Critical Thinking and Climate Change Solutions

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

Alison Anderson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Plymouth has written an article for the Academy of Social Sciences on How the education system can help to fight the climate crisis.

The article begins:

We are living in a time of multiple intersecting crises, including the climate emergency, declining biodiversity and the after-shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic: together these provide the perfect conditions for misinformation and disinformation to thrive. If the education system is to rise to the challenge, there must be a step change in how it prepares young people for a rapidly changing world.

We can tackle these issues if we act decisively.  Three things which would make a difference are:

  1. Embedding climate change and sustainability across the curriculum

  2. Making climate change and sustainability education more solutions focused

  3. Including critical thinking and media literacy skills as part of the national curriculum

There are very many who will agree with this diagnosis and it's quite commonplace thinking amongst those who work in this field.  Even the DfE might agree, whilst of course saying that their policies have enabled schools to do all three – adding, if honesty is the order of the day – "if they want to".  But they're unlikely to like what Anderson goes on to say about the limitations of the national curriculum.  Or with this:

It is not enough for secondary school students to be taught facts and figures about climate change and biodiversity loss detached from their socio-economic context; they need to be provided with the critical thinking and media literacy skills to meaningfully engage with the issues. This means challenging not only what young people are taught but, importantly, how they are taught. Whilst this requires a commitment to providing ring-fenced funding to support this, the costs of inaction are infinitely greater.

Anderson's article goes well beyond the three headline points (above), and I was struck by this:

Research conducted by the University of Plymouth in conjunction with the British Science Association shows that young people feel that climate change is presented as ‘a lost cause’ at secondary school with teaching tending to focus narrowly on impacts and rarely on solutions. This approach contributes to young people’s sense of climate change anxiety, leaving them feeling demotivated and disenfranchised. Climate change and sustainability education in secondary schools needs to be more solutions focused. This would give young people a greater sense of agency and may encourage them to explore green careers options.

There are, of course, far too many NGOs and activists (many of them young) locked into a doom / gloom storyline, and there even seems to be a competition amongst a minority of them to see who can out-doom the others.  It's certainly the case that the national curriculum goes out of its way to discourage a consideration of solutions.  The DfE says that this is for later life, presumably when youngsters are sufficiently mature to engage with adult ideas.

Of course, if you're peddling your preferred ideas as solutions (as many are), as opposed to genuinely opening up issues for discussion, then the last thing you need to be doing is developing critical thinking.  And the DfE certainly will not like it if schools are to go around encouraging youngsters to think critically about government policy in relation to (for example) oil and gas exploration, net zero, heat pumps, farm subsidies, biodiversity strategy, re-wilding, etc.  Thinking critically implies the risk that they might come up with wrong (from the DfE perspective) ideas about all sorts of things.  And where would that leave us in a liberal democracy?

I'll give the last word to Prof Anderson:

Our education system could play a vital role in improving media literacy on climate change by using this topic as a case study and embedding critical thinking and media literacy skills across the curriculum.

Indeed.  But will it?

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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