Schools must empower them to embrace their roles as teachers of climate change and climate justice.

Rachel Forgasz  · 6 min read Original article here
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Teachers were among more than 100 000 protestors at Melbourne’s School Strike for Climate last September

Given the grossly inadequate climate policies of successive governments in this country, it should not come as a surprise to learn that there is no official mandate for Australian schools to teach the scientific facts of climate change, let alone how our various social, economic, and political systems can be harnessed to either mitigate or worsen its effects.

Nevertheless, many schools do teach about climate change and there is certainly curriculum justification for doing so (for example, in the Australian Curriculum for Civics and CitizenshipEthical Understanding, and Sustainability). There are also plenty of opportunities to weave climate change content into the teaching of topics across diverse disciplines. On the co-curricular front, there has been increasing support for student-led climate action initiatives in schools, especially since the explosion of the school climate strike movement in 2019. Many school leaders and individual teachers want to do more, but feel constrained unless there is a perceived demand from parents.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 bushfires, that demand rose considerably. Concerned parents began asking questions about what and how their children were learning about climate change. This, in turn, instigated conversations within school communities about children’s rising eco-anxiety and climate grief, and the kinds of teaching and learning programs needed in this time of global climate crisis.

And then there was COVID-19.

As schools turned their attention to the challenges of remote learning, any momentum that had been building around climate change education slowed to a virtual standstill. At the same time, the early weeks of lockdown revealed important insights about schooling and education. Appreciation for the challenge of teachers’ work and the vital role of schools was widely expressed. But parents were also witnessing first-hand the menial busy-work that occupied much of their children’s time. In contrast, many observed the simple pleasures and substantial learning opportunities provided by a couple of hours spent with their kids outside in the garden, away from screens.

Some commentators called for an overhaul of the school system in favour of a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach with Environmental Education at its core. The relatively swift return to classrooms and schooling-as-usual more or less silenced these fledgling discussions in the mainstream media. But to anyone still looking, it was abundantly clear that the world was rapidly changing and, if it was going to serve any meaningful purpose in preparing young people for the future, education was going to have to change, too.

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We need to redefine the very purpose of schooling

At a macro level, it is my view that we need significant systemic change that redefines the very purpose of schooling. At the micro level of the individual educator, we must reimagine what it means to be a teacher in these times, and to think of ourselves as Climate Change Educators and Climate Justice Educators. What exactly does this mean? And what would it look like in practice?

Climate Change Education might sound pretty straightforward, but it extends far beyond teaching the scientific facts of climate change. It is also about teaching the knowledges, skills, and attitudes that will support deep adaptation to their future lives, which will inevitably look very different from those we are living now. For example, students might develop conceptual understanding of topics such as biodiversity and the circular economy, gain practical skills in food production and waste management, and cultivate attitudes of collaboration, compassion, and inclusivity.

Climate Justice Education is about engaging students in transdisciplinary understandings of climate change as both the cause and consequence of systemic oppression. It is about supporting students to interrogate the core beliefs, attitudes, and taken for granted assumptions that underpin all of our social and economic structures — from colonisation to consumer capitalism — and to confront their devastating effects. In this sense, Climate Justice Education is largely a process of unlearning.

Climate Justice Educators also support students to participate in revitalising democracy by teaching them new ways to engage with ideas and with each other. They focus less on the development of adversarial skills such as debating and persuasive writing, and more on the skills of active listening and negotiation. They let go of debunked Renaissance ideals that privilege mind over body and reason over emotion; instead, teaching the neuroscience of mind-body integration and the influential role of emotion in information processing and decision making.

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Teachers can be powerful allies to student activists in the fight for structural change

But if they are to have any credibility as Climate Justice Educators, teachers must also consider the moral lessons young people learn — both tacitly and explicitly — through the structures of our educational institutions and their daily experiences of schooling. They must lead by example and be willing to fight for structural and cultural change. This might include advocacy for assessment regimes that value cooperation over competition, pedagogies premised on ethical care instead of quality assurance, and curriculum that encourages a love of the natural world and empathy for the plight of people and planet.

There are different age-appropriate ways to support students’ learning in this time of global climate crisis. Through participation in youth climate activism, many older students are already engaged in independent learning, research, and even leadership. Pedagogical approaches that position these students as experts offer a powerful form of allyship through which teachers can support youth-led climate action without inadvertently making young people feel responsible for solving problems they did not create.

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Taking action can reduce the feelings of helplessness that accompany children’s eco-anxiety

Whatever their age, ‘shielding’ children from the reality of climate change is not the way to go. In fact, children’s eco-anxiety is often connected to the mistrust that arises when they observe the adults in their lives going about their business in ways incommensurate with the magnitude of the threat we face. Conversely, their feelings of helplessness and overwhelm often subside when they find their voices and start taking action against perceived injustices and indifference.

If this work is to be done, it will have to be driven by schools and communities. And it can only be enacted by classroom teachers who feel empowered to embrace their responsibilities as teachers of climate change and climate justice. This will require a significant commitment to structural change and ongoing professional learning that supports teachers to rethink their identities and redefine their practice.


Dr Rachel Forgasz lives and works on the unceded lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples. She acknowledges that climate justice in Australia (and across the globe) is inextricably linked with First Nations justice.

Rachel is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University where she has turned the attention of her research and community engagement to questions about education in the context of global climate crisis. In 2019, she developed the Climate 7 framework for families, schools, and communities making the transition to climate consciousness. Rachel is currently supporting the implementation of Climate 7 in a number of schools and community settings. You can contact her at Rachel@climate7.com

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