Generation Greta: education & the global climate crisis

“A student could do 10,000 hours of contact time in the classroom, and only hear about environmental issues or discuss the effects of climate change in ten of them”

Barnaby Sandow, Head of School at ACS International School Cobham, asks how we can re-focus our approach to education to realistically frame the growing global climate crisis.

Environmental education is not consistent in the UK. Whilst it encompasses multiple topics and skills, environmental education has no defined syllabus or structure, which means in practice, it’s a subject matter that ‘falls through the gaps’.

It’s entirely possible that a student could do 10,000 hours of contact time in the classroom, and only hear about environmental issues or discuss the effects of climate change in ten of them. As each #FridaysForFuture protest passes, it’s starkly obvious that we need an education ready to support ‘Generation Greta’.

But what is environmental education, and how should it be included within a school curriculum?

Broadly speaking, an education that encourages students to embrace their global citizenship; to stand up and act for causes they believe in; to develop understanding and tolerance of other nations by teaching from multiple perspectives and to foster a culture of collaboration across borders, is the foundation of environmental education.

If students develop an international, open-minded and progressive social mindset, it follows that environmental concerns would form a filter through which their academic subjects are considered.

I am evangelical in the belief that this, an international education, is exactly the type of education that the world needs right now.

It’s imperative that children experience different cultures and perspectives – this is what education is about.  This will help them develop crucial critical thinking skills – they will make judgements independently on how they choose to live their lives and in turn, how their influence can help protect the environment.

In the world, our teenagers and children inhabit, the most recognisable climate activist is Greta Thunberg, a girl from Sweden, who decided to skip school to protest the rapid onset of climate change. Put simply, she felt the need to step out from the confines of her education to speak – and she felt the absence of an adult leader or role model who was doing enough.

What is her generation left with, when the classroom confines its students from free speech? It appears that Generation Z feels misrepresented to the extent that they have championed the leadership shown by a child, over adult policymakers. So we must start again, back in the classroom.

“At the heart of every global threat is a failure of leadership,” said Kate Robertson, co-founder of the youth not-for-profit organisation, One Young World. In the next cohort of politicians, business people, board members and trailblazers, they will need to consider environment first, profit second.

“This new generation is the most informed, most educated, most connected generation in human history,” Robertson reminded us ahead of the recent One Young World summit. So, what can we teach them, to prevent another age of failing leaders?

Environmental education can exist across numerous study subjects. But perhaps the most important areas for this generation to focus building on include climate change (and global warming as a symptom of this), water scarcity, droughts and flooding, pollution (including plastics), and deforestation. These are the critical issues that students the world over should be educated about.

“These are the critical issues that students the world over should be educated about”

Environmental education doesn’t have to be limited to the classroom either; encourage your students to consider these issues in the context of their extra-curricular activities, whether they’re penning a screenplay, creating their own documentary, protesting at Westminster or developing technological ideas that can have a positive environmental impact.

A deeper understanding of the environmental crisis and a range of strong leadership skills should together be woven in all areas of school life. But it’s within the context of a global mindset, that this will be the generation that is ready to action meaningful change for us all.

Skolstrejk for Klimatet

  • Encourage research. For anyone taking part in peaceful protests, it is important to read about and engage with other movements that have changed history and understand why movements are important
  • Communicate with people who can create change. Writing letters to politicians and people in power is a great way to engage with those who have a direct impact
  • Create art and media as an effective way for all students to be able to communicate their opinions, frustrations and hopes around a particular subject
  • Frame daily school life within the habit of the three R’s: reducing waste, reusing resources, and recycling materials. What are the recycling habits of other nations – can we borrow any good ideas?
  • Ask questions. Everyone should be encouraged to ask questions about issues they are passionate in order to make informed choices about how they would like to participate
  • Learn from experience. Reviewing the impact our actions have had to plan for the future
  • Build supportive networks of like-minded students, parents, teachers and school leaders who can be champions. Achieving a sustainable world requires coming together, and issues around climate change can also cause distress or burnout

About the author: Barnaby Sandow is the head of school at ACS International School Cobham.