Climate change: How schools can strike back

Written by: Alan Kinder | Published:
Climate teaching: In October, Extinction Rebellion campaigners visited the Department for Education in Westminster to deliver their proposals for how the curriculum can and must do more to tackle issues of climate change (image: Extinction Rebellion)
Agree with these considered words, principles and Vision. Geography teaching is the main driver in ...

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Now is the time to think about climate change within the broader context of what your school wants to achieve through its teaching. Alan Kinder offers some advice

Last month saw the latest in a series of “climate strikes” in schools, universities and other organisations across the UK and worldwide, originally inspired by the young Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg and now known as Fridays for Future.

The problems identified and demands made by prominent campaigns in the UK, such as Teach the Future (backed by the UK Student Climate Network and National Union of Students), and Extinction Rebellion (which in October campaigned outside the Department for Education asking for changes to how climate is taught in the curriculum), are wide-ranging.

To generalise from these, it seems clear that many young people are concerned about their future and at the same time determined to change society’s attitudes to environmental issues.

As a passionate geographer and educationalist, my instinctive reaction is to admire their determination to improve the condition of the planet, in the face of what might otherwise be paralysing anxiety.

However, our responsibilities as educators extend beyond empathy and even beyond the decision to support or resist each day of strike action. As the strikers themselves have pointed out so very effectively, a more coherent and pro-active response is required in educational terms. Here are some positive educational actions schools might undertake.

Define progression and expectations

Teach the future campaigners have called for a shared understanding of the way in which learning about climate change and sustainability should develop through the key stages. This is surely a demand we can satisfy, especially as much of the intellectual hard lifting has already been done.

Sustainable development in action, a 2009 planning guide for schools from the since-abolished Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), set out what young people might learn and the outcomes they might achieve through studying sustainable development within the curriculum.

It outlined the potential contributions from several subject disciplines and prompted schools to visualise the skills, knowledge, understanding and values a young person needed to acquire.

Developing the global dimension in the school curriculum, recommended to schools by the then Department for Education and Skills in 2005, described how a wide range of curriculum subjects contributed to understanding concepts such as sustainable development and arranged these contributions key stage by key stage. Both guides are still freely available online.

More recently, the journal Teaching Geography (2015) published a progression framework for global learning in secondary schools, incorporating the concept of sustainability and providing exemplars of school practice (available free to members or for purchase by non-members).

Agree what should be taught and how

With the quality of a school’s curriculum and the thinking that lays behind it receiving renewed attention and focus from Ofsted among others, now seems a good time to think about climate change within the broader context of what each school intends to achieve through its teaching.

While the national curriculum and qualification specifications set out core requirements for each subject, I offer the following ideas as a framework to be applied within and across a number of subject disciplines, especially science, maths, geography, design technology and PSHE:

  • Climate – what it is, how it differs from weather, why it varies from place to place and over time.
  • Climate change – data over different timescales, the reasons for these changes and the types of effects produced.
  • Anthropogenic climate change since the 19th century – its causes and its effects, including the environmental, social and economic challenges experienced in different places and why these vary. Alex Standish, a senior lecturer in geography education at University College London, argues that selecting this timeframe means that students can see climate change as something gradual, real and lived, rather than as a single catastrophic event (see for example, Standish, 2019).
  • Future climate modelling – interpreting this data and interpreting future scenarios globally and for different places around the world.
  • Policy and personal choices – that face us now and which may also lie ahead, including the choices that need to be made around mitigation or adaptation, with examples at scales from the individual to the international illustrating what has already been done.

This list can also help schools to think about the most effective teaching approaches for each item. The most appropriate key stage, subject and pedagogy for teaching about climate processes will not be the same as that needed to study technological innovations or to navigate between different prescriptions for the future.

In particular, teaching about the policy choices that societies face means unpacking different sets of values and political beliefs. While an anti-capitalist stance is a legitimate political position, so too is one based on the assertion that well-regulated markets are best placed to provide solutions. Both positions need careful and expert teaching to be well understood by young people, just as much as the science of climate change does.

Provide professional training and development for staff

As curriculum has recently come under renewed scrutiny, so too has the subject and specialist pedagogical knowledge of teachers and what each school is doing to support their development.

Once school leaders have reached a decision on the “what and how” of teaching climate change, an equally clear view is needed on the training needs of staff. While a recent Oxfam survey of 350 teachers suggested that 75 per cent felt they have not received adequate training to educate students about climate change (Taylor, 2019), that does not necessarily mean that individual staff and departments may not already be equipped to tackle important elements of the curriculum framework laid out above.

There may also be a teacher or subject area – perhaps the geography department – confident and knowledgeable enough to coordinate the teaching of climate change across the school.

In order to further develop the school’s capacities, organisations like the Geographical Association provide a range of resources and training opportunities, while a recent initiative from the UN Climate Change Learning Partnership (UNCCLearn) to have a “climate change teacher” in every school in the country is being supported by free online CPD (see further information).

Consider campus

The idea that education for sustainability in schools could revolve around “3Cs” – campus, curriculum and community – has been around for a long time. In relation to campus, the demands of the Teach the Future campaign are eye-catching: all new state-funded educational buildings to be net-zero by 2020 and all existing state-funded educational buildings net-zero by 2030.

Many schools are already actively reducing their environmental impacts and their carbon footprints in particular. The Carbon Trust argues that this is a “win-win” scenario, suggesting that UK schools could further reduce their energy costs by around £44 million per year and prevent 625,000 tonnes of Co2 from entering the atmosphere at the same time. The Carbon Trust is one of several organisations offering practical support and guidance, some of which provide strong links to curriculum and learning. The Ashden Less CO2 programme, for example, offers peer support from Ashden Award-winning schools, while the Ecoschools award scheme supports energy use reduction across the school.

Teach hope

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, alleged recently that the climate change denial lobby had changed its tactics. He detected an attempt to focus debate exclusively on individual behaviour changes, e.g. people’s diets, travel choices and so on.

The strategy, according to Mann, is to deflect attention away from discussing policy solutions, to make climate change solutions sound too painful and to encourage “doomism” – the idea that it is too late to tackle climate change. The aim of the strategy, he says, is to lead people to despair, hopelessness and ultimately inaction.

As an antidote to despair, very useful guidance for schools is available from expert writers in the field, such as David Hicks (visiting professor at Bath Spa University). David’s writings encourage schools to acknowledge the urgency and enormity of environmental problems and unpack the feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, fear and even hopelessness that can prevail (see further information for a link to his website).

However, his work also helps us work beyond self-defeating emotions and towards a sense of agency and justifiable optimism about the future, based not on hoping for the best, but on “active hope”, grounded in resilience and wellbeing and achieved through learning how individuals, communities and organisations around the world are working together to mitigate their carbon emissions and adapt to change.

Teaching young people that they are not alone meets an important and basic psychological need – one that collective protest appears to be meeting at present, rather than the curricula of many schools.

  • Alan Kinder is chief executive of the Geographical Association.

Further information & resources


Comments
Agree with these considered words, principles and Vision.
Geography teaching is the main driver in this curriculum imo.
Greta says 'no one is too small to make a difference'.

Posted By: ,
Agree with these considered words, principles and Vision.
Geography teaching is the main driver in this curriculum imo.
Greta says 'no one is too small to make a difference'.

Posted By: ,
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