Integrating climate change into the curriculum is not without tensions. The need to engage with the issue feels urgent, because we are already seeing major climate impacts unfolding worldwide. However, thoughtfully weaving climate change into the curriculum in a cohesive way takes time and cannot be rushed.
It is to school leaders’ credit that they are often capable for responding quickly to emerging demands. In the case of climate change, however, quick fixes will not deliver the results we need. There has got to be depth to the work they and their staff undertake, and as with all the other adaptations the problem requires of us all, our focus must be on long-term sustainability.
In The Process of Education, Jerome Bruner said: ‘A curriculum is more for teachers than it is for students. If a curriculum cannot change, move, perturb, inform teachers, it will have no effect on those whom they teach. It must be first and foremost a curriculum for teachers. If it has any effect on pupils, it will have it by virtue of having had an effect on teachers.’
The point Bruner makes is a very reasonable one; if we want teachers to truly embrace something new in their teaching, it has to resonate with them first. They are the ones who shape what children and young people learn day to day in the classroom. The content of what is taught in schools is either driven or informed by the national curriculum, but the nuances and elements that are emphasised in classrooms must be responsive to world events in general and local concerns in particular. This resonates strongly with climate change.
Our young people are already attuned to climate change and there is a great deal reported around them experiencing eco-anxiety about their future planet. Any curriculum design should have the opportunity to empower students and motivate them around this issue. Building their knowledge (which is tricky, problematic and often underestimated) as well developing their critical thinking skills and mental models related to climate change needs to start early in their learning and continue through their whole education.
Even with all this momentum from the learners and educators who understand the needs, climate education cannot be another flash-in-the-pan initiative that burns bright then fades. It needs to be integrated in a sustainable way that endures – and one which is carefully and meaningfully implemented.
We cannot leave something so important to chance. High-quality professional development is of paramount importance, and not just a half-day course. Alliances such as CAPE (Climate Adapted Pathways for Education, of which I am a Patron) are laying the groundwork for long-term success, and programmes such as Climate Wise Schools supporting schools with implementing climate education thoughtfully over a six-month period are what it will take to ensure the impact lasts beyond this or that initiative or one particularly motivated teacher.
When we consider the urgency of the climate crisis, yet the need for gradual integration into crowded school days, we know that school leaders and teachers have difficult decisions to make. But by taking care to build teacher and student engagement, and through learning from schools already doing this work, climate change education can transform how young people see their place in protecting the planet. More than that, we can ensure that they are supported by secure knowledge rather than just activism.
So rather than to jump straight to assemblies or alterations to schemes of work, the first step might be to consider how the school itself is modelling environmentally sound decision-making. This too is part of the curriculum pupils experience, and it’s a great way to start the process of engaging staff meaningfully in what must be a long-term transformative process.
After all, our curriculum needs to help young people to develop expert mental models of sustainability, but also the agency to create solutions. This will not happen overnight, but with intent and foresight, we can get there.