In June 2021, Whole Education hosted its first Climate change event, bringing together schools in our network, partners in the Future Proofed Coalition and many other organisations who have a common goal…
Supporting our schools and teachers, to help our young people, to understand and take action to improve our world.
To help inspire you to think about how to bring action on climate into their school, we will be sharing guidance and advice from our coalition partners.
This month, WE hear from WWF-UK Education Manager Matt Larsen-Daw on how education can tackle the climate crisis…sustainably.
There is growing awareness and understanding of the potential for education to help tackle the climate crisis and shape a sustainable future. From the Education and Sustainable Citizenship Bill, to the recent Dasgupta Review on the economics of biodiversity that highlighted the importance of an education system that fosters nature connection, the eyes of politicians are turning to schools to provide the foundations of a green economy in the way they prepare young people for the changes and challenges they will face beyond education.
Of course this potential of education to transform society is not news to teachers. Ensuring that young people have the knowledge, skills and values needed to be a force for positive change in society is the motivation for many in the education profession. And many teachers are feeling the pressure to respond to demand from students to ‘teach climate change’.
Teachers often express that they feel inadequately informed and empowered to perform this role. They want to prepare students for the changing world and uncertain future, but may not feel confident themselves in introducing, teaching or discussing climate change and sustainability.
They are big issues, connected to unfolding real-world events and constant scientific revelations, and busy teachers who are not offered specific training and guidance are bound to struggle to find time to build up the knowledge and tools they will feel is needed to do this justice. Add to this the mental health issues that many young people are experiencing as a result of the fear and uncertainty prompted by dire climate warnings, and the whole area of climate education can feel like tricky territory that it is best to avoid.
At the heart of the issue is the loaded and emotive term ‘climate crisis’. There is no doubt that we have reached a point when change is urgently needed, and the effects of climate change present serious threats to people and planet. However in some ways this is the one thing that doesn’t need to be ‘taught’ in schools. It is something that nearly all students will know from the media, from campaigns, from celebrity influencers and from their activist peers.
The causes of the crisis could and should be taught – but will that really help solve it in the timescale we have? Understanding the past is important, but right now the crisis is present, not past, and we need to teach for the future. What is actually needed – and what will offer a route out of the anxiety prompted by a feeling of helplessness – is the knowledge and skills to avoid the mistakes of the past, fix the problems of the present, and shape a positive future.
This reframes the challenge that teachers and schools can and should rise to meet. They should not agonise over how to navigate the treacherous waters of the climate crisis with their students, worrying about whether they are versed enough in social justice issues and the most recent scientific revelations about tipping points and carbon sinks. Rather, their mission is to teach the principles of sustainability that allow humanity to live within its means, and the critical thinking skills required to apply these principles when considering any subject, topic, news story, business, product or political decision.
We know where a lack of sustainable practice leads, because we are living it. What we need is a generation for whom it is second nature to apply the principles of sustainability in all actions and decisions, and to demand the same from their leaders, their employers and the businesses whose products and services they wish to enjoy.
The principles of sustainability do not change, and can be applied in the teaching of every subject, and demonstrated in the policies and practices of the school itself. Schools exist as components of society and are uniquely placed to act as conveners, mobilisers and coordinators of local action for nature and sustainability. The whole-school approach to sustainability in schools as laid out in WWF’s free Education for a Sustainable Planet teacher course (and many others) presents the core components of a whole school approach to sustainability as the 4 C’s:
There is no more powerful way to learn the importance of nature and sustainability, and to gain confidence in applying that learning in life, than seeing it in action and being involved in the process of identifying and implementing positive changes. For secondary schools and colleges the whole school approach should perhaps comprise 5 Cs, with the addition of Careers. Young people should look towards their future with a clear sense of how they can apply sustainable values in their life beyond education.
The climate crisis has brought the need for sustainability education into fresh focus, however it has also introduced new terms and loaded issues that can distract and confuse those best placed to embed such values into society. The tools and frameworks for teaching sustainability have been around for a long time – and a context of environmental breakdown as a result of unsustainable practice should not cause us to throw these out just so we can be seen to respond more specifically to current concerns.
If we want education to be the vital tool that it can be in shaping a sustainable future, we need the changes in education to themselves be sustainable. Values and skills that were always important, but under prioritised, must be put at the centre in a way that doesn’t feel like a short-term response to a crisis, but a future-proofing of our education system. As educators, therefore, our mission is clear and unchanging. Teach all subjects from a frame of sustainability, and connect education to the real world to allow students to understand the past, engage with the present, and prepare for the future.
Click here for school resources that help you bring climate, sustainability and nature connection into your school >>