Cover image: Why we can't just 'teach' climate change

Why we can't just 'teach' climate change

Rachel Musson, Director of ThoughtBox Education

When it comes to climate education, how we teach is as important as what we teach. 

Climate change is not just another lesson to be slotted into a timetable, following double French and just before lunch, with a handy quiz at the end. Climate education is an exploration of what it means to be human and alive; of what lies ahead for our species (and so many other species) on this rapidly changing planet, and of what impacts our daily actions can and will have on the potential extinction of life on earth. It is not, therefore, quite the same as teaching algebra on a Wednesday afternoon.

Climate education is a combination of science and emotion.

Spreading the knowledge of why climates are changing and what we can do to mitigate climate collapse is essential. However, equally essential is recognising – and supporting - the emotional resonance of us as we learn ever more about our futures in a rapidly changing world.

Firstly, let’s recognise the emotions of young people.

Climate education and the issues involved directly affect everything in the current and future lives of young people across the world. The issues happening already and those continuing to unfold will shape the world they will inherit and the way they will live.  Whilst facts and figures about climate change need to be shared, their resonance need to be discussed, explored, reflected upon and processed together. We need to offer young people a space to ask questions, to share their thoughts and feelings, to talk about uncertainties or anxieties and to move from a position of overwhelm to a space of empowerment. This does not – and will not - happen simply by memorising or absorbing facts and figures. This is a process of learning, unlearning, empowering and activation in a safe and supportive space where they can share their own responses and have their voices heard: a space where their thoughts and their feelings are warmly welcomed.

 

Secondly, let’s recognise the role of the teacher.

There are obvious facts about the climate crisis which can be taught to young people. Yet, whilst we have lots of known information about the history of climate change and the current impact of infinite growth on a finite planet, climate scientists also rely on estimates, hypotheses and predicted scientific data to show what may come in the future. As such, there are many ‘unknown’ elements of learning and grey spaces to explore when teaching about climate change. And - most significantly - all of this sort of teaching and learning comes with a whole lot of emotional resonance. 

Learning about climate collapse, species extinction, increased flooding, drought, climate migration – these are overwhelmingly emotive issues which may cause us to feel fear, doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, frustration, helplessness or a myriad other emotions. And when I say ‘us’ I mean teachers, parents, children, all humans in this space – none of us are immune to the emotional grief, fear and uncertainty that come when consciously living through the sixth mass extinction. Therefore, empowering teachers and educators with the confidence to talk about tricky issues and hold the emotional resilience to be dealing with their own grief, uncertainty, anxiety and otherwise (whilst also holding space for the young people in their care) is crucial. 

Children naturally attune to the behaviours, moods, attitudes etc. of their primary caregivers (teachers being one of these) meaning that we – as adults – need to develop our own emotional resilience (think ‘oxygen masks first’) so that when we are talking or teaching about these issues, our own sense of resilience can be transferred to the students.

 

Finally let’s think about the relationship between adults and young people. 
In so many traditional models of education, the teacher has a collection of knowledge, skills and information to impart to their students who will absorb and thus learn from this teaching.  This is not the case in climate education, for many reasons:

  1. This is big, scary stuff

  2. There are no clear answers

  3. There is no simple ‘happy ending’

  4. We can’t necessary make children’s fears go away

  5. Emotional resilience and lifeskills for empowerment matter just as much as the facts about climate change.


The relationships created in the classroom space for these conversations and this sort of learning to happen matter greatly.  

Traditional classroom spaces – with a teacher perhaps standing at the front of a room and students sitting in rows – offers no autonomy to anyone but the teacher.

It also inadvertently places authority, ownership and responsibility of knowledge primarily onto the teacher which, when it comes to ‘knowing the answers about climate change’ is not fair. A teacher is neither able to ‘fix’ climate change for the class, nor hold the ready solutions as to how to do so – they will most likely have just as many questions as the young people in their care. Yes, there are many solutions and spaces for empowerment that we can share with young people, but the teacher is not someone who can offer all of these solutions in a simple solution by the time the bell rings for lunch.

Our classroom spaces need to welcome this ambiguity:

  • Physically, the space needs to be set up so the teacher can also be an active learner in discussions – ideally a circular formation with everyone seeing each other, and on one level.

  • Emotionally, the space needs to be safe for students to feel they can share their thoughts and feelings. 

  • Courageously, this space needs to be a brave space to explore some of these challenging ideas together.

We cannot simply teach climate change. Whilst it would be most convenient if the Geography department could just take on climate change as an additional subject, it is not ever going to be this simple. Climate education isn’t a “fact based topic” to learn – it is a deep exploration into some of the biggest questions facing humankind.  This task may seem daunting and yet it simply requires us to return to the very simple ways we naturally communicate – honestly, openly, with open minds and with a shared goal of creating healthy futures for people and planet.

Climate education welcomes exploration, discussion and reflection through process work – using a toolkit for exploring big issues and creating spaces of learning that help young people to immerse, understand, explore and feel empowered together.  As such, this sort of education in schools can be a positive catalyst for creating a healthy culture of learning and thriving together in a rapidly changing world. We simply need to make the spaces for this to happen.

 

Originally posted on ThoughtBox Education's website at https://www.thoughtboxeducation.com/blog/climate-education