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'Dismal' and 'inadequate' climate education must be tackled, students and teachers say

A new strategy on eduation for sustainable development is due to be published by the end of March.

A sign at a climate protest by school children and young people in Dublin, September 2021
A sign at a climate protest by school children and young people in Dublin, September 2021
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

CLIMATE EDUCATION MUST be revised to teach students about the climate crisis and empower them to take action instead of the current ‘inadequate’ system, experts say.

By the end of March, the Department of Education is due to publish a new strategy on Education for Sustainable Development.

It forms part of the government’s steps to increase climate literacy under the Climate Action Plan 2021, which says that a better understanding of climate issues “will enhance our capacity to make small changes in our daily lives, to engage with climate action at a local level, and to participate at national level in the co-design of policy”.

Climate educators and students want to see dedicated time given to teaching young people about the issue and a systemic, whole-school approach, rather than leaving the burden to individual, passionate teachers.

Additionally, students should be shown how to take action, like developing a project or writing to a politician, to empower them.

Some subjects like Junior Cycle CSPE or Leaving Cert Politics and Society already include measures to foster action – but experts say it needs to move beyond specific classes to become an everyday reality.

‘When climate change is taught in schools, it’s depoliticised’ 

Jessica Dunne, a Leaving Certificate student, is an activist with Fridays for Future Ireland, a movement of young people campaigning for climate justice.

She explained that the way schools approach climate usually focuses on small problems or actions rather than equipping students with a holistic view of the issue.

“A lot of the time it can fall on individualist things, like you should have a shower instead of a bath, or you should be turning off your lights, or you shouldn’t shop fast fashion, which is all very true, but at the end of the day, when we’re talking about climate education, it’s such a rich opportunity to be able to teach people about systemic issues,” she told The Journal.

“I think that sometimes when climate change is taught in schools, it can be depoliticised, but it’s an inherently political thing.”

Recent research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) found that people often overestimate the benefits of low-impact actions, like recycling, for the climate, but underestimate the value of high-impact actions like cutting out meat.

Patrick Kirwan, a science and biology teacher in Waterford, agrees that education needs to put more focus on the wider picture of the climate crisis and the measures that must be taken to address it.

He said the state of climate and nature education in schools is “dismal” and “completely and utterly inadequate for where we’re at right now”.

In March 2021, Kirwan founded the Irish Schools Sustainability Network, a forum for teachers and students to work on climate action and sustainability in the education system.

“Climate and nature education isn’t just for geography and science teachers, just as literacy and numeracy aren’t just for English and maths teachers,” Kirwan said.

Speaking to The Journal, he said that the Department of Education should provide funding for schools to appoint a dedicated sustainability lead.

“What I would be looking for is a sustainability lead in every school that is making sure that every school has a sustainability policy, that they’re looking at buildings, procurement, curriculum, the canteen, outdoor areas, training for all staff and students,” Kirwan said.

“Possibly, there’s a need there for a separate environmental qualification as well with staff who are trained and have the passion and interest and qualifications to deliver that,” he said.

That position holder should be designated at least one or two days each week – if not more – to work on sustainability in the school, he said.

“Hopefully, in five or six years’ time, when that’s woven into the fabric of school life and everyone’s got more confidence in the mechanisms that are in place, that position is then dissolved,” Kirwan said.

Similarly, Executive Director of ECO-UNESCO Elaine Nevin said that individual teachers are often the ones driving environmental change in schools, rather than a whole-school approach to climate.

“They might do that themselves in their own classroom and integrate it into their subjects or they might do it by linking in with an organisation like ourselves,” Nevin said.

“It’s not systemic, it’s not integrated throughout the system, but it does happen. There’s probably a lot more happening than then maybe the general public know, but there still isn’t enough, that’s the thing. There isn’t enough.

“It’s kind of sporadic and it can depend on your champion or your teachers or your organisations like ourselves where we would go in as an external provider.”

Sustainable strategy

The national Education for Sustainable Development to 2030 strategy, and an accompanying plan for how the strategy will be implemented, are due to be published in the first quarter of this year.

 A spokesperson for the Department of Education told The Journal that the strategy will be based around five key areas, including “empowering and mobilising youth – not only giving our young people the knowledge, but empowering them to take action”.

It will also lay out plans for increasing community engagement, building capacity to ensure educators are trained to deliver ESD, and ensuring the Department of Education is aligned with government policy like the Climate Action Plan.

The strategy will look at “transforming learning environments” and “ensuring that students are learning in sustainable environments, living what they learn and learning what they live,” the spokesperson said.

“This links, for example, to the school building and school transport programmes.” 

The strategy is the second one of its kind. The first iteration, which spanned from 2014 to 2020, included an audit by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) four years ago to find links to sustainable development in the school curriculum.

The NCCA then commissioned an international curriculum audit of Education for Sustainable Development last year to guide curriculum development in Ireland, which is also due to be published in the next two months.

The spokesperson said that an “interim review of the [first] strategy published in 2018 identified significant progress in terms of integrating ESD principles and themes across the curriculum from early years to post-primary education”.

It also saw progress in “integrating ESD into the inspection and assessment process and integrating ESD into initial teacher education and continuing professional development for teachers”.

The spokesperson said that the Junior Cycle CSPE and the new Leaving Certificate Politics and Society curriculum support students taking climate action and a sustainable development citizenship project respectively.  

ISSN founder Patrick Kirwan said that basic information about the climate crisis is not being communicated to the public.

“Teachers and students are part of the wider public and the wider public don’t know what’s going on,” Kirwan said.

“Although it’s in the curriculum, it’s not being taught in a way that engages students in the topic. They’re basically left unable to articulate even basic science, so they can’t articulate the link between carbon dioxide and fossil fuels and electricity and global warming,” he said.

They think they’re not going to be affected in their lifetime, they don’t understand – teachers included – how they will be impacted personally in we don’t get this right in this decade. They’re not really aware that this decade is so important.

“What needs to happen is that climate and nature education should be woven throughout the curriculum and teachers need a lot of training on how to do this with techniques on how to communicate this information.”

Student Jessica Dunne also believes that climate education needs to be strengthened in schools and in society more broadly.

“Honestly, if we’re talking about climate education, I think that it would be amazing to have initiatives where wider climate education is available to people who aren’t in schools or who wouldn’t have that accessible to them,” she said.

“It’s an issue for all of society and, especially for people who are voting, it’s important for them to be educated about it, but the information is very difficult to find if you’re not actively searching for it.”

Action projects

Experts say it’s not enough to only provide information to students about climate issues – they should be given the time and skills to take action inside and outside of class.

ECO-UNESCO’s Elaine Nevin said that young people “feel empowered when they’re taking action”.

A survey by ECO-UNESCO of 15 to 25-year-olds found 77% said they were very to extremely concerned about climate change.

They also said that they don’t feel they have enough knowledge or skills, they don’t feel that they have access to politicians, and they don’t feel that they’re heard or listened to.

“The awareness of climate change has increased in the general public. I think with young people, they’re saying, okay, great, but what do we do? And I think that’s what they’re looking for – a lot of them are looking for ‘tell us what we can do’,” Nevin said.

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ECO-UNESCO launched a new online platform this week with courses for students on sustainable development, fast fashion, and climate justice, as well as a course on how to carry out an action project to enter in the Young Environmentalist Awards.

“Fast fashion is very topical with young people. I think it’s one of those places where they feel that they can make a difference, because as young people, as teenagers, that’s one of the places that they consume,” Nevin said.

“[In the climate justice course] we’re also looking at the social justice issues around climate action. When we talk about climate action, it’s who are the people it impacts and how can we make a transition from a high carbon society to a low carbon society as fair and as equitable as possible, and that’s something that we also cover with young people that we work with.”

Schools should give students the opportunities to work on projects, ‘learn by doing’, learn from their peers and spend time in nature.

“It’s about embedding it into the fabric of the school and school life. Often, when you look at schools, you’re just thinking about the curriculum or the stuff to do in class,” she said.

Integrating it, making sure there are extracurricular activities, to have environmental clubs or eco clubs – catering for the young people who want to do something around the environment and climate.

“They themselves then become leaders and that’s feeding back into their peer group as well.”

For Patrick Kirwan, equipping students with skills is important for reducing eco-anxiety and strengthening young people by “developing a culture of agency and empowerment”

“We can do that through action projects, not just in school but at home as well. They need us to provide those opportunities and really they need us to encourage them,” Kirwan said.

People are the drivers for making government and businesses change… it’s about getting engaged politically. One of the things schools need to do is teach students how to write a letter, where you find information to contact your TD and your counsellor, and give them the space to process what’s going on and put those feelings out there and allow them, if they want to, time in school to send those emails.

“What’s heartening for me is… [from] the little bit of work that I have done with the kids, I’ve seen kids who haven’t been thinking about this, haven’t been educated, who have been given some education and they’ve gone from zero to 100 miles an hour, engaging with this and taking action,” he said.

“They’re not withered by anxiety but feeling empowered and building their skills and socialising with friends and having fun as they’re putting things in place – because they feel they’ve got a bit of control over it.

“We’re talking about an educational revolution here and transformational change across the board, and the education sector should be modelling that.”

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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