Towards a pedagogy for climate action

Teaching children about climate change cannot simply be about giving them facts. Different pedagogical approaches can help students in lower-income countries become more climate sensitive and agents of change.

December 27, 2022 by Fumiyo Kagawa, Sustainability Frontiers, UK , and David Selby, Sustainability Frontiers, UK
6 minutes read
Children taking part to climate change awareness school activity at Gamal Abd El-Nasser Primary School in Fayoum governorate in Upper Egypt. Credit: UNICEF/UN0726803/Mostafa
Children take part in climate change awareness school activity at Gamal Abd El-Nasser Primary School in Fayoum governorate in Upper Egypt.
Credit: UNICEF/UN0726803/Mostafa

If a key climate change message for schools in lower-income countries is that children and young people should be agents of change in their communities as they seek to ensure a liveable planet for all, then simply increasing their factual knowledge and understanding is not going to be enough.

A fit-for-purpose pedagogy needs to be one of active engagement. A monoculture of passive listening to the teacher, sedentary engagement and rote memorization will not foster the skills and mindset for participative and proactive citizenship. Problematically, passive and sedentary pedagogies remain dominant in many classrooms in lower-income countries.

Learning modalities in response to climate change

Based on our 2012 UNESCO/UNICEF document Disaster Risk Reduction in School Curricula: Case Studies from Thirty Countries and our subsequent research, we consider a continuous mixing and juxtaposition of the following learning modalities to be optimal.

Importantly, they should not be conceived simply for classroom use but also be employed beyond the classroom - linking student learning in the classroom to learning within the wider school and, importantly, out in the community. Each modality has the potential to realize multiple knowledge, skills and attitudinal/dispositional learning outcomes.

  • Discussion sessions (in pairs, small groups and/or whole group): Small group and whole group brainstorming (i.e. students spontaneously offering ideas on a topic, all ideas being accepted, prior to their categorization, organization and evaluation); student presentations involving feedback from the teacher, community members and other students; question and answer sessions with guest speakers.
  • Milling activities: Milling around to swap or share information, collectively reviewing displayed material, or going to view presentations of each other’s work and ideas.
  • Socio-emotional learning: Sharing feelings about climate change and disaster-related personal experiences; articulating hopes and fears for the future; empathetic exercises in response to case studies and narratives of those caught up in disasters.
  • Inquiry learning: Investigating and inquiring through observation, surveys, interviews and Internet search; project work; case study research.
  • Surrogate experiential learning: Reviewing and responding to video and audio inputs; playing board games; role-plays; using drama, dance and song.
  • Field experiential learning: Field visits to areas of environmental protection; community surveys; class visits to organic farms and nature reserves; visits to climate-related NGOs to learn about their mandate, work and functioning; risk mapping in schools and communities; interviewing community members; working with community teams.
  • Action and activist learning: Student engagement in community resilience building projects; school and community awareness raising campaigns on climate change mitigation and adaptation, disaster risk reduction and environmental protection; speaking on local radio; opinion forming through use of traditional and social media; tree planting; school gardening; cleaning-up of local environment.

These pedagogical approaches must be adapted to suit the particular developmental stage of the learners involved.

It is important to ensure young children experience age-appropriate, playful and creative learning approaches, in which a supportive role is taken by parents and caregivers.

In 2019-20, the climate change mitigation and adaptation and disaster risk reduction curriculum for lower secondary level was developed by the Ministry of Education in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, with technical support from Sustainability Frontiers. This new curriculum employs the varied range of interactive, participatory and experiential learning modalities listed above (see Selby et al. 2020).

In raising ecological and safety consciousness widely in the community, a peer-to-peer approach has proven to be both effective and empowering as seen in the youth advocacy program Unite4Cimate in Zambia and the Safe Saturday Program, a key component of the state-wide Chief Minister School Safety Program by the Government of Bihar State in India (see the India country report from the UNICEF South Asia Heat is On! Series).

Overlapping with some of the above-mentioned learning modalities, the following two crosscutting pedagogical focuses are critical in addressing climate change. The first is vital given the significant evidence emerging that young people are suffering debilitating anxiety and grief at what is happening to the natural world. The second is crucial because developing student agency calls for real-life practical engagement and learning experience in the local natural environment and in and with the local community.

Learning and teaching that addresses eco-anxiety and eco-grief

Emerging evidence indicates that a large number of young people around the world are feeling distress, fear and anguish associated with climate change and the confluence of ecological crises (see, for instance, the 2020 UNICEF survey covering the eight countries of South Asia and the 2021 global survey by the Lancet giving findings from 10 countries).

Truly transformative learning involves conscious and sustained processes of engaging with pain, despair and grief over what we are losing, at the same time equipping ourselves with the skills, confidence and sense of self-efficacy enabling critical and creative engagement with climate change realities.

School should offer safe learning environments where students can articulate and share their anxieties and fears as a prelude to cultivating a sense of grounded hopefulness for the future (see Selby & Kagawa 2018).

Future envisioning activities are also important, opening the way to consideration of how to preempt undesirable futures and, conversely, work for and bring on desired futures at all levels, personal and local through to national and global.

The above-mentioned Lancet research found that eco-anxiety is not fomented by ecological disaster alone but is deepened when those who are in authority and influential positions are seen to repeatedly fail to act on environmental and climate breakdown threat.

Learning and teaching approaches should enhance student abilities and confidence in demanding accountability of those who are in power and in participating in collective action to facilitate system and behavioral change in ways that are age and culturally appropriate.

There should be in-school and out-of-school platforms and arenas where the voices of children and young people are heard. What they have to say has to be acknowledged, responded to and acted upon seriously in an open and transparent manner.

Place-based and nature immersive learning and teaching

Place-based, nature immersive and experiential approaches to learning are vital and proven to be effective in developing children and young people’s mindfulness towards the natural environment while deepening their relationship with the living planet.

For instance, in the Maldives, the Ministry of Education’s ocean exploration program called Farukoe (which means ‘child of the reef’ in the Dhivehi language) implemented in 2018 was a nature immersion experiential learning program through snorkeling. The program was based on the ministry’s belief that when students develop ‘a strong love and bond with the ocean’ through direct exposure to the reefs, a passion for protecting them will follow organically.

Emerging evidence suggests that the Farukoe program was a springboard for deeper student understanding of the local environment and a trigger for pro-environmental action in the students’ schools and communities (see the Maldives country report from the Heat is On! Series).

In a context of climate breakdown and extremes, experiential learning in nature is not without challenges. In some situations, it has become simply too hot or too unsafe to conduct outdoor experiential learning.

In some cases, the rich biodiversity has already disappeared. In the absence of direct nature-rich experience an increasing number of children and young people are suffering ‘nature-deficit disorder’. Any climate change education program seeking transformation needs to find ways of addressing this phenomenon.

Recent UNICEF research on climate change and education systems in South Asia points out that while there are highly committed teachers and schools that are already doing their best to raise student ecological and climate change awareness and to motivate students to engage in pro-environmental actions, such efforts need to be supported and systematized. Efforts have to be linked, coordinated, scaled up and constantly reinforced.


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Good work appreciate the work

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