Climate strikes and 'deschooling society'

School climate strikers
Collective learning can empower as well as educate school students - schools should embrace the climate strikes.

It's dispiriting to hear such negative reactions to the school climate strikes coming from the adult world. In particular, the patronising and dismissive responses from those politicians who have failed to develop appropriate policies to address climate change.

Equally concerning are reports of obstructive responses from some schools, teachers and parents: tales of teachers in an Exeter secondary school barricading doors to prevent pupils leaving to attend a recent climate action – and an eye witness account of an irate parent dragging a brave youngster from the podium as he was addressing the climate gathering.

In comparison, the measured but dissuasive announcements from the head teacher of my children’s rural secondary school seemed considerably more moderate - or so I thought. 

Cognitive dissonance 

My 15-year-old daughter has recently been appointed deputy head girl for the forthcoming academic year and wished to attend the next climate action. She experienced a tension between firmly held beliefs and her perception of her leadership role.

I advised her that adhering to one’s values was probably a more important expression of leadership than toeing the line. I felt I should pass on the advice I had offered in order to inform the head-teacher that my daughter’s choice had not been made lightly.

I further attempted to convey that participating in the climate action might help to counter some of the sense of hopelessness and low self- esteem which sadly burdens many youngsters. This I explained in the following terms:   

"I have become very interested in recent discussions about young people's anxieties over environmental issues and their sense of well- being.

"I have a couple of friends involved in clinical psychiatry who talk a lot about "cognitive dissonance" in this context - a concept which I believe refers to the anxieties which arise when strongly held values and attitudes conflict with actions and decisions. I guess something we all experience to a degree!"

Collective participation 

My letter continued: "For many children, I think it may be difficult to influence decisions at home which have ecological impacts. They see government mired in Brexit and effectively paralysed in relation to more far reaching matters, resulting in a sense of despondency and personal disempowerment.

"I have a sense that collective participation with friends in public demonstrations is not just fun but has real ability to dispel their sense of hopelessness while strengthening their feeling of self-worth."

In terms of wider educational objectives, I do feel that an appreciation that peaceful demonstration is an important element in our democratic process is important.

I fear that presenting a negative perception of such actions can further alienate young people from the democratic model and may divert some into more extremist pathways.

His response was polite and considered but either my arguments had been unconvincing or were outweighed by his priority of not rocking the boat.

Imaginative placards

As a bystander at a previous school climate action in Exeter it became evident to me that a great deal of important learning was taking place.

There had seemed to be an over-simplistic myth among some younger children that climate change in itself will directly bring about human extinction within their lifetimes – a deeply unsettling idea for any child.

Speeches, placards and conversations would have gone some way to presenting a more likely if more complex scenario to those present at the action - a scenario in which the combined interaction of climate change, habitat destruction, resource depletion and pollution would create uninhabitable regions displacing populations on a large scale with chaotic and destructive outcomes.

One cleverly designed placard conveyed pictorially how the scale of climate-generated refugee populations might dwarf the current displacements fuelled largely by war.

The extinction of polar species, a highly likely prospect resulting from arctic melting, was a widespread theme on the imaginatively designed and colourful placards, too. 

Educational experience 

I learned a lot, particularly concerning sea level evidence emerging from research into the Pliocene environment. From a conversation with a  palaeoclimatologist,  I discovered that at that time - some 4 million years ago - CO2 concentration reached 400 ppm, similar to the present elevated levels resulting from fossil fuel burning.

The sea level appears to have progressively risen to plus 15 metres, a devastating finding if viewed in the context of the modern world and present population distributions.

Implicit in the collective enthusiasm of the throngs of youngsters was a sense of the joy and empowerment to be found in solidarity.

In the broadest sense this was a powerful educational experience. In a moment of nostalgic euphoria, I was reminded of the visions and critique presented in Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society” which envisaged  radical and ecologically oriented forms of education outside the confines of institutionally bound schooling.

On the train home Pink Floyd’s insistent chorus line was ringing in my ears: "Hey teacher, leave those kids alone..."

This Author 

David Job is a former teacher with the Field Studies Council and lecturer in Geography Education at Institute of Education, University of London. He retired to develop a green tourism project in North Devon, and is now a smallholder and environmental campaigner.

Image: Roaming-the-Earth, Flickr