Students need an understanding of ecosystem properties and functions to face global issues related to ecological crises and to grasp the challenges and necessary actions associated with the Sustainable Development Goals 12–15. When addressing complex ecological constructs, such as material cycles, diagnosing students’ pre-existing conceptions about such matters is crucial for making decisions about appropriate teaching strategies. In this study, we explored pre-service teachers’ (n
= 63) and in-service teachers’ (n
= 14) diagnostic skills in the context of education for sustainable development. To assess diagnostic skills, we showed teachers video-based clips from science lessons in which students express their alternative conceptions about material cycles. We found that teachers are generally able to notice students’ comments indicating their conceptions about ecological concepts that are relevant for sustainable development. However, the teachers had difficulties in interpreting the students’ comments correctly. This difficulty is a barrier to create effective lessons. Moreover, we identified teacher characteristics that could influence diagnostic skills. Our findings are discussed in the context of the role of diagnostic skills when teaching sustainable development goals. Finally, we present considerations on how teachers’ diagnostic skills could be promoted.
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