Responding to COP26: A robust cross-curricular approach to climate education

Written by: Alan Kinder | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How do teachers make sense of the decisions emerging from COP26? Alan Kinder says clear curriculum thinking will be required and offers ideas for ensuring a robust approach to climate change education

Despite on-going problems with supply chains in the UK, there is currently no shortage of news and information about the climate change negotiations taking place in and around COP26 in Glasgow (November 1 to 12, 2021).

This is a globally significant event, which some have billed as the last realistic chance for the nations of the world to agree a course of action to avert dangerous levels of global heating.

Coming so soon after October’s UN meeting on the biodiversity crisis, held in Kunming, China (to considerably less publicity than COP26), this autumn may come to be regarded as a pivotal period for our planet’s environment, and the sense of opportunity and urgency across the education sector reflects this. In the last few weeks:

  • Seventy-nine of the world’s geographical organisations (including my own, the Geographical Association) came together for the first time, to call on world leaders to place the protection of nature and climate at the centre of their policy-making (see Geographical Association, 2021).
  • An open letter to the prime minister, the COP26 president and the education secretary was published by 150 college leaders in England arguing for climate and environmental education to be made a compulsory part of all study courses (AOC, 2021).
  • Four of the largest education unions urged the government to decarbonise school estates by 2030, to make travel to schools and colleges sustainable, and to ensure sustainability is embedded throughout the curriculum.
  • The British Educational Research Association (BERA) launched a Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability, which proposes that environmental sustainability be included in inspection frameworks, professional standards for teachers and other accountability frameworks used within the UK education system (for a report on this, see our sister magazine SecEd; BERA, 2021) .
  • Secretary of state for education, Nadhim Zahawi, used COP26 itself to announce the creation of a “model” science curriculum for climate change education and encouragement for students to increase biodiversity on their school grounds (DfE, 2021a).

It is of course much harder for teachers to “seize the moment”. Crafting a curriculum and classroom response to COP26 – one that helps make sense of the event and the issues and uses these to promote educational goals – is much more challenging than signing a declaration or writing a letter.

Many teachers I speak to are feeling rather overwhelmed at the many sources of support and classroom materials competing for their attention at present.

There are, however, some student-friendly “ways in” to engaging with COP26, and one or two of the very many guides available online are more readily adaptable to the classroom.

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, for example, has produced a visual guide to COP26 (ECIU, 2021), while National Geographic has a “kid’s guide” on its website (see further information).

Stepping back from the immediacy of the event itself, many schools will be interested in the professional and practical work needed to make sense of the decisions emerging from COP26.

Some clear curriculum thinking is required here, and my own “recipe” for a robust approach to climate change education in schools would certainly include the following components:

  • Climate: What it is, how it differs from weather, why it varies from place to place and over time.
  • Climate change: Data over different timescales, the reasons for these changes, and the types of effects produced.
  • Anthropogenic climate change since the 19th century: Its causes and its effects, including the environmental, social and economic challenges experienced in different places and why these vary.
  • Future climate modelling: Interpreting this data and interpreting future scenarios globally and for different places around the world.
  • Policy and personal choices: The choices that face us now and which may also lie ahead, including the choices that need to be made around mitigation or adaptation, with examples at scales from the individual to the international illustrating what has already been done.

While school subjects like geography and science are likely to have the curriculum capacity and subject expertise to lead on some of these areas, schools still need to determine the most appropriate subject, key stage and teaching approach for each component.

Teaching about climate modelling, for example, involves very different concepts to critically reflecting on the economic and political arguments underpinning the belief that well-regulated markets are best placed to provide climate solutions, or to reflecting on and managing the personal emotions that phrases like “climate crisis” inevitably stir up.

Consequently, subjects like geography, science, maths, design and technology, and PSHE are all likely to play very different roles in respect of climate change education, and leaders of these subjects should certainly be challenged to define what they can contribute to what needs to be a coherent whole-school offer.

In seeking help with this challenge, I would draw a distinction between those organisations that aim to promote their own views and beliefs, and those that set out to assist teachers and schools with the curriculum and pedagogic challenges they face.

Unsurprisingly, I would suggest that the practical and professional help freely available from the Geographical Association, including materials around climate change processes, mitigation and adaptation, fall into the latter category (see further information for this and other useful resources).

The ambition that school and college estates should be decarbonised by 2030 is likely to pose a challenge to schools at least as daunting as curriculum coherence. Here, the Carbon Trust argues that reducing a school’s carbon emissions could be a “win-win” scenario. It estimates that UK schools could prevent 625,000 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere and reduce their annual energy costs by £44m in doing so.

Increasingly, schools and teachers are also realising the educational potential of involving students in the process of decarbonising. For example, the Let’s Go Zero campaign (backed by the climate charity Ashden), which launched in the summer of 2021 and advocates for school carbon neutrality by 2030, has already attracted the support of more than 650 schools. The campaign will be showcasing low-carbon initiatives from schools at COP26, and its work also featured recently in a SecEd podcast episode (SecEd Podcast, 2021).

As ever, an article for teachers on climate change requires a balance of urgency and hope. I have always found the work of David Hicks (visiting professor at Bath Spa University) incredibly helpful in this regard. His writings encourage schools to acknowledge the enormity of the global environmental challenge and to unpack the feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, fear and even hopelessness than can result.

But David’s work also explores “active hope”, based on resilience and well-being and achieved through learning how individuals, communities and organisations around the world are working together to mitigate their carbon emissions and adapt to change.

David’s work has inspired teachers like David Alcock from Bradford Grammar School to create Hopeful Education – an initiative to encourage students to understand global progress, believe in humanity and help to create a better world. Let’s hope that world leaders play their part in this vital human project at COP26.

  • Alan Kinder is chief executive of the Geographical Association. His previous roles have included geography teacher, school and curriculum leader, field studies officer, local authority adviser and PGCE tutor.

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