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Levelling up: Climate Change Education and Student Empowerment

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 22 October 2020

Doug Bourn and Knut Hjelleset, first published on the UCL Public Policy Blog.

A sign with the words, "The climate is changing, why aren't we?"

School strikes for climate. (Pixabay/GoranH)

Climate change moved to the top of the political agenda in 2019, particularly as a result of the Student Climate Strikes. The economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has further posed a new vision of a sustainability based economy. Seeing the corona crisis and climate change in conjunction presents a powerful new narrative — creating new green technology and industry for the future could both pull us out of the current economic slump and also contribute to saving humanity from catastrophic climate change. This leads to the challenge of how climate change education can be an asset in preparing students for the job markets and career options of the future, and how climate change education can be a valuable tool in broadening the horizons of students across the UK.

Climate change education is fundamentally not different from other types of education. All successful education builds on motivation for engaging with problems and ownership to solutions for the learner. We recommend therefore that climate change education can benefit from placing student empowerment as both a central tool, and an end target in itself.

By placing student empowerment as the key term, the traditional approach to climate change education comes into new light. Apart from the hard science basics of anthropogenic climate change, social education on climate change has typically taken one of two pathways in how the student is addressed. This can be summarised as addressing the student as a ‘conscious consumer’, or as an ‘active citizen’.

The focus on students as consumers is often done by presenting rough calculations for the ‘carbon footprint’ of one’s own life. The CO2 budget of eating meat versus vegetables is a classic assessment, or investigating the total emissions of producing a new pair of jeans. The benefit with this approach is that climate change can become less theoretical and more tangible, as it associated with the students’ own life and choices. Though some might find this intriguing, this pedagogical approach does not necessarily lead to genuine empowerment of the student, as the responsibility for the necessary changes is placed on the shoulders of the individual learner, rather than with society at large.

This pathway stands to contrast with the approach of addressing students as active citizens rather than individual consumers. In this tradition, the students are presented with pathways for engaging in climate change issues through the democratic channels of political or social action. Before 2019, examples of this could be education on writing opinion letters to the newspapers, or sending enquiries to the local authorities.

Then came the student climate strikes last year, which formed a new standard for active citizenship on climate change issues. In 2020, seeing climate change in conjunction with the challenges from the corona crisis provides a new vision of hope for the future. For teachers this presents new opportunities that takes learning about climate change as an interdisciplinary approach and relates learning to social action, even if these rapid alterations might be challenging to adapt to.

The two approaches to climate change education outlined above in terms of personal versus social action should however not be seen as opposites or even posing that one is better than the other. They should instead be addressed pedagogically.

In comparing the two pathways, the underlying assumption is that the approach of active citizenship leads to the development of more profound empowerment, as the learner can discover how to change the society and not just one’s own life. However, there is ground for caution against such a simplification. For those students who master the complexities of political debate and social change, it might very well hold true. But for students who fare less well with such challenges, the pathway of ethical consumption and life choices might be more manageable and thus more empowering.

Whether it be to highlight the students’ potential as a conscious consumer or active citizens, education should not leave the learner with just an understanding of the problem — one should always point to some option for action, some meaningful alternative for engaging with the problem. And here comes a third pathway for student empowerment, one that is less often identified — the students’ career choices. Students in later stages of formal education are by default in the process of choosing a career for themselves, whether that be in vocational training or preparing for higher studies. For some, impact of climate change adaptations might be a relevant factor to include.

One recent example found that students in the oil producing West Coast region of Norway had changed their career preferences in recent years. Students with an orientation to STEM subjects in upper secondary schools had previously preferred higher studies that lead to careers in the oil and gas industry, but according to school leaders in this area, the STEM students preference had shifted decisively towards renewable energy, such as solar power or offshore wind. The school leaders felt the need to deliver on this shift, as they would otherwise loose students to competing schools (Hjelleset, K (2020).

In short, with their career choices the STEM students in upper secondary schools where participating in a fundamental shift away from fossil energy toward a more sustainable future. And climate change education had laid the foundation for this empowerment — the school leaders reported that the students seems positively motivated for the combination of technically challenging careers that also would participate in building a sustainable energy system for the world.

As students see politicians merging response to the corona crisis economic fallout with a global push for renewable energy and sustainable solutions, they are likely to align their career choices accordingly, which again will amplify a virtuous circle. At the heart of all this lies student empowerment, based on an optimistic view on the future, and exposure to current political affairs.

These three C’s — Consumer, Citizenship, and Career –are the three pathways for how climate change education can be a comprehensive tool for student empowerment. The key seems to be holding the message positive, with a focus on solutions and possibilities for genuine engagement. Again, these are not values that are unique for climate change education, quite the opposite — these are hallmarks of high quality education in general. In this aspect, climate change education fits perfectly in with holistic schooling and an education that prepares the learners for real life challenges.

Within England there is clearly support for learning about climate change from young people and many teachers are supportive of it having a higher profile. But the existing national curriculum in England and lack of consideration given to the broader social responsibilities of all education have proved to be obstacles to such change. Climate change education, through a focus on student empowerment, can move learning beyond science and technical based behavioural change to one that puts individual action and social engagement as the goal.

Douglas Bourn is Professor of Development Education and Director of the Development Education Research Centre (DERC) at University College London- Institute of Education. d.bourn@ucl.ac.uk

Knut Hjelleset holds an MA in Development Education and Global Learning from the Development Education Research Centre, and works as a senior advisor at the RORG-network, the Norwegian national platform for Development Education. knut.hj@gmail.com

Reference: Hjelleset, K (2020) ‘The Kids Are All Right: Lessons from Recent Changes in Student Preferences in Norway’s Oil Dependent Regions’, Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 30, Spring, pp. 80–103.

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