Retooling schools for an era of climate change
Australian schools will address a host of new challenges throughout the 2020s but perhaps the most pressing imperative will be establishing ecological responsibility and sustainability as central elements of how institutions are run.
It seems increasingly foolhardy to deny that we face a future of continued global heating, climate migration, ecosystem erosion and resource depletion. As such, there is much that our education leaders and policymakers need to turn their attention toward.
One immediate challenge is to rethink how schools can be organised and run along sustainable lines. To be fair, environmental issues are already beginning to guide how new school buildings are being designed, made and maintained. However, there are many other aspects of school that lag well behind.
These include the environmental consequences of the mass daily drive to school. In addition is the education system’s wasteful reliance on costly digital devices that are continuously consumed and discarded in the name of "innovation".
In a few decades’ time, the expectation of "one laptop per child" or driving short distances in a fleet of SUVs will appear anachronistic and downright irresponsible. Put bluntly, schools, teachers and parents need to quickly curtail the environmental and ethical impacts of such over-consumption.
At the same time, there is a pressing need to revitalise the Australian school curriculum to prepare students for the climate crisis. This includes re-tooling all existing subject areas to foreground complex conceptual issues such as climate science, climate politics, climate demography, climate-related health and economics.
Schools also need to give young people practical skills and dispositions necessary to survive across their lifetimes – what are often referred to as adaptation and mitigation strategies. Schools also need to educate young Australians how to engage democratically with environmental issues and debates, not least the capacity to participate in collective environmental decision-making at local, national and global levels.
Of course, given many other pressures, climate issues might well seem too much to tackle. Yet there are tangible actions that can be quickly implemented. For example, these challenges demand new cohorts of environmentally expert teachers. Here, we might replicate the recent commitment by the UK’s North of Tyne region to employ UN-accredited climate change teachers in each of its schools.
There is also a long tradition of curriculum developments and schoolwide initiatives in the areas of environmental education and education for sustainable development. Australia’s education leaders and policymakers need to pay close attention to how these existing interventions might be scaled up as mainstream components of schooling.
Above all, we need students, parents, politicians, teachers and voters to support and push for these changes. This might be the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Indeed, well-worn arguments will continue to be made that climate change is a society-wide problem rather than a specific education issue. In this sense, why should schools be obliged to act first?
Such logic is becoming increasingly flawed as each day passes. As Greta Thunberg and the recent school climate strikes remind us, current generations of students are very aware that they will be dealing with the environmental consequences of their everyday actions in very different ways than before. For this reason alone, it is crucial that young people’s places of education are a source of support rather than a hindrance.
In addition, the climate crisis is a society-wide issue that desperately needs Australian institutions to take a lead. US education philosopher John Dewey was a fervent believer that schools are places where we can develop the kinds of society that we want to see. In this sense, schools and teachers can be in the vanguard of reorienting Australia towards a sustainable future. Our nation’s survival starts at school.
Neil Selwyn is a distinguished research professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, where he works as part of the Education Futures initiative.
Article credit: The Sydney Morning Herald
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