At Bolsover Infants and Preschool in Derbyshire, northern England, the very youngest pupils are drawing circles in green and blue chalk on the ground outside to represent the Earth. The lesson is ostensibly about the concept of shape. But to headteacher Fiona Cowan, every day presents an opportunity to teach children about their environment and start introducing them to the rudiments of climate change.
Cowan is one of the UK’s first tranche of climate change teachers trained under a specialist UN academy. Teachers taking the academy’s curriculum boost their own understanding of key climate change concepts, and get help with teaching children from early years to college level about the risks of global warming and how they can address it.
Young people are increasingly angry about political inaction on climate change. Since February, thousands of children across the UK have taken part in school strikes to draw attention to the urgency of the problem, inspired by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg. Now some teachers are responding by bringing climate change back into the classroom.
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The UN Climate Change Teacher Academy, developed by education provider Harwood Education together with the UN’s Climate Change Learning Partnership (UN CC:Learn), was launched in April and has proved incredibly popular, with about 1,000 UK teachers accredited in the first two months. Schools in other countries have even asked if they can enrol and Melanie Harwood, founder of Harwood Education Harwood, enthusiastically agreed.
The original CC:LEARN course is mainly aimed at governments, providing a set of resources for civil servants and others to learn about the basics of climate change. But Harwood felt climate literacy was such an important skill for children to have that she approached the UN to make a version especially for teachers.
The online audiovisual course Harwood developed covers climate change science, gender and environment, children and climate change, cities and climate change, and human health. Teachers who complete all five units receive a UN accreditation as well as continuous professional development points.
Harwood Education is now launching the next phase of its plan, EduCCate. EduCCate uses a closed social media platform called Yahki to create and share climate change lesson plans. There are already 500 on the system, covering every stage from early years to A-level.
The program will be free to the first 80 schools with an accredited climate change teacher thanks to sponsorship from a publicly-owned purchasing body, YPO.
The lessons will be presented online by children of a similar age to the class, who will ask questions and deliver exercises. For the youngest children this will be a five-year old boy called Arben.
Harwood has already used this sort of peer-to-peer form of learning in other projects but says the Yahki delivery mechanism is “the most exciting I have seen in my life in education” because it allows teachers — and even pupils themselves — to create lessons and share them with others around the world.
Cowan, the Derbyshire headteacher, helped develop the early years part of the program, including lesson plans for EduCCate and a week-long standalone curriculum.
She broke it down into four development stages: one for preschoolers and then one for each of the first three years of the British school system.
“For the early years, you need to be looking at the difference between earth and space, land and sea, manmade and natural water — things that are the very beginnings of climate change,” says Cowan.
One key aspect of the lessons is personal responsibility. Preschool children are encouraged to consider how they can improve their own environment, while the youngest school-age kids talk more explicitly about rubbish and recycling, which often leads to conversations about plastic waste in the sea.
Later on children are taught more explicitly about how their own actions affect climate change. “By developing from [preschool] through you can develop their understanding every year,” says Cowan.
There are many resources already available to teach children about climate change, from books to YouTube.
“What I haven’t seen yet is a plan,” says Cowan. “So at the moment it’s about each school and teacher developing their own processes and their own way in. And this is showing that it can be done with very young children and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
The lessons stick closely to the existing school curriculum in England, which in the early years allows schools significant freedom so long as kids learn key skills such as learning about change or noticing patterns.
“We not creating a whole new curriculum at all,” says Harwood. “But you’re slanting lessons every so slightly so that you’re starting thinking about climate change.”
Cowan acknowledges that climate change can be a challenging concept, but says teachers are good at reading their audience. “Our teachers know the children who might get upset and emotional.”
And, she explains, climate change is presented in a very pragmatic way. “It’s saying ‘this is the situation now’. It’s around somebody who’s trying to help. If we cut down our use of plastic we won’t make so much and if we don’t make so much there’ll be less in the sea. Children can get their heads around that concept very easily.”
While there are times that climate change can be taught in a discrete block, Bolsover school tries to embed it into everything it does, from handwriting to phonics to gross motor skills as well as broader topics such as international responsibility, cultural diversity and wellbeing.
Making everybody responsible
In September, Harwood Education hopes that it will have a sponsor to fund the training course and the eduCCate program for every school in the UK.
Harwood herself wants the course to remain free for teachers, describing it as a “passion project”, and says there has been interest from the UK government and some big consumer goods companies. “We have other education projects and have taken a huge percentage of our profits and invested in this.”
Although her pupils are still too young to be striking alongside older children, Cowan says there has been talk in the schoolyard about the international youth strikes movement.
She says the whole community benefits when schools start teaching climate change to their youngest pupils. “It’s about making everybody responsible. Parents have said to me, ‘As a school, you’re kind of the ambassador of change.’ Children will pick it up and it’ll go home to the parents and it’ll trickle through. If we’re not leading this, then who is?”