Veronika Ambrozy: We must learn to live in a world full of changePublished: Jun 1, 2023 Reading time: 11 minutes
How to teach climate change? An essential part of climate education is understanding what is happening and why. According to PIN's renowned educator Veronika Ambrozy, responding to climate change won't work without drastic societal changes.
As climate change becomes increasingly evident in changes in natural conditions, it is also becoming a hotly debated topic in public spaces, including schools. Young people are concerned about their future, and teachers are often faced with a range of new questions. How to teach climate change, what do teachers most often struggle with, and what are the goals of climate education in general?
A few years ago, the question was whether climate change even existed and whether schools should address it. Today, climate education is one of the most debated topics. What questions do teachers most often ask?
Teachers' perception of this topic has changed a lot in the last five years or so. One of the reasons for this is that we have been able to directly observe climate change, its impacts, and its manifestations. Furthermore, in the Czech Republic, many people have been affected by bark beetle outbreaks in recent years. There is a demonstrable link between the rise in temperature, with the Czech Republic warming slightly faster than the global average, and the worsening bark beetle calamity. Last year there was a significant fire in Hřensko, and flash floods have been a regular feature of the last few decades. Many people have become interested in this, including the media. As a result, teachers and their students have become more aware of the climate change context and have started asking questions.
But societal changes are also happening as the EU moves away from fossil fuels. As a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine (but not only because of it), we are in an energy crisis. People are feeling this, too—perhaps even more than natural disasters. Many perceive a link between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels as one of its causes. The societal changes that should take place in this regard are coming very rapidly due to the circumstances mentioned. Moreover, we in the Czech Republic cannot grasp our energy transformation conceptually.
Previously, in training sessions with teachers, we discussed how we know about climate change and what is happening. This is now a marginal issue. We spend much more time presenting this issue to pupils, how the energy crisis is related to it and how society and the economy should be transformed in general. Sometimes teachers come up with questions about how to respond to a particular natural disaster and how to talk to students about it. But most often, they ask how to work with students' emotions.
So, more teachers are contacting you today than in the past?
Yes, we [at PIN] are pioneers of climate education. Teachers are also searching for this topic on the internet much more often; it's about events that also affect their lives. Many of them are coming with concerns for their own children. There is also a personal dimension to this topic and the question of how we will live because everyone wants to live a happy and fulfilled life without wars and disasters.
Are there any other concerns among teachers besides how to grasp this in relation to students' emotions?
The teachers we come into contact with are motivated, yet they are very concerned about the teaching itself, and they don't always end up going into teaching about climate change. Many teachers feel that they must understand everything in depth to teach it well. Which is understandable. But climate change is such a complex subject that it is almost impossible for one teacher to understand it from all perspectives—both the scientific and the social, what it means for the human relationship with nature or with regard to working with emotions. Emotional literacy or mental health care is not widespread in teacher training in this country. Moreover, teachers are afraid they will be unable to answer children's questions.
Last, but not least, it is also a controversial topic. It hides the need to transform society. Responding to climate change will not work without transforming society quite a lot. This, of course, arouses different emotions. There are a lot of opinions about how it should be transformed, and at the same time, there is a great need among ordinary people for that transformation to be just, which is not happening very much yet. Education must teach us how to live in the present and future, so bringing that into the classroom is vital. But it may not always be easy.
You talked about the fact that teachers often don't know how to teach about climate change. So how do you do that? Where to start?
Where to start is a good question because the ideal way to teach is very complex. In organisations that are working on climate education, we are also asking this question more and more and thinking about how to develop material where we can grasp this more comprehensively. It's good to start with what I can do myself. I don't want to take too big a first step because I may never take it.
For example, if I'm a Key Stage 2 teacher and teach science, I can take the easiest route because this area is one of the two places where climate change is explicitly mentioned in the Framework educational programme. Furthermore, as a chemistry teacher, I can take a specific topic and introduce chemical processes related to climate change. For example, the process of combustion. We learn how combustion works and can imagine what happens in the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. This can be linked to a description of the increase in CO2 and, simultaneously, the decrease in oxygen in the atmosphere. The principle of combustion is one of the proofs that show humans are responsible for climate change.
From the perspective of photosynthesis and biology, but also from the perspective of physics and how trees cool the environment, we can explore the role of trees as an adaptation measure to rising temperatures in cities. We can link this to art education or the topic of ethics and focus on the relationship between humans and nature, because we know the concrete positive benefits of being in green spaces for the human psyche. We can arrange with more teachers in the school and bring this topic as thematic teaching.
Pupils themselves can come up with suggestions for action, find out what the situation is, suggest solutions, and be there wh
Going one step further and involving the whole school in the topic is possible, which is an ideal approach. This does not mean that everyone teaches it, but that it is a whole-school approach. The school is trying to green its operations and reduce its carbon footprint. The key is to involve the pupils and not just the school management. Pupils themselves can come up with suggestions for action, find out what the situation is, suggest solutions, and be there when they are implemented. They can, for example, build a school forest instead of a useless concrete area or grow vegetables that will then be used in the school canteen. Some may say there are many obstacles, but we see that there are schools in the Czech Republic where this is possible and not impossible. It is always about people's choices.
Perhaps more common than such a whole-school approach is for teachers to integrate this into their teaching in the form of project-based learning?
Yes, we try to guide teachers towards project-based learning because it has several key benefits and effects that lead to successful climate education. It has a high level of student participation in the learning process. The pupils are the carriers of what topic is being developed, and, with the teacher's help, they translate it into their own projects—in school or the community. This has been shown to increase the success of climate education. Pupils experience bringing a solution they are involved in, and, most importantly, they experience success. This reinforces their awareness that they can change the world around them and motivates them to behave sustainably and see the need to protect the climate in adulthood.
What are the other goals?
The fundamental goal of climate education is to equip young people to live in a rapidly changing world, including the fact that it is also changing the natural environment and society as a whole. They will be able to deal with different situations and work with uncertainty. An essential part of climate education is understanding what is happening, why it is happening, and its consequences. Research shows that young people have a relatively strong desire to tackle climate change but don't know how to do it. That's what climate education must change.
So, another aim is to gain knowledge about how to try to mitigate climate change. Which solutions are most important to do as soon as possible, because we have a certain time horizon in which we have a chance to influence things. If we miss this window of opportunity, we will no longer be able to significantly slow down the change; it will run itself because the natural processes that follow human-induced climate change will be triggered.
In addition, it is important to teach pupils to work with knowledge and information to resist conspiracies. The development of skills and attitudes is also important. Research on what leads to behaviour change shows that knowledge alone does not necessarily lead to environmental behaviour. What is key is my worldview and norms prevail in the social group where I live. Whether I have experienced success in solving a problem. Working with emotions is also crucial because this topic is threatening and existential for many of us, teachers and children alike. We tend to ignore the whole issue if we haven't processed the emotions. Pro-climactic behaviour can also be at odds with our comfort and our habits.
The Czech Climate 2021 survey, which mapped public attitudes towards climate change, found that the youngest generation has a strong desire to address climate change issues, but at the same time, they are not very willing to compromise their standard of living.
But that is natural, and we cannot blame the youngest generation for that because it is the standard that these children were born into and that generations before them have created. It is important not to blame them for the current state of affairs. We need young people to behave pro-climactically and to know why this is happening, but we cannot blame them because it is not their fault. We need to empower them to belong and understand and prepare them for the fact that there will be steps to take that may be uncomfortable and affect their comfort.
Where can teachers find inspiration today to address a topic or deepen their knowledge?
There is the publication Climate Change and What About Us, which draws on the experiences of New Zealand, Canada and Finland, among others. Newly, it is also possible to get information on the website Teaching about Climate, which was created by the cooperation of several organisations, namely People in Need, Centre for Environmental Education North, Lipka, TEREZA, Teachers for Climate, Chaloupky and Facts about Climate. These organisations have united to create a website where teachers can find the most freely available climate education materials. They can also find methodological support, recommendations on what to focus on, and appropriate methods that work there. A large part of it is specific lessons that teachers can take directly into the classroom and try out. We also plan to create a functional community of practice. Within months, a Facebook group will be created where teachers can share tips and support each other.
Veronika Ambrozy is a methodologist and lecturer in global education in our Varianty programme at People in Need. She is dedicated to training and methodological support of teachers in teaching climate change, global issues, and active citizenship. She co-authored the online courses Climate Change and Living in the City and creates content for the website ucimoklimatu.cz.
The interview was conducted by Kateřina Lánská and published in Lidové noviny on 30 May 2023 and on the eduin.cz website on 1 June 2023.