Climate Education Research – a response

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I made the following response at a webinar last week where the latest research c/o Teacher Tap from Teach the Future and SOS-UK was presented.  You'll be able to find the research here in a few days.

"Thanks for the invitation to comment on the research.  I want to say something about two aspects of the data.  Firstly a subject by subject comparison, and then what teachers are saying about improving learning opportunities for students.

When I first saw these data they made immediate sense to me.  While I couldn’t have predicted the actual numbers with great precision, I could say how they’d likely compare with each other.  For example,

It’s no surprise that geography is the subject area that has the highest figures for meaningful coverage of climate change.  Or that science and geography come out as the subjects that feature all three issues most highly.  Or that the challenges facing humanity are more covered in geography than in science.  Or that religious studies featured strongly.  Or that maths is positioned as lowly as it is.  Given the nature of the secondary curriculum, its development over time, and the way that teachers are professionally supported to do their difficult jobs, that’s what I’d expect.

I’d also expect that climate change featured more strongly in what schools do than the ecological crisis.  And this is what we consistently find in the research.

What I’d not foreseen (because I’d not thought enough about it) was that the challenges facing humanity would feature more strongly than the ecological crisis in so many subjects.  In fact, in all of them, except science.  Despite its obvious relevance, however, it’s mostly at a low level.  I’ll come back to this.

However, some of these numbers are really quite low.  Look at science and climate change where only 67% of teachers saying that it is covered in a meaningful and relevant way.  And, although geography comes in at 92%, given that it is optional at Key Stage 4, fewer students than might be expected will be learning about it in any depth.

And fewer than 50% of science teachers are saying that teaching about the ecological crisis is embedded in a meaningful and relevant way.  There are just under 3.5 million students in secondary schools across England, and it can only be shocking that 1.7 million of them are not learning about this effectively.

Turning now to what we might do, I welcome that so few teachers are calling for Ofsted or the exam boards to pressurise schools into compliance.  I may be old fashioned but I have always thought that young people should learn about these topics because they are important to society and to them.  I also noted that there was not much call for “further evidence” on the benefits of including these issues in the curriculum.  That’s also reassuring.

When it comes to what teachers are calling for, two points stand out: [i] a call for time to develop curricula and resources, and [ii] a call for more collaboration across subjects.  This is particularly the case for climate change, with little difference seen across subjects.  I’ll focus on the second of these.

In terms of teaching about climate change, NAEE has argued that there needs to be a focus on four largely sequential aspects.  These are:

  1. What is climate?
  2. What’s the evidence for global heating and the changing climate?
  3. Looking ahead: what might happen?
  4. Looking ahead: what can we do?

What is climate is the easy bit and it goes on in schools already.  It’s part of the national curriculum and uncontroversial.  There is lots of teacher experience and expertise, and resources galore.

What’s the evidence is more complex and challenging.  There is less experience and expertise in relation to teaching this, and it’s not all mandated by the national curriculum.  There are good resources though, and it’s now largely uncontroversial.  Both these are the province of geography and science teaching.

What might happen is even more complex in both its nature, and in terms of how to help students learn.  It’s a difficult mix of clear science and scenario modelling – some of which set out awful consequences for us all.  There is a risk of slipping into gloom-mongering.  It’s not in the national curiculum at all.

What can we do brings a new level of difficulty, because it’s inherently political, and values are in play.  Exploring this carries risk for a school but it’s what groups of young people say they want – quite rightly so in my view.

But happily, this is what the DfE is now seems to be saying should happen.  As you know, DfE has written a draft sustainability and climate change education strategy for education and children’s services systems which it’s now consulting on.  Part of this is a vision that the UK will be the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030.  The government has also now published the UK’s Third Climate Change Risk Assessment.  On the DfE website announcing this, the Minister for the School System, Baroness Barran wrote this:

“We’re …  providing educational opportunities for young people to learn about the impacts of climate change, including how to adapt and tackle the issues we face.”

The minister’s “how to adapt and tackle the issues” maps exactly onto NAEE’s 4th point – “what can we do”.  A key issue here is that a consideration of “what can we do” as a society to “adapt and tackle the issues” is that it obviously cannot just be taught within any one school subject.  This is because we’re dealing with whole-society issues: from energy to ethics, from land use to justice, from health to housing.  It obviously needs teacher collaboration across subjects if students are to learn effectively.

The research seems to show that teachers understand this which leads me to wonder whether we might be in the happy position where students, teachers and DfE ministers all seem to agree."


Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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