The climate crisis is an existential threat to humanity, the scale of which is often beyond our comprehension. It is impacted by complex global structures as well as our own individual decisions. It provokes a wide range of intense emotional reactions. How do we approach teaching such a topic?
Climate change education is an emerging field. It recognises education’s pivotal role in fundamentally altering the ways that people think about and act to mitigate the climate emergency. Because climate change education is in its infancy, few robust frameworks exist to structure teaching and learning about the climate crisis. Research emerging from Dublin City University is taking on this challenge.
The icon on this article reflects the research's contribution to UN Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action. The Sustainable Development Goals are 17 objectives designed by the United Nations to serve as a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet.
A new toolkit
The research focused on developing a toolkit to build students’ understanding of the ways in which individual acts and wider social or structural forces interact in the context of global warming. This toolkit, known as the Social Ecology of Responsibility Framework, enables individuals to understand their own role in exacerbating and alleviating the climate crisis.
Existing approaches to climate change or sustainability education have been critiqued for their failure to address the role of wider structures, values, power relations, and vested interests in promoting behaviours that result in ecological harm. The toolkit specifically addresses this limitation by highlighting the complex interaction between these wider social forces and individual behaviours.
It examines the symbiotic relationship that exists between ordinary harms routinely committed by individuals living in high emissions societies (such as consuming meat or traveling by plane), and bigger, ecological harms committed by corporations, industries, or governments.
Crucially, the toolkit transcends either/or approaches to climate responsibility which privilege either personal actions or the governance, practices and behaviours of corporations, governments, industry.
Implications for policy and society
The implications of this framework for society are wide-ranging. It shows the need for radical change within and across multiple levels and domains of society. It serves as a springboard for the complicated conversations that need to happen in relation to the climate crisis. There is scope for use in a range of different contexts, ranging from education to government.
The framework can further help citizens of all ages to navigate the plethora of emotions they experience when they encounter “difficult knowledge” about the climate crisis and to work through feelings of distress, hopelessness, and fear associated with the ecological crisis. It can be applied in formal, non-formal educational settings as well as in therapeutic environments or non-governmental organisations and has major implications for educational programming and curriculum development.
Shaping the conversation
This research led to an invitation to undertake commissioned work as a Thought Partner for the International Baccalaureate. This organisation is a global leader in international education which offers four high quality education programmes to more than one million students in more than 146 countries.
This partnership has informed curriculum research, development and design across all four IB programmes (primary, middle years; diploma and career-related). There was a particular focus on active engagement, sustainability, and adopting a more conscious, global viewpoint across these programmes.
This research is being advanced through The InterChange Project, a New Foundations Grant from the Irish Research Council with funding from the Department for Foreign Affairs and the Department of Education. This project emphasises the value of interdisciplinary and creative approaches in advancing our understanding of the climate crisis. InterChange is working in partnership with the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) to build a network of scholars, artists, activists, students and practitioners. The aim is to develop and discuss creative and innovative pedagogical responses and solutions to the climate crisis.
Climate change education is a new and developing field without a definitive theory or direction. This new research from DCU has made a contribution towards shaping the way the most important issue of our time is taught.