Environmental education – a golden thread in future-proof teaching - Earthwatch
Teacher Training with KS4 resources

Environmental education – a golden thread in future-proof teaching

In education, like everywhere else, context is key. The purpose, the application of skills and knowledge, the end goal. But for many young people, this is still far from true when it comes to their environmental education.

Currently, the secondary curriculum in England mentions ‘climate change’ just once. If teachers talk about it in their lessons, it is purely out of the goodness of their hearts, watching pupils struggle to understand what is happening around them.

Unfortunately, the one-off lessons leave huge gaps in climate literacy knowledge:

  • 93% of young people in Year 11 in 2022 did not know how much the climate has warmed so far,
  • only 18% could correctly identify industry, electricity and heat production as the main contributors to global warming,
  • and worryingly, those who performed better in their education were more concerned about climate change than their peers who did not do as well.

All while schools increasingly close during storms, heatwaves and floods.

Where climate literacy falls short

Largely due to the isolated subject-based curriculum, children are unable to form secure foundational knowledge about climate and the environment.

Even where lessons touch upon environmental themes – in history, biology or arts – they do not connect thematically to offer all children real-life context and solutions about the climate crisis.

Our way out of this is weaving environmental education like a golden thread through the entire education system. With collaboration between subject leaders, letting the children pose well-informed enquiry questions and look for evidence in real-life scenarios, environmental education can flourish.

This is not to say that such education does not currently happen at all. There are many schools providing a platform for young people to voice their concerns in an eco-club or council. However, I hear repeatedly that these clubs are so over-subscribed that children must ‘apply’, with one or two pupils from each class taking part.

That excludes all the other interested pupils and forms an unequal basis. A handful of children will get to form stronger skills and knowledge about the environment, enriching their education more than others’, all due to the lack of capacity in typical education.

Creating learning opportunities for the whole school

A whole-school approach means leaving no one behind, allowing all children to understand the key elements of our planet and its processes, be exposed to environmental education and acquire skills through it.

This is particularly relevant for pupils from underserved communities who might have limited access to green space or time outdoors, opportunities for enrichment visits or even feeling welcome and imagining their future in the environmental sector.

Multiple organisations are trying to solve this issue, creating choices for schools to apply what fits their needs. Teach the Future, a youth-led campaign, run the ‘Curriculum for a Changing Climate’ initiative.

They are creating ‘tracked changes’ in current Key Stage 3 and GCSE subjects that would educate about the themes of climate change and sustainability, and now also reviewing the primary curriculum. Working within the current system, it demands a curriculum that serves the needs of contemporary pupils.

In primary-specific teaching, The Harmony Project provides a framework for a whole-school approach. It encompasses school values and principles inspired by nature’s processes such as adaptation or oneness, as well as enquiry-led teaching through a cross-curricular approach.

It challenges the idea that environmental education only fits in siloed geography or science lessons with a creative approach, such as teaching maths in a bee-related topic by looking at the shapes of flowers or counting petals through multiples of 6.

The role of environmental education in society

New ideas pose varied levels of challenge in modifying the current ways of teaching and learning. Nevertheless, teachers realise that change is needed to adequately prepare pupils for their lives.

This is forming a part of the conversation at COP28, with a global platform created through the “Youth, Children, Education and Skills” thematic day on 8 December 2023.

Climate education is a globally recognised issue, with the COP28 CEO HE Adnan Amin saying it is “a key tool to equip future generations with the skills they need to drive the future climate economy”.

Lastly, to implement purposeful environmental education, we must consider how pupils can strengthen and embed their green skills and knowledge consistently.

With limited space in many urban schools to carry out experiments, exploratory activities or simply take inspiration from, the surrounding local environment can provide a variety of engagement opportunities.

However, to facilitate this, we must fund and nourish links between a school and its local community. Relationships with the families, local organisations and grassroots groups can provide the real-life scenarios for pupils to use their skills and knowledge in, and to truly feel inspired and embedded in their community and using their skills for good.

To find out how environmental education could look like in your education setting, join us on Teach Earth In The Field, our free residential teacher training programme.

About the author

Emilija Rudzinskaite is a Learning & Engagement Coordinator in the Earthwatch Education team. As a qualified teacher, she leads learning design for education and teacher training programmes and is passionate about all things future-proof climate education and the best practice of implementing it in schools.

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