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Teaching climate change: “It's not a hard sell”

by Moira Donovan

Teacher Steve Wohlmuth developed an interactive assignment on climate change that he has implemented with his own students. Reporter Moira Donovan takes a look at various efforts to integrate the notion of sustainability into our education system. Photo Steve Wohlmuth
Teacher Steve Wohlmuth developed an interactive assignment on climate change that he has implemented with his own students. Reporter Moira Donovan takes a look at various efforts to integrate the notion of sustainability into our education system. Photo Steve Wohlmuth

(K'JIPUKTUK) HALIFAX – ‘When the room goes quiet’ says Steve Wohlmuth ‘that’s when you know you have them’. The hush that descends on Wohlmuth’s students when he introduces the subject of climate change isn’t from lack of interest, he says, but rather suggests a genuine concern in the subject. ‘It’s not a hard sell,’ he notes. ‘There’s not much you can touch where climate change isn't part of the situation.’

Wohlmuth, who teaches Global Geography 12 at Central Kings Rural High School in the Annapolis Valley, will be presenting a workshop titled 'How do we engage students to the topic of climate change?’ at the Nova Scotia Social Studies Teachers Association Conference October 24. The workshop will feature an interactive assignment on climate change he’s developed and implemented with his own students.

‘(Waking up to) climate change really happened by mistake with me,’ Wohlmuth says. While leading a 1998 field trip to Iceland, he learned that the water supply for the residents of the small volcanic island was imperiled by changes in the climate – it was drawn from a glacier on the mainland, and that glacier was melting.

Returning on subsequent trips to a situation that was steadily growing worse, Wohlmuth says the experience inspired the assignment – which he now teaches over the course of nearly two-weeks in the school year. ‘It was something that dropped in my lap.’

Attempts to integrate education on sustainability have been in the works for a while.

When the UN made its pitch for the Decade on Education for Sustainable Development, it wasn’t to the scientists, the engineers or even the policy makers.

‘The UN has said to the education community you are the folks that have to help change societies most’ says Stan Kozak, Curriculum and Policy Consultant with the education non-profit Learning for a Sustainable Future, ‘because you’re the institution that is involved in change, and we’re in crisis. ‘

At the end of the decade, which was inaugurated in 2005, the movement for climate change curricula is one that is quietly gathering steam.

The good news is that educators in Nova Scotia represent a demographic that both well-versed in scientific knowledge relative to knowledgeable groups surveyed in the US, and is highly concerned with the effects of climate change, according to a survey of educators recently conducted by Jillian Baker and Cape Breton University researcher Jason Loxton.

Loxton notes that ‘94% of survey respondents rate climate change instruction as ‘important’ or ‘very important’’ adding that ‘87% of Nova Scotia teachers already at least mention climate change in their classes (although only 28% do so in formal lessons).’

Importantly, Loxton says ‘the survey found that Nova Scotia teachers don’t feel any pressure from parents, students, or administration to avoid teaching climate change because of perceived controversy, something which is a big problem in the US.’

For those teachers who don’t teach the subject in their classrooms, the lack of climate curriculum was identified as a factor, suggesting that the province has an important role to play. In fact, 75% of teachers who didn’t include climate change in their teaching said lack of curriculum was a reason.

‘With a couple of rare exceptions, climate change is completely absent from the Nova Scotia curriculum,’ says Loxton. ‘If it isn’t required, teachers end up cutting it: there just isn’t enough time in the school year to cover anything that isn’t formally required.’

Despite the apparent urgency of the situation, Stan Kozak suggests that like any large institution, the education system can be slow to respond to change. ‘We have an education system that is a very powerful conserving one in the sense of conserving its current practice’ he says, ‘whether those are policy all the way down to the perception that the public has about what education was when they went through it and what it should be now. ‘

Teaching about sustainable development, Kozak suggests, is as much about imparting a set of critical skills as it is teaching about the science of climate change, providing students with the ability to deal with uncertainties in knowledge as well as an unpredictable future.

‘We can learn all the science we want about climate change, but really we’re having a societal level and an individual level of paralysis. So we know tons about the science of it, but we [LSF] would say let’s look at climate change as one issue in a broader sense.’

By helping students develop their capabilities rather than telling them what’s good for them, Kozak says, the education system could develop the kinds of critical, engaged citizens largely absent from the political process.

Far more than just a change in curricula – although it could have an impact on basic structures of the school system, such as subject-based timetables - it’s an approach that could overhaul how we think about learning.

‘Suddenly we’re not saying we have the right answer; we’ve got a whole bunch of answers out there. By continually having those learning experiences we’re going to be examining our values, we’re going to be interacting with sources of information, world views from the real world, and we’re going to be coming up with the tools that help us make our decisions, and boy,’ Kozak adds ‘do we ever need that.’

With this combination of factors – a motivated student body and faculty, combined with an increased understanding of the issue and how to better teach it – why isn’t climate change already integrated into curricula?

The answer, says Jason Loxton, isn’t about climate skeptics or scare tactics. ‘It is plain old boring stuff like lack of time, lack of teaching materials, and lack of self-confidence in their ability to teach the subject. Nova Scotia teachers really want to teach this stuff. The barriers are pretty much entirely the result of lack of direction and support from the province.’

Learning for a Sustainable Future seeks to overcome some of these obstacles through a goal oriented process that tackles the problem at several levels, both provincially, by working on policy change across Canada’s 13 different education jurisdictions, and by providing a free online database of lesson plans and information titled ‘Resources for Rethinking’ that teachers can access through the organization’s website.

Wohlmuth has a similar goal, and will continue to distribute his assignment freely to educators who wish to make use of it. ‘That’s what you want to do for teachers. They’re a busy group of people, and if you can give them something that they can do tomorrow, they’re going to get excited about it.’ Plus, he adds ‘teachers love free things.’

Drawing on his own experience in Iceland, Wohlmuth makes the personal connection to the material central to the assignment, asking students to consider the effect that sea-level rise would have on Kentville.

Wohlmuth says the assignment can and should be easily adapted to local contexts, be they in the US – as he did, presenting the assignment at the University of Florida – Europe, where he provided the assignment to teachers at the European Geosciences Conference – or in communities around the province.

It’s a tailored approach motivated by the same impulse as Learning for a Sustainable Future, which encourages educators not to presuppose an answer, but to ask ‘what does your community need to know?’

And, as Wohlmuth points out, once established, the effect of establishing that connection can be far-reaching. ‘If we embed what we do for just a few weeks in a course it really does have an impact. When you’re in school if you hit that teacher, that topic that really turned your crank and you can relate to it, you just don’t forget it’

Although there may be institutional battles to implementing climate change curricula on a broad basis, Wohlmuth says that the one often associated with young people – apathy – is noticeably absent in his classroom.

The high school brings in students from First Nations communities, farms and small towns, many of whom have a direct and genuine attachment to the land. Building on this in a positive way by talking about how we could do things differently, he says, is essential.

‘When students come up with their own ideas about how they could mitigate anthropogenic gas sources, it just puts a smile on your face,’ he says. ‘That’s what we want, more creative thought; you know, young minds, fresh ideas.’


For more information about resources from Learning For a Sustainable Future, click here.

For more resources from Jason Loxton and Jillian Baker, check out their annotated reference guide for teachers looking for lesson plans. 

Jason Loxton encourages teachers to seek out help from the faculty at Nova Scotia’s colleges and universities: ‘We would love to help however we can, by talking to classes or mentoring teachers. Come talk to us!’

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