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Balancing honesty with hope: new centre will help teachers build-in climate change education

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 16 June 2022

Alison Kitson.

Few can doubt that the climate emergency is the defining issue of our time.  The most recent IPCC report confirms that without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach with potentially profound implications for life on our planet.

In this context it is no surprise to read in research commissioned by UCL’s new Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (CCCSE) that climate change – and education about climate change – is an important issue to parents, teachers, school leaders and young people. What is more surprising is how many of the students and teachers participating in the research feel that schools are not always doing enough to educate young people about all aspects of climate change and the possibilities of more sustainable lifestyles.

Public First, who carried out this research, polled more than 1,000 parents, the first time we believe parents have been asked about climate change education for their children. Not only did parents cite climate change as one of the issues their children are most likely to talk to them about, but 72 per cent also see schools as the best places for their children to learn about it. By contrast, the research found that 16 and 17-year-olds were sceptical about how big a priority climate change is in their schools, with one saying ‘You just don’t get taught about it at all…you’d never hear about it from a teacher’ and another saying ‘I feel like it is not discussed enough [in school]. I feel like it may be a tick box, a one lesson thing, if that’.

The views of the students were corroborated by teachers who, while expressing an interest in teaching more about climate change and sustainability across all subjects and age groups, cited a lack of support, expertise and time as reasons why these issues are not taught about more often. In the report, Public First identify three main implications of these findings:

  • First, that there is space for an organisation to provide the kind of support teachers say they need as long as it is free of charge;
  • second, that school leaders should consider how to embed climate change and sustainability within the wider ethos and culture of their schools and
  • third, that the Government may wish to consider including climate change and sustainability more substantially and in more detail across the national curriculum and within GCSE criteria.

The Government’s new education strategy for sustainability and climate change introduces some innovative approaches to these challenges, including a National Education Nature Park, a climate leaders award and a new GCSE in Natural History. Broader curriculum change is not planned however and there remains a need to provide support for all teachers so that these issues can be embedded across the whole curriculum for all children. Taking its inspiration from UCL’s highly successful Centre for Holocaust Education, CCCSE’s core mission is to lead research into climate change and sustainability education which shapes outstanding, free professional development for teachers and school leaders working across all age groups and subjects.

We must, however, be mindful of the barriers that teachers and school leaders are reporting. In our response to the Public First report, we emphasise that CCCSE will help teachers to embed issues of climate change and sustainability within existing school curricula rather than expecting additional curriculum time to be found. We will also support teachers and leaders to signpost and connect existing work about climate change and the environment more explicitly. Teachers have stressed that they want a simpler way to access relevant resources and support and the Centre will ensure that all its professional development programmes are flexible to engage with and easy to access. We will also work regularly with disciplinary experts across UCL to ensure that all resources and programmes are underpinned by reliable and up to date research.

We are very clear that it is pointless to produce support and resources that teachers do not use and which do not provide young people with what they want and need. To this end, the Centre will ensure that the voices of teachers, school leaders and young people inform its strategic direction through an Advisory Board, Youth Panel and specialist advisory groups across subjects and phases.

The IPCC report noted that despite the severe threat of increased global warming, there is increasing evidence of climate action. We all have to try to balance the anxieties of a climate-altered future with the hope that action can and will be taken. How we frame these issues in schools in ways that balance honesty with hope and increase young people’s agency is crucial to avoid increasing eco-anxiety or eco-fatigue. This is both a pedagogical and a curricular challenge; what students learn and how they learn it are equally important. In the words of a 13-year-old on a recent school visit, ‘It can be a bit depressing…we need more positive stuff, we need to have hope.’

 

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