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Don't panic! You can be green without the blues

Students will feel less anxious about the state of the world if they feel empowered to take action, says David Hicks

There is an inherent dilemma at the heart of teaching and learning about global issues. This was summed up for me when I asked a geographer how she helped pupils make sense of the world. "Well," she said, "we look at issues to do with world population, depletion of resources, transport problems, poverty and global warming." When I enquired how students felt as a result she paused and then said, "depressed."

This was clearly not one of her chosen learning outcomes, but it highlights a pedagogical issue which educators cannot afford to ignore.

I have also been interested in the way climate change is portrayed in the media. They make it clear that human activity probably plays a significant part in climate change and that the consequences of such change will be serious for many people on this planet.

The headlines remind me that global warming is already leading to more freak weather, droughts, changing seasons, loss of farmland, floods, melting ice caps and rising sea-levels.

At the same time I understand that Western consumerist lifestyles - our choice of energy sources and our daily use of that energy - are a major cause of such climate change.

But this is where I feel confronted by a dilemma of existential proportions. If I, as a tutor, feel daunted by the complexity of these issues, what do my students feel? Clearly there are many responses, personal and professional, that we can make - but just teaching about the issue is no longer enough.

Canadian researcher Martha Rogers has studied the impact of learning about global issues on students. She monitored the effect of a course on global change and identified what she called five dimensions of global learning.

First is the cognitive dimension in which students grapple with new ideas about the state of the world. Many feel overwhelmed, confused and pessimistic when faced with the complexities of the world's problems.

Second is the affective dimension when students realise they have strong emotional responses to such issues, ranging from excitement to despair.

Feelings of hopelessness are common when faced with problems such as climate change and this can lead to denial. "It's not that serious and anyway there's nothing I can do," they may think.

Third is the existential dimension which can lead students to question their values, beliefs and life purposes. They often want to "do something" but don't know what.

Fourth is the empowerment dimension which only occurs if students can resolve these existential questions. Empowerment then comes from a sense of personal responsibility and a commitment to "making a difference".

Fifth is the action dimension which can emerge if the questions raised by the first four dimensions have been effectively resolved. Then students can make informed personal, social and political choices and take action. These choices need to be seen as an important outcome of the learning process.

In my experience it is the sharing of these concerns in the community of students and teachers that makes a difference. Sharing the feelings that accompany such learning opens the door to deeper learning and with it comes a sense of hope. Learners need to work through the emotional dimension in order to develop meaningful skills of action.

So how do you and your students respond as you learn more about climate change? Does it all seem too much to take in?

This is a normal human reaction to traumatic issues. There are ways of engaging at a deeper level with the dilemmas raised by climate change (and other issues too) but it requires that we go beyond purely intellectual aspects in our own learning as well as with our students.

"One of the tasks of the progressive educator," said Paulo Freire, "is to unveil opportunities for hope, no matter what the obstacles might be."

David Hicks is professor of education at Bath Spa university

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