Setbacks Aside, Climate Change Finds Its Way into the World's Classrooms ; Many Nations Are Making Global Warming Part of the School Curriculum

By Gardiner, Beth | International New York Times, April 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Setbacks Aside, Climate Change Finds Its Way into the World's Classrooms ; Many Nations Are Making Global Warming Part of the School Curriculum


Gardiner, Beth, International New York Times


While school budgets, teacher workloads and politics have complicated the spread of lessons on climate change, many nations are still adding or expanding such offerings.

From Mauritius to Manitoba, climate change is slowly moving from the headlines to the classroom. Schools around the world are beginning to tackle the difficult issue of global warming, teaching students how the planet is changing and encouraging them to think about what they can do to help slow that process.

Strapped school budgets, concerns about overburdening teachers and political opposition to what in some places is a contentious subject have complicated the spread of lessons on climate change. Nonetheless, many nations are adding or expanding such offerings, convinced that young people must learn about a phenomenon likely to have a big impact on their lives.

Schools, advocates say, can play an important role in fighting climate change by teaching young people greener habits and creating a generation of voters who will back measures to cut carbon dioxide pollution.

To slow dangerous warming, "we need an overall change of mind and a change of action that relates to everything that we think and do," said Alexander Leicht, of Unesco, the agency overseeing the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, which ends this year.

"We need every individual's understanding to do something about that, every individual's motivation," he said. "How else do you reach them than through education?"

Not everyone agrees, however, and in some places the question of how and whether to teach the subject is politically charged. Britain's education secretary has zigzagged, with changes that environmental advocates say will reduce climate's prominence in the national curriculum there.

In the United States, new science standards drawn up by 26 states and scientists' and teachers' groups call for introducing climate change to students in middle school and exploring it in greater detail in high school. That has stirred opposition in states like Wyoming, a coal and oil producer. Lawmakers there last month blocked funding for the standards, saying teaching climate change could hurt the local economy.

"A lot of science teachers essentially say, 'This doesn't feel like a very safe topic to teach. The science is conceptually difficult, and it's controversial. I might get complaints from parents and it's not part of my current curriculum, and so I'm not going to take it on,"' said Charles Anderson, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, who advised on the new standards.

Still, in other countries the subject is less contentious. Irish schools, for example, cover climate change as part of a broad theme known as education for sustainable development, addressing social and environmental problems ranging from poverty to dwindling biodiversity.

While officials are only now formulating a national strategy, many schools have been offering such lessons for years, said Tony Gaynor, a curriculum and assessment officer at Ireland's Department of Education and Skills.

"There's a lot going on out there, and there's an awful lot of enthusiasm and passion in the sector," he said.

The subject fits well with Ireland's effort to move away from rote learning and toward developing students' analytic and critical thinking skills, he noted. "Sustainable development is an area where there are complex issues that need to be teased out and challenged."

That comes with "a much more participatory, democratic approach where students are identifying problems that need to be solved, and students are doing their own research on how to solve the problems," he said.

That is true, too, in island nations such as Cuba, Indonesia, Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago. As part of a Unesco effort called Sandwatch, students visit beaches to measure their width, analyze wave direction, collect water samples, assess wildlife and gather other data. …

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