Rowan Oberman, Lecturer and researcher with the Centre for Human Rights and Citizenship Education at the DCU School of STEM Education, Innovation and Global Studies in the DCU Institute of Education chats about her work as part of International Women's Day.
Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing humans in the 21st century. You are working on ways for teachers to encourage primary-school children to become more aware of the issues and potential solutions around climate change.Why the need for more resources in education?
“Because there is a gap there. We know this because about five years ago at the Centre for Human Rights and Citizenship Education we did some research on climate change education in primary schools. In the main, we found that climate change was considered as a segment in geography or science, and teachers often seemed to view climate change as an Armageddon-like scenario, and it’s difficult to engage with that. So climate change was marginalised. Teachers were not discussing with their students the issues of human implications or responsibility, and the political and social context of climate change and mitigation and adaptation was not part of their narrative. On the other hand when we asked specialists in climate change, some in education and some in NGOs and politics, climate change was a political and urgent social issue that needs global holistic responses.”
So what did you set out to do?
"We developed a resource called Creating Futures for teachers of senior primary school students (5th and 6th class). It covers the ‘what’ of climate change – the history and the evidence – and it encourages students to think about the injustices that climate change creates and who is most vulnerable to its impact. It also looks at the future, and gets students to design solutions and to develop leadership skills.
How could a teacher use this in practice?
“We specifically designed Creating Futures to be cross-curricular, so it works across the subjects they are covering with their class. Within the resource there are also activities that encourage the children to think critically. For example, one activity has an image of banknotes to the tune of 100 million in currency, then there is a list of 12 projects that are looking for funding, such as hunger relief for people who need food immediately because of drought, a seed bank to help adapt crops to climate change and also lobbying for political change. The children rank the projects and decide how much funding each project should get. This gives the class the opportunity to discuss long- and short-term strategies and priorities for dealing with climate change.”
Have schools tried out Creating Futures already?
“Yes, we piloted it across a range of primary schools, and the feedback has been really positive from teachers and students. Children love debate and being asked their opinions on these issues, and in 5th and 6th class they often have strong feelings about injustice. They are particularly shocked that climate change is such a huge issue yet so little is being done about it.”
What is happening with Creating Futures now?
“We are now doing a larger, formal assessment where we look at baseline climate change literacy in classes, then the teacher works through Creating Futures with the children during the school year and we go back and measure the impact and find out about their experience.”
Will Creating Futures be in all schools in Ireland?
“We hope so. The resource is currently freely downloadable from the Trócaire website, who funded the project along with Irish Aid, and eventually we hope this will become part of primary education in Ireland. We are using Creating Futures with students of education in DCU, so that when they go to teach in schools they will be able to incorporate climate change education. And we also run accredited Continuing Professional Development courses for teachers on climate change education.”
Why 5th and 6th class? What about younger primary school students?
“Creating Futures suits 5th and 6th class because it responds to their curriculum and uses concepts, such as graphs, which they will have learned about in Maths. It encourages students to work in teams on projects to figure out solutions to questions or problems. I think though that the skills and concepts children need to engage with climate change should be built up from day one, and we have worked on other projects that encourage critical thinking and more awareness of global citizenship among younger primary school students too.”
“At the Centre for Human Rights and Citizenship Education we carried out some research on Children’s Global Thinking. We looked at how 7-9-year old children engage with global issues, and we found they had pre-conceptions about countries based on development aid – for example that some countries or regions were labeled as poor and there was little appreciation of other aspects of those places or of global interdependence. What arose from that project was a children’s book I wrote called Farid’s Rickshaw Ride which tells the story of a child in Bangladesh who has a cousin in Ireland. This boy, Farid takes a rickshaw ride around Dhaka and the driver tells him about his life. They’re involved in a traffic accident which highlights the social inequality and explores human rights. These are all opportunities to explore wider issues such as trade and climate change and migration and the injustice of poverty. I also developed a story sack resource called Just Children for children in preschool and infant classes. I am very interested in how fictional stories can help children improve their critical literacy.”
What do you like most about your research?
“I think that the work we do is innovative, and it is just nice to work with teachers and students, and to hear their feedback. Some of my best moments are when a teacher says how much the kids really love working with Creating Futures. To hear that is really rewarding.”
How has DCU’s Incorporation had an effect on your research?
“It has opened up new conversations and ideas about the research. There has been a lot of interest in what we do, and we are now thinking about using climate change education resources – particularly Creating Futures – in intergenerational learning, so that children, parents and grandparents can learn about climate change together.”