Education fit for a climate crisis

For a long time it has been clear that our education system isn’t fit for purpose, but in the face of the climate emergency we are finally waking up to its inadequacies are thrown into sharp relief.

Now more than ever, our children are spending their days being prepared for a future which doesn’t exist – cannot exist in the form that the bulk of mainstream society says it should, and will not exist at all if we continue to live our lives as if the planet’s resources are infinite.

It is our children who are currently leading the way in the fight to bring the realities of the climate and ecological crisis to the forefront of our collective consciousness: inspired by Greta Thunberg millions have walked out of classrooms across the globe, helping to shift the conversation and make the consequences of continuing with ‘business as usual’ impossible to ignore.

And yet inside those classrooms business as usual is exactly what is happening.

I often wonder whether a major cause of the breakdown of our children’s mental health is due in a large part to the dissonance between what they are told to strive for and what they know to be true. The way that ‘climate change’ is relegated to a minor part of the curriculum when its impacts will transform the world we live in beyond recognition during their lifetimes. The way that they are told that hours spent in school revising for arbitrary tests is more important than fighting for environmental and social justice. The way that the structures of a broken society are used unquestionably as models for their learning environment. The way that they are indoctrinated to be compliant above all else whilst those in government lie and cheat to hang on to their power. It is akin to gaslighting, and is damaging to everyone involved in our education system: children, teachers and parents alike.

If we are really going to be able to meet this climate and ecological crisis head on, to reverse the devastating trends that years of inaction have set in motion, then we need to create something very, very different.

An important aspect of this is of course facing up to the truth of the situation we are currently in, and dedicating much more time and energy to making sure our children understand the challenges that we face. The science and impact of climate change currently forms only a tiny part of the curriculum at secondary level, and this clearly needs to be addressed. Italy has recently taken the significant step of dedicating an hour a week to mandatory climate change and sustainability education for children aged six to nineteen, becoming the first country in the world to do so. It’s brilliant that they have recognised the need for this knowledge, but really it is only the beginning.

In the UK, the Labour party have pledged to make the global climate emergency a core party of the curriculum from primary school onwards. More importantly, they have also said that they will review the curriculum to ensure that it “focuses on the knowledge and skills that young people need in a world that will be increasingly shaped by climate change”.

If we are going to take the impact of the climate emergency seriously – and we would be crazy not to given that only this week eleven thousand scientists issued a warning that the world’s people face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” unless there are major transformations to global society – then we have to completely rethink our approach to education, and what the purpose of that education is.

Our children need to be empowered to become changemakers. They need to learn how to be valuable members of a community on both a local and a global level. They need to have empathy, resilience and resourcefulness, and they need to develop these essential skills in an environment of mutual respect which recognises the importance of their voices and their perspectives on the way they can help shape their future.

They need to learn how to love the planet again, in a way that so many of us have lost sight of. They need to spend time in nature, every day. Time to observe and play and just be.

Our children need to learn how to live in a sustainable way. They need to understand the impact of their lifestyle on the planet – from hankering after the latest iPhone to eating cheaply produced meat and dairy products. They need to know how big their carbon footprint is, and how they can reduce it. And to do that, they need to learn the skills we have lost along the way – how to grow food, and how to cook and preserve it. How to make things and fix them, from clothes to electronics.

They need to learn, too, how we have got where we are. To understand the basics of politics and economics, and how our media works. It is no coincidence to me that right wing governments are quick to rubbish Media Studies as a subject: if people knew how they were being manipulated those governments would not stay in power for long.

And alongside all this, creativity is absolutely key. Children should be immersed in the arts – painting, stories, music, drama. Their imaginations should be nurtured and given space to grow from day one, not knocked out of them at the earliest opportunity to make them more suitable candidates for standardised assessment. If we are going to enable our children to create the seismic shift our planet needs, then they need to have the tools and the confidence to rewrite their story – not just to be characters in a book that has already been written.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but these are all elements that are sorely lacking in the current curriculum and are absolutely essential to an education fit to tackle the climate crisis.

It’s not just what children learn that’s important either – how they learn it is equally as important. They will not be empowered by a system which takes away all of their agency from the minute they walk through its doors. Our schools need to be democratic institutions, recognising children as humans with as much to teach us as we can teach them. We need to transcend the behaviourist systems of reward and sanction that are endemic in our schools, and let our children instead experience what it is to be a valued community member. Above all we need to end the culture of compliance which our schools rely on. Our children need to feel able to speak out against injustice, to do what they know is right for themselves and the planet, not just to blindly follow rules for scraps of external validation.

This may all sound hopelessly idealistic, but I do not believe that it’s impossible. I have spent over twenty years working with children and teenagers both within and outside of the school system, and most of the time they are radically underestimated. There are decades of research in education and psychology which suggest that if we really care about maximising the potential of our young people then we are going about it entirely the wrong way. And I think that’s intentional: education’s purpose up until now has been to uphold the status quo. If we let that continue to be the case then we truly are heading for extinction.

We cannot wait for our children to become adults to make the changes we need to make: it is up to us to set the ball in motion, to start the shift to a more equitable and sustainable society that might just save humanity along with the planet. But we are doing them a huge disservice if we continue to educate them as if the climate and ecological emergency we face is just a side issue.

Our climate – our whole world – is changing. Our schools need to change too.

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