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Learning our lesson: Why we must teach kids about climate change

Paul Howard-Jones
Paul Howard-Jones
Professor of Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol

Learning our lesson: Why we must teach kids about climate change

As COP26 draws to a close, the GW4 Climate Change Education Research Network’s Paul Howard-Jones, Professor of Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol, explains why climate must be at the heart of the National Curriculum in order to achieve widescale behavioural change.


I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but climate change is an existential threat that demands we change how we live. From driving and flying less to eating and buying ‘greener’, wide scale behavioural changes are drastically needed if we’re to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Looking back in prehistory, however, you may be relieved to know this isn’t the first time our actions have needed a step change. Groups of humans have often innovated with technology to get themselves out of scrapes. For example, it may have been the loss of nomadic pastureland to volcanic activity that encouraged some of the first agricultural settlements. And, as these blossomed into the first urban populations, it’s thought we invented numeracy (and perhaps even literacy) to collect taxes for maintaining the shared infrastructure.

Perhaps it’s hopeful then, that we already have some interesting ideas on climate change: Capturing carbon, feeding cattle seaweed to reduce their emissions, whitening the polar clouds to reflect more warming radiation. I find these ideas very attractive, not least because they probably won’t impact on my lifestyle.

Unfortunately, however, more technology may not solve the climate crisis. While these ideas might help, they are unlikely to be enough on their own - our relationship with technology itself may need to change. Rather than just thinking about faster, sleeker and more powerful, we now have to focus on something much more abstract: the longer-term, environmental implications of producing and using it.

Malleable minds

I recently worked with the anthropologist Fiona Coward (Bournemouth University) to discover what might have stirred our prehistoric ancestors to revise their own relationship with technology. Why did some settlements begin innovating and accumulating, and become “entangled” with technological solutions in the first place? That clearly signals a new relationship with the technology, when technological problems were addressed with more technology.

In our recent paper aimed at addressing these questions, we pointed to shifts in social organisation offering new educational environments for those with the most malleable minds: the children. Yes, simple really: Education, education, education can be at the heart of big change. This is not about adults shifting responsibility for addressing global warming to the younger generations – of course not, let’s do all the things we can to address climate change now – but one of these is to ensure the environment is embedded in the foundation of our children’s understanding about the world. Without that, an enduring cultural shift in how we live may not be possible.

Educationally-relevant research

That is why we established the GW4 Climate Change Education Research Network (CCERN). We’re a transdisciplinary network aimed at developing more effective climate change education in schools, assisting teachers in talking to and teaching their pupils about the climate emergency, informed by up-to-date and educationally-relevant research. CCERN researchers recently undertook a survey involving over 600 primary and secondary teachers across England - the largest of its kind in the UK. We discovered that the vast majority were in favour of an action-based climate change curriculum that would include issues of social justice, that begins in primary school with mitigation projects such as conservation and family advocacy, and introduces children to local campaigning at secondary school.

If education is going to be an important part of the plan, there’s a lot to do. The COP26 website announces that “the UK has a lot to be proud of when it comes to acting on climate change”, but you won’t find education in the list of 11 achievements. Even in schools, the National Curriculum in England does not currently require children to understand the broader impacts of climate change on the environment, economy and society, or to consider issues of social justice in relation to climate change. Most pupils in England now attend academies (which are not constrained by the National Curriculum) and a variety of climate change initiatives are sprouting through the efforts of individual teachers and headteachers – often spread across school subject areas.

CCERN has brought together more than 300 teachers, climate scientists and researchers to support dialogue between these initiatives. We are seeking ways to study these practices in a systematic fashion, with the aim of providing insight into the most effective ones. If you’d like to know more, please go to our website and sign-up to hear about future events.

Picture credit: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

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