Rethinking environmental education

| 5th February 2020
Beekeeping
Harmony project
Young people are demanding better education on environmental issues. Why aren’t we giving it to them?

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Climate change should be taught in schools. That is the opinion of three quarters of respondents to a recent YouGov poll.

This data certainly suggests that a majority of the UK population now considers the issue of climate change significant enough to warrant inclusion in the body of prized knowledge that constitutes the National Curriculum.

Perhaps it also says something about the role that education can play in helping our young people engage with pressing environmental issues. 

Representation 

While all this may be encouraging, there is one thing this data does not tell us. And that is what young people themselves think about the role that climate change – and other issues of sustainability – should play in their own education. 

The YouGov poll reflects only the opinion of UK adults – the attitudes of those under the age of 18 are not represented in the data.

No doubt, there are very good methodological reasons for this, but it is regrettable that the voices of the school-age children and young people whose education is being shaped by the contents of the National Curriculum have not been heard. 

Crucially, it is their voice that would give us an indication, not of whether climate change should feature in the curriculum (it already does – briefly), but of whether it features prominently enough

School strikes

The growth of the School Strike for Climate movement, and the conversation around it, gives us a flavour of how young people might respond.

The UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN), which has organised 850 student climate change-focused demonstrations in 2019, draws attention to the need for education reform to "teach young people about the urgency, severity and scientific basis of the climate crisis". 

Meanwhile, the results of a survey carried out by the student-led Teach the Future campaign – a collaboration between UKSCN and Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK) – show that only four percent of students feel they know a lot about climate change, with almost seven in 10 respondents saying they would like to learn more about the environment.

These two organisations will be presenting a Climate Emergency Education Bill to MPs in February, calling for educational reform to better prepare young people to respond to the climate emergency and ecological crisis.  

The brevity of the teaching requirement around climate change in the National Curriculum is out of all proportion to the urgency and scale of the issue. If young people themselves are demanding better education around the environmental issues their generation will need to address, isn’t it time we gave it to them?

Holistic perspective 

Part of the problem with the current approach to climate change education lies in the fact that we continue to view it as something that can neatly be packaged and delivered within the boundaries of one or two subjects – even within the confines of one or two learning objectives.

Yet we know that the causes and effects of climate change are complex and far-reaching. Why then, are we teaching our children to pigeon-hole the issue within science or geography lessons, rather than exploring it in a more holistic, cross-curricular way that encourages them to make links between different areas of their learning? 

Students themselves seem to be able to see the value of a more ‘joined up’ approach.

The Teach the Future campaign states on its website: "Learning about the climate emergency and ecological crisis tends to be restricted to science and geography in secondary, and related disciplines in tertiary, despite most subjects being able to contribute to our understanding of these issues."

As with so many other pressing environmental issues (biodiversity loss, the pollution of our seas, air and soil), we can only begin to understand the complexities of the climate challenges we face if we take a more holistic perspective on the issue. 

Distinctive 

Some schools are now responding by developing their own curricula, which put sustainability at the heart of education and encourage children to learn from nature, instead of merely about it.

At South Farnborough Infants School, sustainability issues form a core part of the children’s learning. As part of the school’s distinctive curriculum, students are able to explore principles of Harmony that enable systems in nature to be resilient, healthy and in balance.

The school has spent many years developing its curriculum, which provides a coherent and meaningful framework through which National Curriculum learning objectives can be delivered.

Helen-Fletcher Davies, the school's headteacher, said: "We want to encourage the children to look beyond themselves at the wider world that they will one day play a greater part in. Integrating principles of Harmony into learning helps achieve this."

It is an approach that was pioneered by Richard Dunne, who was until recently the headteacher of an Ofsted-graded ‘Outstanding’ school and who now works with schools who are looking to develop a ‘harmony approach’ to teaching and learning as part of the work of The Harmony Project.

Opportunities 

Richard said: ‘When we reframe teaching and learning around the environmental and social issues that are most relevant to our time – and explore them across all subjects - we help students understand how all life is deeply interconnected.

'This approach also challenges the idea that environmental and sustainability education can simply be taught. We need to blur the line between the formal curriculum and the issues that matter most to our young people.

"And then we need to give them opportunities to lead on and respond to these issues, to see themselves as agents of change, something many of them are telling us they want to be."

Now, inspired by this work, a growing network of schools across the UK are engaged in developing their own ‘harmony curriculum’ and the first Harmony in Education conference to promote this new way of learning is being held at the University of Winchester on Friday, 1 May 2020. 

With the focus in the new Ofsted inspection framework on curriculum "intent, implementation and impact", there is now a very real opportunity for schools to review and revise what they are teaching and how they are teaching it to ensure that sustainability and an understanding of the lessons we can learn from nature’s principles of Harmony lie at the heart of the learning.

This Author

Bonnie Welch is a contributor to the Harmony Project. 

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