Teachers want to encourage children to take a public stand against climate change

Teachers prepared to support activism from young people regarding climate change.

More than half of teachers in England are in favor of teaching children to take direct action against climate change and break the rules to make their point, according to a new survey.

The research, led by the University of Bristol, is the largest of its kind in the UK and involved asking 626 primary and secondary teachers across England their views on climate change education.

Results revealed teachers believed almost unanimously in an action-focussed climate change curriculum incorporated across subjects, starting with conservation projects in early primary school. The majority (54 per cent) also believed this should extend to participation in civil disobedience at secondary school.

Lead author Paul Howard-Jones, Professor of Neuroscience and Education, said: “Teachers want their students to be informed in how they think and what they do about the climate emergency. They are ready and willing to move forward with radical, action-oriented programs of education that can help students drive our response to climate change.”

The study, published today in Environmental Education Research, also found that around three-quarters (72 per cent) of respondents were already teaching or talking about climate change with their students, compared to less than half (42 per cent) of teachers in the US, according to a recent Ipsos survey.

Generally, the data suggest teachers are more aligned with scientific opinion regarding the urgency and seriousness of the climate crisis than their US counterparts. Almost all (97 per cent) teachers surveyed in England believed climate change was caused by humans, compared with only 39 per cent of teacher respondents in the US. Almost one in five (19 per cent) of teachers in England thought climate change was more important for further funding than STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects and second only to basic literacy (42 per cent). This is almost four times the number of teachers in the US who would prioritize climate change (5 per cent).

Currently in England compulsory climate change education is limited to Science and Geography lessons at secondary school, with Geography only compulsory for 11 to 14-year-olds at Key Stage 3. The curriculum covers how human and physical processes have interacted historically to influence and change landscapes, environments, and the climate. It doesn’t require students to understand the wider impact of climate change on the environment, economy, and society, including social injustices and ethical dimensions. Teaching aimed at promoting behavior change also tends to be limited to low-impact individual action. However, more than half (51 per cent) of schools across England are now academies, which means they are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum creating scope for more freedom in the style and content of climate change education.

Professor Howard-Jones, of the university’s School of Education and Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “Despite being under-represented in the National Curriculum, climate change is something many young people feel passionate about. School children have been inspired by Greta Thunberg, who has demonstrated the importance of peaceful protest to raise awareness of the climate crisis and spur individual as well as large-scale change. They have also seen the tactics of groups like Extinction Rebellion and many have become activists already.

“Our research indicates that teachers are prepared to support their activism through an action-oriented approach to Climate Change Education. With COP26 being hosted in the UK in November, there has never been a better time to reflect on how we’re preparing young people for the defining issue of today.”

The University of Bristol is leading a network aimed at developing more effective climate change education in schools. The Climate change Education Research Network (CCERN) comprises the partner Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.

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