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Hofman-Bergholm, M. Storytelling as an Educational Tool in Sustainable Education. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 18 June 2024).
Hofman-Bergholm M. Storytelling as an Educational Tool in Sustainable Education. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 18, 2024.
Hofman-Bergholm, Maria. "Storytelling as an Educational Tool in Sustainable Education" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 18, 2024).
Hofman-Bergholm, M. (2022, March 14). Storytelling as an Educational Tool in Sustainable Education. In Encyclopedia.
Hofman-Bergholm, Maria. "Storytelling as an Educational Tool in Sustainable Education." Encyclopedia. Web. 14 March, 2022.
Storytelling as an Educational Tool in Sustainable Education

An increase in ecological illiteracy in society and lost contact with nature seem to occur within the now-growing generation. To transform both education and society, transformative learning must be adopted. The capacity of storytelling should be emphasized to make sustainability more easily accessible. Storytelling as a pedagogical tool for learning sustainability is still a bit overshadowed, but the idea of sustainability can be traced far back in aboriginal cultures, where storytelling has been used to transfer traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.

Storytelling Transformative Learning sustainability

1. Sustainability and Mainstream Education

Sustainability and education for sustainable development are characterized as holistic approaches [1], but there is research indicating that teachers, at least in Sweden and Finland, lack a holistic understanding of the sustainability concept; therefore, it is almost impossible for them to integrate sustainability in their teaching [1][2][3][4]. Wolff et al. [5] argue that there is a need to reorient teacher education if it is not able to generate newly qualified teachers who have developed holistic thinking and a holistic approach to sustainability during their educations.
Recent research [6] reveals that in the Nordic countries, the inclusion of the sustainability concept in education is still quite superficial and addressed more in the political documents surrounding both basic education and teacher education than in educational reality. Jónsson et al. [6] argue that an environmental perspective is often assumed when sustainability education is discussed, probably because when education for sustainable development was first lifted forward in schools, Sweden, Norway, and Finland considered this to be a concern connected to environmental education and environmental sciences.
In 2010, Salonen [7] argued that education for change towards sustainability needs to be based on systems thinking and a holistic understanding of the concept of sustainable development. There is a need for a profound change of the educational system to encourage the understanding of complex systems and their interconnections [8]. Education has been seen as an opportunity for change towards sustainability, but obviously people still have a long way to go. In 2018, Hofman-Bergholm [9] published an article referring to research that highlights the importance of a systems thinking approach in teacher education to be able to graduate newly qualified teachers who can promote education for sustainability. As Cloud [10] states, you can teach about systems thinking without involving sustainability, but you cannot teach about sustainability and sustainable development without involving systems thinking. This frames the importance of the need for teachers to develop a systems thinking perspective to be able to teach about sustainability. However, systems thinking is not a novel concept either; it originated in 1956 by Professor Jay Forrester [11].
This means that there are two concepts dependent on each other: sustainability and systems thinking. People have policy documents that point out important things about sustainability and the importance of a change in educational systems as well as in society. However, there are also an issue for the implementation to take place, as it turns out that there is a reality where it is difficult for those who are expected to follow education policies to connect these concepts themselves and to know where or how to get started with the expected change. Education is highlighted as being in a key position to change people’s way of acting and thinking, but there is a lack of a deeper discussion around how to change the current educational system to achieve the desired change in society [12]. These discussions must be lifted to the table for the desired changes to take place.

2. Traditional Knowledge and Sustainability

If you take a look around you, you will find that everywhere there are traces of common natural and cultural heritage. They go back and forth; the tracks cross each other or go in parallel, or they grow together into one track. It is like a large fabric that is connected. Human are shaped by it, but at the same time people are involved in creating the fabric [13]. Imagine a grazed pasture, a stone fence, an older building, objects from the past, old knowledge, customs, and traditions. All these things are cultural heritage, an imprint of human activity—a trace of human life and activities. Through the ages, nature and culture have developed in collaboration with each other, and many times, the management of cultural heritage has also benefited biological diversity [14].
Indigenous, traditional or local knowledge refers to the knowledge and know-how unique to a given society or culture, which encompasses the cultural traditions, values, beliefs, and worldviews of local people
[15] (p. 5)
In pre-modern society, almost every citizen had an extensive knowledge about plants and animals and they knew nature’s species. To remember and store this knowledge, they used old stories, sayings, interpretations, rhymes, marks, and rules. To survive in a society where nature constituted the major resource, this knowledge was a condition for survival. To predict weather, at a time when survival depended on rain, drought, wind, cold, and heat, folk poetry was a usable tool. Knowledge about how to interpret and read the different signs in nature were conveyed by a tradition of storytelling. Today, many probably still remember that people have heard statements about how to read nature, e.g., “when the swallows fly low it will be rain,” but nowadays people have greater confidence in the weather service’s forecasts and consider such claims to be oddly curious claims from the past [16].
An important question to think about is what happens to such valuable traditional knowledge in step with an aging generation that will take much of this knowledge with them when they leave their lives on earth and most of the younger generations have switched to gainful employment from agriculture? Children and youth seem to alienate more and more from nature, which has negative consequences, such as the fact that they assimilate little or no knowledge of nature, which has led to a more and more common kind of ecological illiteracy in society [17][18][19]. This ecological illiteracy, in turn, affects the attitude towards nature in adulthood, which can have a negative impact on the planet’s long-term health, as you have to get to know nature to care about it [20].
If somebody study aboriginal cultures, different tribes, or old languages you can find a trace of sustainability a long way back [21][22][23]. In the Nordic countries live the Sámi people, who are an arctic indigenous population group living in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Some of them are still living with a deep interaction with nature and they transfer their knowledge to younger generations by traditions through storytelling. They tell stories consisting of their knowledge about local traditions and their living environment. The Sámi word for this traditional knowledge is “árbediehtu.” This traditional knowledge assumes that man and nature must be considered as a whole. The knowledge consists of cultural, heritage, traditions, and ways of living [24]. Today, the dominant view of ecological, social and health models consists of a Westernized approach, but the fact is that aboriginal population groups, such as Mãori or Sámi culture, embrace a holistic approach to ecosystems, where the care for place and landscape is of high relevance as it features a sense of belonging [22][23].
The holistic way of thinking seems to be more common in aboriginal population groups than in mainstream society. Some researchers, such as Herman [25], Tulloch [26], and Wolff [27], argue that the mainstream Western way of thinking today is a result of the scientific revolution and Christianity, dominated by a philosophy where nature is perceived as an object to be controlled by technology. This development through the centuries has led to a disconnection between traditional knowledge, culture, and science, and that is why aboriginal cultures have a slightly different view of the sustainability concept than the mainstream Western cultures, according to Throsby & Petetskaya [28]. There are also shared views of the concept between the different cultures. For example, they share the holistic worldview with an approach that everything is connected in different ways and nothing exists in isolation, but there is a difference in how the holistic systems are characterized by the different cultures. In the Western way of thinking, sustainability consists of connections between major areas, such as macro-economy, society, the climate system, and the natural capital stock, while the cultural aspects are valued and embraced in a completely different way in the aboriginal cultures’ perception of the sustainability concept. In the aboriginal perspective, the interconnections in the holistic system are more comprehensive, encompassing other cultural areas, such as language, ceremonies, kinship, and country [28].
Reading through policy documents and scientific articles, it seems that the Western philosophy has at least written down the thought that sustainable development also consists of cultural aspects, both in different policy documents and in research. For example, you can find definitions such as sustainable development as a multifaceted and interdisciplinary concept influencing future through cultural, social, economic, political, and ecological aspects in a complex interplay [29][30][31].
Neither sustainability nor the importance of traditional knowledge is anything new under the stars. Already in the early 1990s, traditional knowledge was recognized internationally as a valuable factor in the striving for sustainable development and for the protection of biodiversity [32]. The United Nations stated in 1992, in Article 8 of the Convention on Biological Diversity, that human should “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity….” [33]. This shows that the importance of understanding traditional knowledge systems has been known for many years, but according to Campbell [34] it was not before now that peolple have started to understand the importance of traditional knowledge systems. For example, there are calculations showing that aboriginal cultures around the world preserve and guard about 80% of global biodiversity. One needs to know that aboriginal cultures manage only about a quarter of the world’s land surface and yet they manage to guard almost all of the plant and animal species in the world, a biodiversity that all humans are dependent on in the form of, e.g., food systems and the medicines it supplies. Even though this appears to be quite obvious, Western society has denied the aboriginal cultures´ longstanding fight against climate change, land degradation, and deforestation until quite lately. Now, there are international organizations acknowledging the significance of the fight advocated by aboriginal cultures [34].
As stated in the UNESCO report on Intangible Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development [35]: “Traditional knowledge, values and practices accumulated and renewed across generations as part of intangible cultural heritage have guided human societies in their interactions with the surrounding natural environment for millennia. Today, the contribution of intangible cultural heritage to environmental sustainability is recognized in many fields such as biodiversity conservation, sustainable natural resource management and natural disaster preparedness and response.” [35] (p. 6).
It is the cultural traditions, values, beliefs, and worldviews of local people and their knowhow that are unique to a given society and that need to be transformed as traditional knowledge.

3. Storytelling as a Tool in a Transformative Learning

Storytelling is used by indigenous people to transform traditional knowledge [24] and as a meaning-making activity [22].
We are totally dependent on our land. Without the river we would have no fish, without the marshes we would have no ducks, without the mishkodi we would have no medicines, without the beauty of nature we would have no peace. The land is our soul
[36] (p. 244)
This is a quote from an old female respondent in a research interview performed by Beckford et al. [36]. They performed interviews with officials of the Walpole Island Heritage Center to examine different cultural aspects of environmental stewardship and sustainability. This quote shows evidence of knowledge about systems thinking and it states an example of how traditional knowledge, biodiversity, and sustainability are connected. This quote could also be seen as an abbreviated part of a short story that could be told to children to develop an early understanding of systems thinking. Storytelling is a way to make facts understandable and easily accessible [37].
Stories have been a part of history from time immemorial [38][39]. As social beings, brains have evolved to interpret  experiences using stories as a framework. Stories are, in themselves, emotional social experiences. Using stories, or storytelling, as an educational tool to deliver knowledge content with a context. If you deliver knowledge content that has no context, that knowledge content tends to pass many by instead of putting it in a context within which the knowledge recipients can relate their own experiences [40].
As soon as you hear something told in the form of a story, you become interested [37][41]. That tells that scientists who master storytelling, in the way that Hans Rosling [42] did, for example, can spread facts about science in a way that makes people listen and remember. If you, as a researcher or teacher, only line up lots of facts in a presentation, it is quite ineffective in the sense that you want the audience to absorb, understand, and remember the facts. There must be something the audience recognizes and can refer to; they should be affected and there should be emotions [37][41].
According to Jack Mezirow, one can define transformative learning as a process through which people change the frames of reference human take for granted (meaning perspective, sensory habits, ways of thinking) and make them more inclusive, open, emotional, capable of changing, and reflective, so that they can generate beliefs and opinions that will give more true or motivated actions [43]. Transformative learning has proven to be very demanding and strenuous and occurs only when the learner is in a situation where there is no other way out that he or she can perceive as sustainable. It is described as follows: “every learning that involves a change in the learner’s identity” [43]. Ostrow Michel et al. [44] describe the connection between transformative learning theory and education for sustainability. The researchers highlight the power of transformative learning to educate engaged and sustainability-conscious society members. Transformative learning is necessary in managing to take a step away from the kind of education that is most common in higher education today, which often consists of information transfer without challenging the beliefs or assumptions of the learner. A desirable effect of transformative learning would be to induce students to look at things differently [44].
In a UNESCO paper published in 2019 [45], storytelling is highlighted as a possible pedagogical tool for use in classrooms to promote transformative engagement. It stated that reflections on life stories of others leading to transformative engagement in themselves is an opportunity for learners, as the storyteller can provide the learners with powerful role models. Taking part in stories of personal striving and inner struggles can help those who listen to build their own values and principles. Reflective discussion in the classroom on the challenges and the life choices shown in stories relevant to current issues can deepen learners’ understanding and critical thinking [45].
David Thurfjell [46], a Swedish historian of religion and professor of religious studies, found traces of cultural echoes when he interviewed Swedish forest walkers. Analyzing the in-depth interviews, Thurfjell [46] found signs of a possible ecological turn, meaning a transformation from the anthropocentric orientation that has been the leading approach for a millennium. The respondents’ views on nature possessed traces of a kind of devotion to nature that has developed since pre-Christian times and the respondents showed an interest in political commitment to nature’s resources. According to Thurfjell [46], these kinds of existential deep experiences, arising through forest walks, are not insignificant even though they take place far from the economic and political arena where transformation is needed for a transformation of the society, because these kinds of experiences can slowly affect the worldview of the experiencer, which is something Ostrow Michel et al. [44], among others, ask for.
New research reveals that systems thinking is seen as helpful in understanding complex systems, but a combination of case studies and systems thinking, or system dynamics simulation, has been shown to increase ESD learning outcomes [47][48]. The now deceased scientist Hans Rosling was phenomenal at making computer simulations of statistics and telling inspiring stories to increase the understanding of various world problems in his audience. In 2005, he founded the foundation Gapminder with the goal of combating devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand [42][49]. After his death in 2017, Rosling was highly recognized in public as a storyteller who redefined the role of visualization when presenting statistics or other data. He did not present statistics or numbers to illustrate a story; no, he told the stories that the numbers forced him to tell. He did this to bridge the gap between academic and public discourse, arguing that if science and researchare to be useful at all, this gap needs to be filled. Researchers need to try filling the gap, especially when it comes to social sciences. It is the researchers’ fault that there is a lack of popular knowledge about research, not the public’s fault [49]. The Royal Statistical Society [50] wrote that “Hans was a storyteller; he turned statistics into a performing art”.
In his research, McNett [40] investigated how stories can facilitate learning. He presented, among other things, the following purposes for storytelling that can be applied in schools:
  • Capture students’ attention and entertain;
  • Engage students through surprises or excitement;
  • Personalize the narrator, improve the classroom atmosphere, and/or reduce stress and anxiety;
  • Facilitate understanding and adapt content;
  • Associate a theme or concept with a story;
  • Facilitate problem solving;
  • Communicate facts in a more accessible way;
  • Connect a wide range of concepts;
  • Provide unique or underrepresented perspectives; and
  • Present a problem or dilemma [40] (p. 190)
To understand and see the connections as advocated within the systems thinking theory [9] it might be useful to use both visualization and storytelling to make people aware of the connections. In The Oxford Textbook of Nature and Public Health, published in 2018, you can find a figure at page 235 showing a schematic representation of the paths by which climate change, forest clearance, agricultural activities, and changes in patterns of human density and mobility influence—separately and together—the risks of difference categories of infectious diseases. Here, deforestation is directly connected to the displacement of bats into human settlements, which in turn might lead to human contact with novel bat viruses and an emergence of new viral diseases.
In an Assesment Report 5 (AR5), in 2014 [51], the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged the importance of indigenous peoples’ contribution in the adaptation to climate change: “Indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change, but these have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts. Integrating such forms of knowledge with existing practices increases the effectiveness of adaptation.” However, Magni [15] argued that other than recognition, there has been very little done by the international community to integrate indigenous peoples and their knowledge into climate change strategies and in decision-making processes.
Hawkes argued in 2001, in his monograph “The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s Essential Role in Public Planning” [52], that a cultural framework operating in parallel with social, environmental and economic frameworks is essential to achieve a sustainable and healthy society. Culture should be recognized for its key role in expressing the meaning, identity, and purpose of society and its citizens. Quite recently, UNESCO [53] has started to highlight that the focus in education is about to shift, “from a focus on access to education to a focus on quality and with that, relevance.” Traditionally, access to education has been a development indicator, but there is data showing that students are not necessarily learning when they are in school, which is why a shift towards quality and relevance is needed. It is also recognized that formal education could play a valuable role in safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage when shifting towards relevance.


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