Lessons for the future


21 November 2022

The new Australian curriculum gives more prominence to climate change, but researchers from the University of Tasmania (UTAS) say it still doesn’t go far enough.

They argue climate teaching in schools still needs to be “more ambitious, given the urgency and enormity of the problem”.

Kim Beasy, lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at UTAS, says climate change is written into the curriculum in a fact-based way, which is often disconnected from students and educators’ day-to-day experiences and makes teaching and learning about climate change more difficult: “It doesn’t push students or teachers to think about actions to support living in a climate-changed world.”

The new curriculum contains 32 explicit references to climate change across a range of subjects. But 21 references are still in the science and technology subjects and it remains absent from the primary school curriculum. This means schools are missing an opportunity to introduce enquiry-based learning and an interdisciplinary approach, says Beasy.

The university’s research project, Curious Climate Schools (CCS), involved 1300 students in student-led climate literacy learning. The researchers found students had many unanswered questions about climate change and that the new curriculum did not necessarily deal with questions that range across ethics, politics, their careers, their futures and what can be done.

“Students have rich and diverse questions that extend beyond science,” she says. “The questions that students were sending to us demonstrated that they need more opportunity to talk and engage with people that know about climate change in their communities.”

The researchers also found teachers often lack confidence when it comes to teaching about climate change. That can be linked to their lack of content knowledge and concerns about managing student anxiety about climate change.

To counter that, Beasy says teachers need greater support through professional development and consideration needs to be given to the pedagogies that are most likely to engage students.

The CCS project brought students and people with climate change knowledge together to answer questions and work on projects. Beasy says it’s a more ambitious approach that may require teachers to upskill in the areas of project management and networking.

Professional learning needs to support teachers who may have students running an environmental project in their school or, for example, campaigning for the school canteen to introduce a vegetarian menu, she says.

Often community groups would like to collaborate with schools but find it difficult to connect, Beasy says. She suggests teachers interested in working with community partners try their own networks or reach out to local groups with a specific learning outcome or project in mind.

“It makes so much sense because it takes the burden off teachers having to know everything and it brings the community into play. It opens opportunities for students to engage in real-world climate change dilemmas which we know is good practice and the best way to learn.”

Action to combat climate anxiety

When West Australian teacher Geoff Holt got students involved in a waste management project the number of rubbish bins at Busselton Senior High School dropped from 40 to 10.

Rubbish began to be disposed of correctly and students were given small rewards for doing the right thing with their litter.

Experts from Waste Wise Schools and Clean Up Australia visited to provide input. Behind the waste wins was another important outcome. The students involved were among the most at-educational-risk in the school, with low literacy levels and little interest in science, says Holt.

The project made them responsible for bins in particular areas. And, as part of the science curriculum, data was gathered and tallied and reported on by the students. Holt says that for many of the students, the project led to a rise in self-esteem, engagement, and a sense of empowerment.

The waste project is just one that Holt has introduced to lift student climate change engagement via experiential-based learning. “For the past 10 to 12 years I have been trying to form partnerships with environmental and community groups in the area and getting students to do a variety of environmental recovery projects, conservation projects, and trying to engage them in volunteering to continue to undertake these kinds of activities,” he says.

He then ties the activities back into the curriculum: “For example, when we were doing biomes, rather than focusing on food security we focused on climate change threats to a forest biome that’s quite a biodiversity hotspot.”

The related project covering anti-erosion and anti-dieback measures was more technical and involved higher pathway students learning about pathogens.

“That was extremely successful, and we were invited back to design some habitat shelters for endangered species resulting from loss of habitat,” says Holt.

This year the class involved in the waste project also cleans the school with tongs and sacks. Year 9 and 10 students are planting native trees for a wildlife corridor.

In developing the projects Holt has embraced the principles of education for sustainable development derived from the United Nation’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

He’s completed seven hours of professional development to become a global schools advocate and leads an Education for Sustainable Development committee developing a holistic approach across the curriculum, so all students undertake climate action.

“My biggest concern is not to create alarm and anxiety around climate but to give students the agency to do something about it,” he says. “Otherwise, it just makes everyone feel profoundly depressed about the future.”

Climate FAQs

Below are some of the commonly asked questions about climate change from young people in Tasmania.

  • What is climate change?
  • What causes climate change?
  • Is it too late to stop climate change?
  • Who started climate change? When did it first happen?
  • What will be the first effects of climate change that we will notice in Tasmania?
  • What animals are affected already by climate change?
  • Which place in the world is climate change affecting most?
  • Can climate change be reversed and go back to the way it was?
  • How do scientists predict climate change?
  • How can people our age act on climate change?

Find answers to these and more climate FAQs from Curious Climate Schools’ experts at curiousclimate.org.au

Source: Curious Climate Schools

Christine Long

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Spring 2022