Researchers Highlight Patchwork of Climate Change Education in Canada, Emphasizing the Need for Further Efforts

   Imagine a school field trip turning into an unexpected lesson on climate change and artistic expression. That happened when Andrea Brown's Grade 5 class visited the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Instead of the usual sights and sounds, the students were immersed in a composition intertwining music with impactful visuals illustrating the impact of climate change in Antarctica – from melting glaciers to encounters with leopard seals and humpback whales.

The experience left such a mark on Vancouver elementary teacher Brown that she launched a unique interdisciplinary unit. Her Grade 5 students are now delving into environmental issues they care about, expressing their findings through various art forms. The French Immersion students will also compile a write-up summarizing their exploration as part of the assignment.

Brown shared her inspiration: "The VSO trip was such a great jumping-off point. When I saw their reactions and I saw this is something that they're also passionate about, I wanted to incorporate it into our learning." She aims to teach climate change through a positive lens, allowing students to showcase their environmental concerns while emphasizing hope and providing space for emotions.

While climate change is a topic addressed in Canadian schools, the approach varies widely across jurisdictions, leaving inconsistencies in the learning experience, according to experts in the field. As the annual United Nations climate change conference, COP28 unfolds in Dubai until December 12, educators, researchers, and students are pushing to shed light on the necessary steps for effective climate change education.

Lack of climate education 'a missed opportunity'

Understanding how Canada incorporates climate change education into its formal systems can be a complex task due to the decentralized nature of education responsibilities across provinces and territories. However, Lakehead University professor Ellen Field, who has extensively studied climate change curriculum and policies in Canada, expresses concern about the current situation.

Field highlights that climate change is often treated as an elective topic in senior high school classes, allowing students to opt out. The placement of the subject in the curriculum also varies, primarily appearing in science units but occasionally in social studies. Notably, Ontario stands out with a mandatory climate change course, and provinces like British Columbia and Nova Scotia exhibit strong climate curricula. Surprisingly, out of nearly 400 school boards nationwide, only four have concrete climate action plans.

Ministers of education from various countries attending COP28 this year have brought attention to the need for top-down action. Field emphasizes the importance of policymakers and school board decision-makers taking proactive measures, stating, "If we're in this moment that really we need to halve our emissions by 2030, we need to make sure that every institution... is doing what they can. We just need to make sure that this is happening in all institutions — and school boards, in particular, have a role to play here."

Ellen Field is co-authoring an initiative for UNESCO's Greening Education partnership to develop a comprehensive climate change education curriculum for member states. The objective is to provide a structured approach to introduce and build age-appropriate topics and concepts from the youngest learners to high schoolers, offering a framework for implementation.

Recognizing the crucial role of teacher preparation, Field emphasizes the need for policies and funding directed toward professional development. While acknowledging the innovative practices of many teachers, she believes that a well-defined framework can empower educators to innovate and create resources for their students.

Field, based in Orillia, Ontario, notes the importance of incorporating climate change education into the broader education system. She highlights that if children and youth learn about climate change through social media or news but not within the space where they spend most of their time—their schools—it represents a missed opportunity.

Engaging students with action

As COP28 unfolds over nearly two weeks, UNESCO takes center stage by hosting events and sessions underscoring the vital role of education systems in addressing climate change.

Through its ongoing Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report, UNESCO collaborates with researchers globally to assess climate change education in 80 countries. The latest update reveals that while 87 percent of the countries have laws, policies, or plans incorporating climate change education, only 38 percent specifically focus on it. Moreover, approximately one-third have integrated climate change into teacher training.

Manos Antoninis, director of UNESCO's GEM report, acknowledges the slow pace of legal and policy changes, emphasizing the pressing demand on educational authorities. However, he urges education systems to expedite their approach with more timely and targeted actions, emphasizing the need for spontaneous planning.

Antoninis stresses the importance of action-oriented teaching for students, extending learning beyond facts and science classes alone. Even in countries where students learn about climate change, there's often a gap in translating knowledge into behaviors that can help mitigate its consequences, he notes.

Highlighting successful approaches, Antoninis points to countries integrating climate education across various subjects, such as science and social science. Additionally, he underscores the impact of strong civics education, empowering students to see themselves as active agents in society.

In essence, Antoninis advocates for a shift beyond curriculum reform, focusing on how students learn—speaking to their hearts and involving them in projects where they can witness firsthand how their actions can effect change.

Emphasizing hope

In Vancouver, teacher Andrea Brown embodies the approach Antoninis advocated through her arts-based climate change project inspired by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Brown's interdisciplinary assignment emphasizes hope, encouraging her students to express agency as they navigate the task.

Brown underscores the importance of instilling hope, motivating students to convey their messages and take action on their terms. She emphasizes the significance of taking the first step without aiming for perfection, acknowledging that mistakes may occur but serve as valuable learning experiences.

For Brown's students, learning about climate change elicits emotions, from sadness and disappointment to empowerment. Ten-year-old Primrose Hoskins expresses how understanding the issue makes her feel more powerful, motivating her to contribute positively and help address challenges like ocean pollution.

Similarly, Ellie Mukai, also 10, inspired by the school and her mom, engages in ongoing campaigns to clear garbage from neighbourhood schools, emphasizing the importance of small actions like reusing plastic bags and proper recycling.

Emily Kordyback, another Grade 5 student working on a carbon neutrality project, aims to spark more discussions and learning among her peers. She believes that collective efforts can contribute significantly to addressing environmental challenges, even in small measures.

In essence, these students exemplify the transformative power of education in nurturing awareness, inspiring action, and fostering a sense of responsibility toward the environment.