Collegiate Commentary: Five guiding principles from the COP26 theme

Image credit: unsplash, William Gibson, CC0

In this extra post, we share with you the Collegiate Commentary from the latest Teaching Matters newsletter: Five guiding principles from the COP26 theme. The regular newsletter format – ‘Five things…’ – summarises key messages from one of our two-month Learning and Teaching Enhancement or Hot Topic themes. In the Collegiate Commentary feature, we ask colleagues from other universities and institutions to provide a commentary on ‘Five things…’, and share their own learning and teaching reflections, resources or outputs on the same topic. In this newsletter, we welcome a commentary from Lucy Patterson, Sustainability in the Curriculum Project Officer, at The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EUAC).

As I stood below the globe suspended in the centre of COP26, where world leaders were negotiating global policy to tackle the climate emergency, the science classroom I taught in the previous year felt far removed. Yet education, in my opinion, is one of the greatest tools society has to preventing further damage to our planet. In my role at EAUC, which I began in September of 2021, I aim to support and encourage stakeholders in higher and further education to employ their agency to embed sustainability in their teaching.

Principle 1: Addressing the climate emergency in our teaching necessitates an “all hands on deck” attitude

The answer to the question “who will need to be taught about the climate emergency?” is undoubtedly everyone. Every student today will experience the effects of climate change, every course must prepare them for a life and career in a changing world. This will require an all hands on deck attitude, no longer will the assumption that climate change is only relevant to science and geography be able to continue. Instead, teaching in all subjects must address the climate emergency. At EAUC, we appreciate this is harder for some, and, as such, have launched a series of events to support individual subjects to embed sustainability in their teaching called ‘realigning curricula for the future’.

Teaching staff are not alone in driving this change as we discussed at this year’s global Regional Centres of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development conference. Senior leaders must wholeheartedly support progress in top-level decisions, and stakeholders from all aspects of society can also support this change, for example, employers in the type of apprenticeships they offer, and community led organisations by collaborating in the development of ‘place based’ green curricula.

Principle 2: Embedding the climate emergency is also about rethinking online course design

It is the right of all learners in Scotland to have sustainability embedded within their education, according to the Scottish Government’s 2030 ESD Action Plan. Accessibility is key to enable that, and is why creating inclusive, diverse and collaborative online courses that champion sustainability is so powerful in embedding the climate emergency in teaching. Using the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for this across institutions can be effective to ensure online courses are of a high standard in terms of education for sustainable development. However, considering embedding UNESCO’s competencies for education for sustainable development, such as systems thinking, anticipatory thinking, normative competency, strategic thinking, collaborative competency, critical thinking, self-awareness, and integrated problem-solving, within course and assessment design would further support the design of these courses to encourage students to take action against the climate emergency.

Principle 3: Intersectionality is a powerful lens from which to tackle the climate crisis

We all have limited time and energy to invest in the many issues that concern us, which is something we will explore in an upcoming Health and Wellbeing Topic Support Network looking at the burnout that can come from activism. But the concept that we have to choose between them need not always apply. The climate crisis comprises social, economic and environmental issues that we all will have different levels of interest in whether it be poverty (socio-economic), biodiversity loss from habitat destruction (economic-environmental), food insecurity (socio-environmental) or something else. Combining our unique perspectives to these issues individually and through collaboration means we can tackle the climate crisis efficiently. However, where a paradox exists there is a need to discuss opposing values, such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘development’ as highlighted by Sam Staddon. Division discourages progress, by discussing conflicts of interest in our teaching with an open mind, bringing in those from different disciplines and schools of thought, we can identify common ground and new approaches to tackle the climate crisis.

Principle 4: Advocating for climate justice is about activating our rational, emotional and embodied intelligence

Rationally, once aware of climate science, we know we should take action but this isn’t always the case. Only when we feel an emotional connection to the problem and overcome any significant barriers will we make difficult changes to our lives. It is therefore advantageous to continually improve our rational, emotional and embodied intelligence to apply in combination to embedding climate change in our teaching, and in our lives. At EAUC, our Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Topic Support Network can develop rational intelligence for quality ESD in teaching by sharing techniques across higher and further institutions. Carbon literacy training provides a valuable base level of knowledge on the climate crisis to further improve rational intelligence for advocating against climate change, but also allows time for personal reflection. Emotional intelligence is best acquired through conversations, so Carbon Conversation sessions can provide a good starting point for these from a psychological perspective. Aligning our values with the climate emergency to improve our embodied intelligence can be done through explorative learning; whether that is exploring projects and research such as on the Sustainability Exchange or the Common Cause Foundation’s website, or taking Glen Cousquer’s advice to connect students with nature by exploring nature ourselves, so long as time is taken after exploration to reflect on the values highlighted.

Principle 5: Listening to students shapes our pedagogies of the future

Each new generation of students will experience climate change in a different way and our pedagogies need to acknowledge that: in the 1960’s climate science was a potential theory which was touched on under the umbrella of environmental education. In the 1990’s it became something more explicit we needed to prevent, which was reflected in the adoption of education for sustainable development. In the 2010’s, it became something we need to both mitigate and adapt to. Going forward, it may become something different again, hopefully to recover from.

Students have a unique perspective to foresee how climate change will be most relevant to them, which we should use to guide progress in sustainable education through active communication. Recently the growing sensitivity of young people to climate change has been a key consideration communicated by students. Research shows around 77% of students in higher education have experienced climate anxiety. As they are likely to suffer greater disruption to their lives due to climate change than older generations this is understandable. When embedding the climate emergency in our teaching, we must be aware of students’ emotional reactions, discourage fatalistic approaches, and highlight some of the many examples of progress which exist in every field.

photograph of the authorLucy Patterson

Lucy Patterson is a Sustainability in the Curriculum Project officer at EAUC, which is the alliance for sustainability in higher and further education. Based within the Scotland team, she supports a network of staff to embed sustainability in their teaching and learning. Prior to this role Lucy was a secondary science teacher and found a calling to champion education for sustainable development when her students displayed pessimism for their future amidst the climate emergency.

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