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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The climate crisis needs a whole-school approach, starting with teacher access to professional development

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 13 July 2023

Female teacher points out to pupils outdoors

Credit: Hero Images / Adobe Stock

Kate Greer and Alison Kitson.

A new survey of teachers in England has found limited coverage of climate change and sustainability in both initial teacher education and continuing teacher professional development – and provides the impetus for change.

These findings, from UCL’s Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (CCCSE) are set out in a new report, Teaching climate change and sustainability: A survey of teachers in England. Covering teachers’ practice, professional development and priorities for support, the findings will be of interest to teachers, teacher educators and organizations that support teachers to contribute to society’s transformation to sustainability, as well as to schools as they develop and implement climate change action plans. The findings are also informing CCCSE’s suite of free professional development resources – Teaching for Sustainable Futures – which are being designed for teachers of all subjects and age-phases.  The Geography and History modules, for primary and secondary teachers in each case, are ready to access now (see the joining instructions on CCCSE’s website). The next set of modules – English and mathematics – will be available in 2024.

Why a whole-school approach?

As we discuss in our aforementioned report, if young people are to have access to education that equips them to live sustainably and respond to the climate crisis, an expansive, whole-school approach to climate change and sustainability education is needed. Disciplinary knowledge rooted in a subject-based curriculum is an important part of such an approach. When sufficiently broad, it can provide young people with a range of distinctive perspectives which, when learnt together, can enable them to think critically, empathetically, and imaginatively about the challenges of climate change and sustainability and to envision alternatives. As well as the science, they need to understand interconnected issues, such as climate justice, and be able to apply their knowledge to decision-making and action.

Providing young people with access to this breadth of perspectives, though, will require changes in the content that is taught in schools, reaching beyond science and geography as the traditional domains that teach about climate change. It will also require support so that teachers from a wide range of subjects are confident to incorporate climate change and sustainability into their teaching. High-quality professional development for teachers in all subjects and age-phases will be key to affecting such changes.

So, how are we doing?

A significant professional development gap exists, even for the survey’s ‘climate change engaged’ cohort of teachers

Our survey sought the views of teachers from all subjects and age-phases in England. It received 854 responses and, with more than 81.5% reporting that they ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘very often’ incorporate climate change and sustainability in their teaching, the survey findings represent the views of a ‘climate change engaged’ cohort of teachers. Mirroring the positioning of climate change and sustainability in the National Curriculum, two thirds of the respondents reported teaching at secondary level, with geography (41.3%) and science (37.2%) being the most frequently reported subjects taught. However, the survey also reveals that teachers of other subjects are incorporating climate change and sustainability into their teaching, too.

But several of the survey findings related to initial and continuing professional development experiences are telling. For instance:

  • Less than half of the respondents (44.9%) reported having participated in formal professional development related to climate change and sustainability.
  • Less than 13% of the respondents who had participated in any professional development, with teaching experience ranging from 1 year to 25+ years, reported that their Initial Teacher Education (ITE) included a focus on climate change and sustainability.
  • Of those who had participated in any professional development, the most reported type was informal, that is, it was ‘self-taught’ (70.5% of these respondents).

Such findings are illustrative of gaps and concerns in professional development related to climate change and sustainability – for those who are required by the National Curriculum to teach these topics, but also for those who are not.

A need to advance climate change and sustainability teacher professional development beyond ‘self-taught’

In particular, respondents’ reliance upon informal, ‘self-taught’ means of professional development, rather than formal activities, is striking. Although self-directed development might be expected and encouraged in all professions (and further analysis is needed to understand how ‘self-taught’ is conceived and experienced), we cannot rely on these approaches alone. On the one hand, it is likely that those who are not required by the curriculum to teach these topics – teachers of subjects other than geography and science – will have less capacity to be able to pursue related ‘self-taught’ development. On the other, it is also likely that some teachers’ views on what climate change and sustainability education entails will be influenced by what is included in the curriculum, which tends to emphasise the teaching of scientific facts. For the reasons we have outlined, whilst teaching about the science of climate change is important, it is not enough. All subjects can make a distinctive contribution towards understanding the climate crisis and how we can live more sustainably; providing all teachers with access to high quality professional development is an important step towards these goals.

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