Matthew Schep: Getting climate change education into NZ schools

Education is one of the most powerful tools that we have to tackle climate change, argued Irina Bovoka, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), when she spoke at COP22 in Marrakech earlier this week.

While multiple streams of negotiations on issues such as agriculture, ambition, climate finance, and global stocktake ran parallel to each other at the twenty-second annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Monday 14 November was also dedicated to acknowledging the importance of education in the global climate movement. Education Day saw a range of presentations, events, and press conferences by the United Nations, non-governmental organisations, and governments on advancing the climate change education agenda.

Education is of vital importance for imparting understanding of climate change and its effects, empowering communities to mobilise for positive change, fostering global citizenship identities, and including everyday people in decisions and issues that directly affect them. Societies that are critically aware of the impacts of climate change can better act to safeguard their futures in partnership with governments, organisations, and the private sector, through mitigation efforts, adaptation plans, and shaping mindsets.

UNESCO’s annual Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report), established to track the progress of Sustainable Development Goal #4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all), highlights the urgent need to ensure access to climate change education for all citizens in every country if the world is to avoid the worst of the projected global climate catastrophe that has already begun. It stresses the importance of ensuring access to this education for all ages of people, and urges governments to establish plans to upscale their efforts in this area.

In order to ensure the best action plan for delivering climate change education to citizens, governments must partner with institutions such as universities, schools, churches, and NGOs. These institutions are at the frontline of engagement with communities, families, and individuals, and so they are best placed to connect with society in this respect. These institutions already operate as spaces of learning and critical thought, so making education accessible to the masses is already a natural component of their practice.

Schools are some of the most influential learning spaces in society; nearly every citizen in New Zealand spends or has spent their formative years within a formal schooling system. Childhood and adolescence are marked by rapid cognitive development, construction of complex worldviews, and maturation of identities. Schools are where students learn about society and the world, gain the skills to navigate and engage with them, and begin to place themselves within these broad collectives. They are the most engaging spaces for citizens to explore climate change and broader ideas about global responsibility and consequences.

In Aotearoa, schools follow the New Zealand Curriculum in developing and carrying out educational experiences for their students. The curriculum not only involves subject areas, but also conveys values, key competencies, and principles that underpin how students learn about and engage with the world, both inside and outside of the classroom. The curriculum should reflect the collective ethos and values of the nation that delivers it. What is imparted to students through curriculum guidance will play a major part in shaping how each generation perceives the world and their place in it.

It is surprising, therefore, to note that the New Zealand Curriculum currently contains very little reference to climate change, either as a guiding principle or as a key learning area. Climate change is the most defining issue of our time; its impacts will drastically alter how the world works, and will not leave any individual, community, or nation untouched. Yet, the curriculum only contains passing references to the importance of ecological sustainability and global citizenship as cornerstone values of the learning process, with no guidance on enshrining these values within the context of a rapidly shifting climate. Teaching about the environment is primarily limited to educational objectives within key learning areas, condemning this impeding worldwide crisis to operate solely as a science or social sciences topic in most schools. The Ministry of Education does have guidelines for environmental principles in education on its website, but these are not focused around climate change, are not incorporated into teacher training, and noticeably exist outside of the curriculum itself, meaning that their impact is muted and falls far short of what is needed.

For New Zealand to show a commitment to ensuring that its citizens are educated about climate change, and to make sure that this education is delivered as a guiding principle that underpins all learning, it is imperative that the Ministry of Education updates the New Zealand Curriculum to incorporate climate education in a more holistic manner. For students to participate in learning environments that uphold climate awareness, collective global responsibility, and ecological respect as underpinning values is as crucial to their development as imparting current curriculum values such as embracing diversity, integrity and honesty, and self-respect. There is no doubt that many schools in New Zealand are weaving comprehensive climate change education into their learning experiences despite the lack of guidance from the curriculum, but this is not enough to ensure that we are doing current and future generations justice. The Ministry of Education must show leadership in this area and establish climate change education as a core component of the guiding principles of the New Zealand curriculum, so that all students, and future peoples, will benefit from it.

Matthew Schep is a primary school teaching graduate at the University of Otago. He is a part of the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute's delegation to COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Image source: UNESCO - with a permission for CC-BY-SA 3.0 or CC-BY-SA 3.0 IGO by Ian Denison, chief of UNESCO publishing and branding

Posted on November 18, 2016 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2016.