the survey also found that this situation has provoked new interest in school-level Earth science education amongst academic and other Earth scientists, and that there was good support globally for informal Earth science education. Strategies being used included the publication of an international syllabus with free-to-download supporting textbooks, websites of high-quality interactive teaching materials, national champions promoting interactive geoscience education, and global support for these initiatives.

“Within the rather bleak formal education situation, it is encouraging that informal education in Earth science is being supported, and that there are enthusiastic groups of Earth science educators across the world attempting to address the situation,” the authors say.