Raising young people’s awareness of the climate crisis means rethinking education
“A more peaceful world can only become a reality if we educate not only the brain, but also the heart,” the Dalai Lama wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, arguing for the need for social, emotional and ethical learning. . The call from the Tibetan spiritual leader expressed the need for learning that goes beyond technical education and emphasizes values such as justice, mindfulness and peace.
As the world heads towards potential climate catastrophe, technical education in sustainability – from carbon capture research to nature-based climate solutions – seems to need to be complemented by efforts to cultivate a greater appreciation for the natural world.
GovInsider shines a spotlight on educators engaged in these efforts with young people and explores how their work is inspiring rethinking in education.
Co-create with the environment
Rather than imparting knowledge via a top-down model, climate education is increasingly moving towards the co-creation of knowledge by students with the environment.
In practice, this could mean that teachers refrain from delivering lessons with a curriculum in mind, in favor of developing activities and experiences that encourage students to develop their own thinking. .
To learn more, GovInsider spoke with Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw, one of the leading figures in the field. Pacini-Ketchabaw is director of the Climate Action Childhood Network, which is led by early childhood educators from over 10 early years centers in Australia, Ecuador, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. His project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The Climate Action Childhood Network develops climate-specific experiences with children up to age five that encourage them to consider – and reconsider – their relationship with the natural world. Through these experiences, students are encouraged to discover knowledge with the natural world, rather than having knowledge imparted to them.
Pacini-Ketchabaw illustrates this point with reference to waste management, noting that many of us remember learning the “three Rs” in class: reuse, reduce, recycle. She says conducting such lessons in an abstract way can encourage an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
“What happens… if we bring in food waste and integrate the food waste into [children’s] daily practice and create a program around food waste? she asks, referring to a project called “Reinventing waste management practices”, which encourages students to collect their food scraps and send them to compost each week. The project documents children’s responses to the changing state of food, from building a compost bin to creating stories around the insects that inhabit the bin.
Such projects encourage students to avoid seeing themselves as above or separate from the natural world, says Pacini-Ketchabaw. Thinking of yourself as separate from the natural world tends to foster the belief that “we can do whatever we want with the environment and nothing will happen,” she says.
The call to move towards project-based climate experiences is not unique to the educational innovations of the Climate Action Childhood Network. In a recent Unesco webinar on education and climate changeSaher Rashid Baig, global youth advocate for climate and the right to a healthy environment, also expressed the need to move towards “project-based and experiential education that integrates science and traditional knowledge”.
The advantage of working with young people and children is that they remain “open to other ways of thinking, other ways of being in the world,” says Pacini-Ketchabaw. Through their playful and inventive nature, they can help us imagine new ways of relating to the environment.
Centering student development
An integral part of this type of climate education is to center students’ development and critical thinking in relation to the world around them. After all, as Pacini-Ketchabaw points out, it is the young who will inherit an increasingly unstable and precarious Earth.
“There needs to be a lot more careful work on how we’re going to help kids create their own responses, rather than telling them how they should do things,” she says.
Another example of climate-focused education that encourages children to develop more holistically are forestry schools, which emphasize outdoor learning. Originally developed in Europe, the concept has spread to Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as the United States, according to a BBC report.
By emphasizing hands-on drills and play, forestry education can improve attention spans, reduce conflict between children and build strength and coordination, according to studies cited in the BBC article .
In the test “Learning to Thrive: Educating Singapore’s Children for a Climate Changing World”published in the book Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, authors Al Lim and Feroz Khan noted that students at Forest School Singapore learned to shape their own experiences and mediate conflict sensitively. This collaborative attitude contrasts with the more competitive nature of Singapore’s intensive education system.
Similarly, a non-profit organization in Singapore named Back to Ground Zero runs mindfulness enrichment sessions that focus on environmental awareness. Co-founder Maria Tan told Youthopia that values such as empathy and resilience can not only encourage children to be kinder to themselves, but also to the world around them.
So how are young people responding to these calls to action? As Pacini-Ketchabaw puts it, it is difficult to measure the results of such educational efforts, especially when those efforts focus on less tangible values.
One avenue ripe for exploration might be social media. As young people mature, they may find that social media is a key outlet through which climate education moves from the top down to the grassroots.
Students at the forefront of new educational initiatives may still be in school, but young people in their late teens and early twenties have risen to the challenge of co-owning environmental education through digital. They may not yet have access to decision makers, but many have opted for peer education.
On TikTok, a burgeoning collective of young environmental educators named “EcoTok”, whose members include concerned individuals from high school students to marine biologists, has emerged, according to a EuroNews report. These young people play the role of science communicators, responding to climate misinformation and encouraging their followers to take active, everyday action to cause climate impacts.
A popular EcoTok contributor is called “Earth Stewardess”. In response to a question about how to survive a zombie apocalypse, she provided a DIY tutorial on home hydroponics horticulture. The video went viral in March and is an example of how science communication is moving to TikTok. By day, Earth Stewardess is Doria Brown, energy manager for the city of Nashua in the US state of New Hampshire, who leads community food initiatives, according to Flaunt magazine.
EcoTok has been instrumental in moving the needle in the climate change discourse. Rather than using fear-based messages, the creators of EcoTok encourage their viewers not to give up on the climate crisis, but rather to take matters into their own hands, according to the New York Times.
“Education is for inventing another type of society,” says Pacini-Ketchabaw. As educators and students begin the hard work of building a more climate-resilient future, education may need a giant leap to become more student-centered, values-driven, and democratic.