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How to teach climate change in a non-scary way

Tackling the enormous issue of climate change with young people can feel overwhelming, but some simple approaches can help

Megan Tatum

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Whether it’s from the news, social media or David Attenborough’s new Netflix documentary, young people are already being exposed to the impact of climate change.

But it can still be a challenging subject to bring into the classroom.

Where do you start? Do you know enough? How do you tell the truth without traumatising students? These concerns can leave teachers, at all levels, feeling overwhelmed.

But there are strategies to help you – and your students – get to grips with climate change. Here are five to get you started. 

1. Start with the fundamentals

Begin by making sure students have a thorough grounding in the science that underpins climate change, recommends Felicity Liggins, education outreach manager at the Met Office.

“It's a really daunting thing to jump straight into what is climate change, what's happening and what's the impact,” she says. “Instead, give young people a solid underpinning of the way our world works and then start to look at some of the more challenging questions.”

A good starting point could be explaining the difference between climate and weather, she suggests, using resources like this online lesson plan from the Met Office.

For younger students, ensure content is age-appropriate and tailored to your individual class, adds Ruth Shallcross, of the Primary Science Teaching Trust.

“With the very youngest children it’s about building a relationship with nature,” she says. "Consider starting with a topic on bees, for example, incorporating stories and poems before moving on to the impact of human behaviour. Then you can tentatively begin to introduce things.

“But we don't want to go in really hard-hitting with primary school children and tell them all the catastrophic facts and figures.”

2. Aim for little and often

Don’t concentrate all of your teaching on climate change into one subject, one class or even one term, suggests Caroline Hickman, a researcher at the University of Bath and executive committee member at the Climate Psychology Alliance.

“If you say to children that they're going to have a one-off class on the climate emergency, they'll already be alarmed and anticipate something terrifying. If you weave it into every class you teach, in small amounts and on an everyday basis, children incrementally build resilience around it.”

Don’t limit teaching to science and geography, either. How about using the speeches of Greta Thunberg to teach public speaking techniques in English, for example?

Carry out curriculum mapping as a school to see what topics and areas are covered within different subjects, and use that to consider how content could be further tweaked to touch on climate change, recommends Paul Turner, head of geography at Bedales School in Hampshire and founder of Teachers Against Climate Breakdown.

3. Empower students to be part of the solution

Although teachers shouldn’t shy away from discussing the major environmental challenges that we face, it’s also important to incorporate ways in which students can take action to be part of the solution.

First, try to contextualise the impact of climate change on students’ own communities, says Liggins. Ask them to think about a recent extreme weather event, consider whether it may happen more going forward and, if so, what they can do as individuals, as a school and as a community to protect against any adverse impact.

“It's about allowing young people to take ownership of some form of action to build resilience,” she adds.

The initial response might be “It’s out of my hands”, admits Turner. “But bridging that gap is a key thing for teachers, getting young people to realise any collective action begins with an individual.”

This can feed into a school’s informal curriculum, too, via plastic reduction schemes or events to raise awareness with which students can get involved.

Consider the opportunities in green careers too, Liggins advises.

“Explore how we can harness the drive toward green technologies to create exciting new jobs. Many professions have something to give. It's not just the engineers of the future providing us with solutions, it's the artists, the fashion designers, all different careers that have a role to play in making our world a better place, which is a really important message.”

4. Aim to manage, not eliminate, anxiety

The reality, for adults and children alike, is that the impact of climate change can provoke an emotional and anxious response. Don’t shy away from that, says Hickman.

“It’s working out how to talk to children about this without raising so much anxiety that they're paralysed and traumatised, but without minimising and saying it'll all be alright.

“We need to be able to talk to children in ways that give them permission to feel anxious. And then show them how to deal with their fears."

The best way to do that is for teachers to use themselves as an example of how to manage anxieties around the climate, she says. Admit to students that you feel worried, too, for example, and then provide them with tools that help them (and you) manage those concerns.

"For everything that students learn, get them to consider ‘What have I learned? What do I think? And how do I feel about it,’” says Hickman. In other words, always link facts and figures with feelings.

5. Build your understanding (but accept you won’t have all the answers)

Teachers can take advantage of a growing number of resources out there. At the Primary Science Teaching Trust, Shallcross and the team are finalising a new CPD programme designed to provide a baseline understanding – and she encourages anyone interested to get in touch.

Teachers can also access a wide range of lesson plans on the Met Office website, alongside briefings such as this one on extreme weather.

But the reality is that teachers may have to accept they won’t have all the answers to students’ questions. Even for the climate scientists who spend their lives immersed in the subject, it’s almost impossible to stay on top of all the latest findings and developments.

But that shouldn’t put teachers off discussing it, says Shallcross.

“We’re not sure about certain things, and that’s not always a comfortable place for adults to be. This is about us, as adults, understanding things ourselves, understanding our own emotional reactions, and then finding ways to bring it into the classroom.”

Megan Tatum is a freelance journalist

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