The challenge of a stress-free education on climate change

As the effects of climate change are upon us, education on the phenomenon is a step behind throughout the world. Source of anxiety for students, how can we discuss the future of our planet without lowering their spirits?

According to a UNESCO report released in 2021, only 53% of school curriculum worldwide mention climate change. And when they do, it remains light. “In France, it only started to appear in programs two years ago” says David Wilgenbus, former astrophysicist and former coordinator of educational projects for the association La Main à la pâte. In light of such challenges, he decides in 2018 to form the Office for Climate Education (OCE) with academic partners and associations: “There was then no existing structure to accompany primary and secondary school teachers on this specific topic at an international scale through free, multilingual and multimedia educational tools created closely to scientific knowledge” he tells.

Yet, the now director of the OCE witnessed a high demand for such material when organising training courses with teachers. “Many don’t feel equipped to tackle these issues, and even for those with some knowledge in climatology their approach remains focused on one discipline, when the issue of climate change needs multidisciplinarity” states David Wilgenbus. Beyond the plain scientific knowledge required for this education, the fact it lags a step behind shows it is an issue unlike any other. “In the past two years, we heard one strong enquiry on everyone’s lips: how can we teach this topic without creating a source of anxiety for students?” he raises.

Sciences at the heart of learning

As a result, teachers find themselves in a delicate position: explaining the severity of the situation while highlighting the future is not set in stone. “Relying on projects is a good option for education” expresses David Wilgenbus. “It offers a multidisciplinary approach and puts children in an active role where they can set up solutions.” While avoiding a catastrophic perspective, being a part of the action channels some of the student’s anxiety. “We cannot fully prevent this feeling because climate change truly has negative consequences, we must then embrace this stress and allow children to feel as proper stakeholders.”

With this strategy, scientific education gives a major role to experimentation and debates, favourable to the development of student’s critical thinking. “One goal is to get them to understand the situation but also how the scientific community works, to be able to tell the difference between a scientific statement and a personal opinion” declares the OCE director. As climate change impacts many diverse areas such as transport, environment or health, these educational strategies open the door to a study of sciences less disconnected from societal issues. “For children to get keen on sciences they need to understand their role in our society” concludes David. “Personally, I see instruction in climate change as an opportunity for science education, because science becomes materialised in issues relatable to everyone”.

By Marion Barbé for IPSL