A teaching game-changer

30th August 2019


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John Sayers

A radical plan is under way to bring climate change teaching into every classroom across the world. Chris Seekings reports

The UN's Climate Change Teacher Academy project was set up to equip children with the skills needed to understand and protect the planet, before spreading the word as far as possible. And with a mass movement of young people protesting government inertia worldwide, it looks set to be a game-changer. The initiative is comprised of two concepts: a specialist e-course for teachers and an interactive teaching programme for children.

Climate literacy for all

The idea is to incorporate climate change and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals into school curriculums. Teachers can sign up to five online courses, and after two months of training, they are accredited by the UN to teach climate change facts. The courses cover climate science, gender and environment, children and climate change, cities and climate change, and human health, and are free for primary and secondary teachers worldwide.

Angus Mackay, head of the UN Climate Change Learning Partnership (UN CC:Learn), is the brains behind the idea.

UN CC:Learn is a group of UN agencies concerned about climate education and training. “Our goal is building climate change literacy at all levels – not just formal education, but all forms of education.“

Mackay believes that environmental education can have the greatest impact at youth level. Children might be taught maths through the concept of diminishing Arctic ice, for example. “Anyone born in the 21st century will spend their entire lives dealing with climate change, so in that sense they are the climate generation.“

The National Curriculum for England only has climate change issues taught to children in geography and chemistry classes once they are in secondary school, and there is a much greater lack of awareness in education systems worldwide.

UN CC:Learn teamed up with Harwood Education to support its online courses for teachers in the UK; more than 80 teachers have signed up, and over a thousand others have registered an interest. The programme should be available to all schools in September this year. “You have to remember that these teachers are taking time out of their own lives to do this, founder Melanie Harwood says. “It is at very early stages, and we need to take it step by step, but once all the stakeholders are happy and we have built something amazing we can roll it out to all schools.“

Building an army

The second phase, introduced at the COP24 climate summit last year, involves turning children into mini-journalists who can teach eachother about the impact of climate change through social media, blogging and other online platforms.

Harwood is the creator of the innovative Start-Bee Handwriting Scheme, which involves children teaching other children. “That is what got me interested; it made so much sense,“ Mackay explains. “The way kids speak makes it more likely that the information will sink in. If we can seed this idea in other parts of the world then we can build a revolution.“

While children teaching children might sound chaotic, there will be structure. Every school involved will have a head climate change teacher to ensure children create content in a responsible way.

The plan is to kick-start an international youth dialogue that fosters direct discussion between schoolchildren around the world through 'Climate Change Diaries'. These interactive videos will be incorporated into classes, and a UN documentary TV series will showcase how children around the world are coping with climate change. The campaign will be promoted internationally through online channels. And although 44% of the world's population is without internet access, an app should be out next year that only needs to be downloaded once before all materials are available offline.

The Swiss government has helped fund the scheme to date, but it needs more support. There has also been concern around whether young children should be taught about this subject at all. “But the children are striking against climate change and want to know more – we are getting interest from all over the world,“ says Harwood. “We are absolutely passionate about this and have put our lives on hold to make sure it works.“

Find out more at: www.unccteacheracademy.com


The UK's first Climate Change Teacher

Bec Wakefield, literacy lead and Early Years lead at Down Hall Primary School, talks about how she became the UK's first Climate Change Teacher accredited by the UN

Q: Was the training very challenging?

A: Parts of the courses were more difficult. I found the Climate Change International Legal Regime most difficult. It's online and there is a quiz to pass. The Climate Change International Legal Regime had three modules and you needed to pass each of these. It is possible to take each quiz up to three times and you must have either a 60% or 70% minimum score to pass.

Q: What are some examples of the teaching you provide your students?

A: Our youngest children have learnt about the importance of recycling and not being wasteful of water, food, resources, etc. We compost our snacks and use it on the vegetable beds in the garden, and also help to look after our school chickens. We have used picture books and stories to support the children's understanding. These have covered different issues, including the rise of plastic in the oceans, litter and its damage to the environment, and recycling and simple ways to become more environmentally friendly.

Children in Years 5 and 6 have learnt about palm oil using the Iceland advert as a stimulus. They have also learnt about the impact of climate change, such as severe flooding or the absence of rainfall and how this affects children's rights. They have also written to our local MP, who subsequently visited the school and had a question and answer session with Key Stage 2 children.

Q: What has the reaction been like from the students?

A: The children are very keen to make changes that could positively impact on the environment – after all, it is their future. Even the smallest changes build over time and become embedded.

Q: Is it a subject that the students are passionate about, and can they understand it easily?

A: The children are passionate and those in Years 5 and 6 were shocked by the deforestation caused by palm oil. They questioned our local MP about his voting record on climate change. They want to make a difference.

I teach in Early Years and elements of our curriculum can clearly be linked: for example, the 'Early Learning Goal for The World' states that “Children know about similarities and differences in relation to places, objects, materials and living things. They talk about the features of their own immediate environment and how environments might vary from one another. They make observations of animals and plants and explain why some things occur, and talk about changes.“ The exceeding statement for this goal states: “Children know that the environment and living things are influenced by human activity. They can describe some actions, which people in their own community do that help to maintain the area they live in.“ We are also teaching it through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Q: Has there been any criticism from parents?

A: None. Parents of children in our Early Years have commented on things their children have talked about, for example regarding turning off lights or picking up litter. I think this training has come at an important time. Children are interested in climate change – it matters to them.


Image credit: Shutterstock

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