Educational Pedagogy For Climatic Action – Analysis


Education is not immune climate change. As climate change induced storms, drought, water and food insecurity occur, learning is affected as schools are destroyed, and students are unable to get to school or get the food and nutrition they need to learn. The importance of education to promote climate action has become more critical than ever. Knowledge on climate change helps people to understand and address its impact, and empower communities to change their behaviors, to adapt and act as agents of change to this global emergency. Making the case for climate-smart education systems has become urgent. The international community needs not only to build more resilient education systems to mitigate the impact of climate and environmental change; but it also needs to build knowledge, skills and agency for climate adaptation and mitigation to maximize the potential of educated populations to address the climate and environment crisis.

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. 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 livable planet for all. 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. The five major approaches are Constructivist, Collaborative, Integrative, Reflective and Inquiry Based Learning (2C-2I-1R).

The Climate Crisis Adds To the Learning Crisis

The most vulnerable are the hardest hit when disaster strikes. Children living in conflict and from low-income families, especially girls and those with disabilities are the first to lose access to schooling. The effects of disasters compound, making families and communities more vulnerable to future crises and multiplying the risks that children will never get an education. The climate crisis adds another layer to the existing learning crisis. This call for working together to build education systems that are resilient – that can prepare for crises, ensure continued access to education even through unpredictable times, prevent and mitigate negative impacts where possible, and recover in ways that take on board lessons from experience.

At the same time, universal quality education is essential to leverage every individual’s potential to contribute to the transition to a low-carbon global economy and sustainable ecosystem practices. Education systems can contribute to the low carbon transition themselves, for example in the ways that school buildings are designed and located as well as how materials are sourced. Including local and indigenous knowledge and concerns in curriculum can support more sustainable and biocentric approaches to living, learning and relating with others and our environment, moving us towards a greener future.

At the heart of this agenda is the need to ensure that education plays its role as an equalizer, a lifeline for the most vulnerable children, and a force for climate action. Transforming systems is not tinkering at the margins – we need all parts of the system and actors working together – addressing multiple bottlenecks to move forward and working country by country to unblock them. The scale of the challenge is enormous. We must ensure that education systems are equipped to not only protect children and their right to education, but also to protect the planet’s life systems — on which our very existence depends.

There are, however, many examples to learn where countries have put in place successful strategies to protect children, teachers and communities from climate hazards. There are also inspiring education approaches that promote practices and behaviors in harmony with local ecosystems, even in the most remote and marginalized communities. For example, in Madagascar, the Ministry of Education to identify safe locations to build schools, adopting climate-proof designs so school buildings are capable of withstanding disasters, and implementing new disaster-resistant infrastructure standards for schools in high-risk areas. The ministry is revising the school calendar to align with the agriculture and weather seasons, which will help minimize high student and teacher absenteeism caused by problems for accessing schools during the rainy, cyclonic and drought seasons.

Similarly, in Lao PDR, the country is incorporating climate-resilient design measures in early learning facilities, such as drainage improvement for flood control, rainwater harvesting and recycling in water-scarce areas, and tree plantation to protect the school areas from erosion and landslides. Caregivers and teachers are being trained in emergency response and knowledge on conservation and efficiencies of natural resources and the local environment.

As countries look at the components of a climate-smart education system, it is critical to see how they are interlinked and interdependent. Countries can take a context-driven approach to prioritize their actions toward system transformation, tackling the key drivers of climate vulnerability and equipping learners with the 21st century skills needed to avert the climate emergency and restore a healthy environment. Recent findings on irreversible tipping points of the 6th IPCC report confirm that human damage to the environment is worse than expected and could soon outstrip our ability to adapt. These effects are already resulting in additional costs, both to education financing and on children’s learning. Politicians and business leaders identified education in the top five policy areas able to achieve economic and climate goals. Education also features as Article 6 in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty guiding action on climate. Despite all this, the education community is only beginning to grapple with how education can contribute at a scale and speed commensurate with the climate emergency.

Learning Modalities in Response to Climate Change

Based on UNESCO/UNICEF document (2012), Disaster Risk Reduction in School Curricula: Case Studies from Thirty Countries and subsequent research, continuous mixing and juxtaposition of the following learning modalities is considered 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: 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.

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. 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.

Place-Based and Nature Immersion 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 Dhivahi 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.

How Can Education Contribute?

While faith in the role of education is strong, the evidence on how education will effect change is generally weak. In a recent article, Bangay, C. 2022 sketched out the various pathways touted for how education can contribute to sustainable development:

Education’s Possible Contributions to Sustainability

FocusElementsEducation level
Education for understanding and behavior changeStrengthen scientific literacy Affect behavior change regarding non-sustainable practices School and community education on preparedness for climate/environment-related hazards and disaster risk reduction (DRR)Primary- and secondary-level education.
DRR and community education.
Education for social change and political actionKnowledge builds a political constituency for socially just and environmentally sustainable societies shaping local and international debate and action.School education—particularly secondary (extracurricular).
Community education.
Education and populationEconomic benefits—slowed population growth potentially enables raised per capita social spending. Slowed population growth potentially reduces pressure on natural resources. Girls’ secondary education potentially delivers intergenerational benefits that improve mother and child health.Secondary and tertiary education in combination with voluntary reproductive choice (especially for girls).
Education, disaster risk reduction, reduction of gender-based violenceGirls’ education reduces risk and supports empowerment DRR, student agency, school to community interactionAll levels.
Education and skilling for sustainable “green economies”Technological transfer, e.g., research collaboration TVET Agricultural extension Meteorological sciencese.g., Higher education. Technical education.
Extension education.
Education infrastructureClimate-smart public infrastructure—reducing carbon emissions and building resilience to AEC Climate-proofed classrooms— improved site selection, ventilation, light, ambient temperature and acoustics support learning.All levels.
Source: Bangay, C. 2022

Secondary Education – A Case in Point

The value of investing in primary education as a learning foundation is undeniable. But secondary education cannot be ignored. There is strong evidence around the power of secondary education particularly for girls in a whole raft of ESD fields. Young adulthood is a time for developing informed opinions and often enthusiastic activism. Young, informed adults can become a powerful voting bloc. In light of this, the relatively low levels of secondary provision in LIDCs are a major concern.

There have also been major advancements in the use of geographic information systems, for example to identify flood risk and in the importance of carbon smart and learning friendly school building design. If education is going to attract funding from non-traditional funders, such as international climate funds, disaster preparedness and infrastructure offer tangible areas for support.

The only major change would be to reduce the emphasis on curriculum. This is often the starting point for educationists. Clearly setting down what is to be known is important, however knowing is no longer enough – it is doing that will make the difference.  What is measured by assessments that have the strongest influence on what happens in the classroom is important. If we want a move from passive ‘learning’ to ‘doing,’ then we need an associated shift in assessment systems from a focus on ‘factual recall’ and towards ‘problem solving’.

Addressing climate and environmental change and delivering education are essential to poverty reduction and building prosperous, resilient economies and peaceful, stable societies. Too often these issues are viewed in isolation, when in fact they are inextricably linked. Without harnessing the power of education, we are unlikely to solve the climate crisis. Quality education is essential for reducing vulnerability, improving communities’ resilience and adaptive capacity, identifying innovations, and for empowering individuals to be part of the solution to climate and environmental change. If we want to effectively tackle these priority issues, we must better understand how they are linked and find integrated solutions.

COP-27 and Education

As the sun sets on Sharm El Sheikh’s first African UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) on Climate Change, the world holds its breath to see if the “Implementation COP” will lead to concrete action towards the target of keeping warming to below 1.5 degrees. While many are skeptical about the prospects for progress with 165 countries still yet to present new Nationally Determined Contributions pledges to achieve that goal despite commitments last year in Glasgow and negotiations still faltering on the last day, there is still room for hope.

Though there was immense bottom-up movement for change which continues both to pressure governments to do the right thing at the November 2022 (COP-27) conference, but also to take matters into their own hands – from emission reductions to eco-system restoration to youth mobilization. Also promising is the potential for education to take a much more prominent role in the agenda moving forward. Five key takeaways for the education community are:

1. Education is gaining prominence 

Although education has been mentioned in COP’s formal negotiations at least 32 times beginning in 1998, its framing has largely centered on the ACE Agenda: The overarching goal of ACE is to empower all members of society to engage in climate action, through the six ACE elements – climate change education and public awareness, training, public participation, public access to information, and international cooperation on these issues. While this has ensured continuous attention to the critical need for a mindset and behavior shift to help drive wider climate change mitigation and adaptation goals, the wider role of education as driving systemic solutions to the climate and environment crises at the frontlines has yet to be realized.

Nevertheless, this year featured the first-ever Climate Literacy Hub with daily events on education in addition to a plethora of education-focused events across the formal and informal agendas of the conference. The inaugural meeting of UNESCO’s Greening Education Partnership on November 10 also signals a growing momentum in the education community to look more comprehensively at what is needed to accelerate the education solution to the climate emergency.

2. Large and Growing Momentum behind Climate Education Innovations

Although the conference itself was overwhelming in the number of panels, booths, events and speeches, what was clear is that there is an enormous amount of innovation and local action taking place around the world.

The Office for Climate Education, established just 5 years ago, is gaining traction for its support to integrate climate education into curricula, drawing on the science of IPCC reports to tailor country-specific education approaches. Some noted how fragmented these diverse efforts are though, without a sense of where to find resources, materials, share good practices and connect to one another and to the national decision-makers who can take these efforts to scale.

The launch of the Coalition for Climate Education may prove a decisive step in the right direction as youth take on this agenda – already bringing together over 100 organizations and activists fighting for climate education. So regardless of the status of inter-governmental negotiations, action around the world is being advanced every day and the climate education movement is growing stronger.

3. Governments See the Value of Education and Cross-Sectoral Collaboration but Costs of Adaptation are High

There has been unequivocal acknowledgement of education as a critical element of climate strategies. Even if some countries still invest more in fossil fuel subsidies than in education, in others there is already a powerful recognition of the lynchpin role of education in Nationally Determined Contributions, National Adaptation Plans as well as in national climate education policy and legislation.

Education is not only seen as a key driver of the transition to greener economies, but also a sector important for community resilience, even as education is vulnerable to the increasing impacts of climate change. With a school touching nearly every community in every region of every country around the world, the recognition of the untapped power of education to drive action and resilience around the world is gaining traction.

On the other hand, in lower-income countries the compounding pressures of economic contraction, rising food and fuel costs and sky-rocketing debt is putting the reins on the pace and scale of action needed to untap it. UNEP estimates that annual adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at US$70 billion, rising to as much as US$300 billion in 2030.

4. Enormous Potential for Cross-Sectoral Investment between Education and Climate Funds

The urgent need for financing came through clearly not only for adaptation to be able to better withstand environmental shocks, but also for the unavoidable loss and damage that they are experiencing. Last year’s COP saw some progress on financing for the hardest hit countries including commitments for loss and damage and for a new Global Shield against Climate Risks, but these still fall far below the estimated billions needed.

Overall, climate funds have allocated a small fraction of available resources to lower-income countries, even less for adaptation, for children, or for education – in fact only 0.03 percent of all climate finance (estimated at US$540 billion in 2018) is estimated to be invested in education. That may change, however.

At a side event hosted by Save the Children, the Green Climate Fund’s Jerry Velasquez challenged the education community: “The question really is: How come, if there is a Comprehensive School Safety Framework, and you’re piloting it in a few countries, how come that is not being proposed to us?… I would love to have a project that actually takes the Comprehensive School Safety Framework and takes it into the next level, into actual implementation at scale.”

5. Immense Promise for Education at Next COP 

The United Arab Emirates will host 2023’s COP at Dubai Expo City. CEO and Vice-Chairman of Dubai Cares Dr. Al Gurg announced that there will be a day dedicated to education during COP, building on the 2021 RewirEd agenda, which “aims to be a catalyst in redefining education to ensure a future that is prosperous, sustainable, innovative and accessible to all.”

To capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity, the key challenge for the global education community will be how to ensure that the next 12 months lead to concrete action to embed a strong and clear climate-smart education system transformation agenda in the formal climate negotiation processes – and elevate the political will to invest in the most important human solution to our planetary crisis.

As a starting point, it is helpful to secure common agreement on problem framing and associated terminology. The shorthand of ‘climate change’ has been adopted by many, but climate is just one component in a broader set of interconnected environmental processes on which we rely and which our education must help us understand. Climate change is a global phenomenon, with industrially developed countries (IDC) responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. Cruelly, the least industrially developed countries (LIDCs) will suffer the bulk of impacts, about which they will be able to do little other than prepare.

For climate change specifically, we need differentiated education responses that recognize environmental justice issues and existing levels of per capita consumption. We need education systems that convey the danger of exceeding the natural world’s ability to meet our material demands and that also recognize and protect the natural systems on which humanity relies – carbon, nitrogen and water cycles, pollination etc. This will require a greater recognition of environmental inter-connectivity and moving beyond ‘knowing’ to ‘doing’ – particularly at the local level.

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth is Founder–Director of Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies

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