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Education Really Matters: Saving the planet … and beyond

Educational inputs are relevant and valuable in enabling learners to contribute to both saving and improving planet Earth.

Frank O’Hagan

Carpe diem?

What are children and young persons to conclude from the many differing points of view which circulate about the future of planet Earth? Trump-like attitudes abound. Sceptics perceive activists as absurd and confused. Some proponents of the status quo harbour illusions of normality and stability as continuing onwards from decade to decade. Others simply tout spin over substance to cause distractions or attempt to kick thorny conundrums into the distance for future generations to grapple with and possibly resolve. Groucho Marx succinctly summarised this narrow-minded short-termism – “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” In contrast, there is what is sometimes referred to as ‘cathedral thinking’ or in other words ‘being good ancestors’. Our predecessors bequeathed exquisite buildings for us to admire. Can we, in turn, leave a delightful and healthy world as an inheritance to our descendants?  

The young can become confounded by the multitude of different opinions and pressures in circulation. They have a right to know what those in positions of responsibility at both local and national levels are proposing and must be allowed to voice their apprehensions. It is essential to respond to the significant doubts which they may wish to raise. Should there be regular publications of targets already missed, as well as having an agenda for future action? What more can politicians, environmental planners and business leaders undertake to make up for lost time? How critically do civilians scrutinise deficits in modern living and in what ways can they greatly improve the quality of everyday life? While these are legitimate questions for investigation, there are similar queries concerning youths’ own endeavours, and those of their families and communities, in lessening the dangers of climate change.

Obstacles to overcome

Educationalists will have specific principles to observe in order to provide clarification, elucidation and hopefulness for all age groups. While teaching may be aimed, either directly or indirectly, at outlining current progress and eliciting discerning feedback from pupils, care must be taken not to over-exaggerate. Guidance should ensure that learners grasp trustworthy facts and the outcomes of genuine, scientific research. Lessons and activities need to be well-judged and take due account of their abilities and stages of maturity. A focus on their investigative and problem-solving skills will boost motivation and confidence. As some might have felt perplexed and experienced a sense of helplessness through a succession of reports on the media, a warm and inclusive learning ethos can reduce emotional upset and help avoid deleterious impacts on mental wellbeing. Usually, it is probably best to adopt a ‘Goldilocks state’ – well balanced between a concern to make improvements but by no means over-anxious or distressed.

There have been numerous efforts to build an alertness of risks associated with the likes of extreme weather conditions or toxic fumes causing ill-health and early deaths in cities. However, some commentators have noted what has been called an ‘information deficit model’ – valid facts not known or understood – is still to be found in sectors of society. This is a separate phenomenon from that of the denial of indubitable facts and statistics. When such circumstances prevail, interest and inspiration can decrease. Nonetheless, it is apposite not to ostracize either of these factions but rather to give time to examine the reasons underlying their prevalence. This standpoint facilitates opportunities to figure out how they came to adopt unconventional positions and to engage in dialogue.

What are the challenges which have to be overcome in improving our ecosystem?

Another obstacle is that the threats connected to climate change normally are not instantly noticeable and, as a result, treated as inconsequential. While it is relatively easy to understand the immediate menace of a global pandemic, the linkage between homes being flooded and carbon emissions is less obvious. By highlighting and explaining the gradual variations which are occurring and the requirement for long-term planning, perceptiveness can be increased and doubts resolved.

It is fortuitous that, when it comes to facing controversies, the well-known myth of ostriches sticking their heads in the sand when dangers loom generally does not apply to eager learners. They are cognisant of the message conveyed in this myth and have enough savvy to review and confront the predictions which envisage the destruction of Mother Earth. Let’s wish them every success!

A dynamic and comprehensive curriculum

Much closer attention is now being given to teachers’ knowledge and skills vis-à-vis sustainability. Additionally, the contributions of specialists in schools, further and tertiary education and industrial-related research substantially heighten awareness. While fully accepting the importance of formal qualifications, credit also has to be accorded to the value of other forms of educational inputs which encourage mindfulness and responsiveness in the 3 to 18 years-of-age range. There are identifiable features of coursework which are immediately suitable for inclusion. As well as providing vital information, they can delineate practical solutions and emphasise positive individual and collective roles for clear-sighted intervention.

The curriculum on offer requires to be all-embracing. It not only needs to extend beyond saving the biosphere but, furthermore, ought to include the numerous means through which contemporary living conditions can be upgraded. The topic of climate change is only one element, albeit a markedly important one, of a wider study encompassing the saving of our planet … and beyond. Its overall aim is the enrichment of the living environment for all humankind. Within this broader framework, a commitment on decarbonization towards net-zero emission targets can be regarded as a ‘saving’ aspect. When the agenda morphs into the creation of a truly healthier, greener and life-enhancing environment, objectives are magnified towards ‘saving and beyond’. Thus, a more comprehensive approach incorporates improvements to tackle poor living conditions, unhealthy diets, misuse of pesticides, destruction of sea beds from excessive dredging, the dumping of garbage and radioactive materials at sea, and the list goes on. It also contains suggestions for consideration on appropriate, eco-friendly involvement. Education really matters!

We are family – all in it together

We live in a common home and our society now has the opportunity to create a happier, safer and flourishing world. While teachers and tutors can partake meaningfully, it would be unreasonable to expect only education settings – nurseries, schools and colleges – to embark on this onerous task. Fortunately, there are many sources for learners to exploit over and above their formal curriculum – for instance: guidance from parents and guardians; the supportive influences of peers; enlightening books, newspapers and television documentaries; dedicated sites on social media; and sponsorships by organisations which focus on improving agriculture and fishing. Authentic, scientific data and advice are accessible from comparable founts of vision to endorse and hasten a beneficial, cultural transformation.

A detailed syllabus on this over-arching theme is exceptionally complex. For anyone even mildly interested in the subject, there is an extensive range of conventional and technical terms in general usage such as: greenhouse gases; carbon capture; environmentalism; ethical investment strategies; transparency on resourcing; sustainability; greenwashing; and recycling. Thoughtful reflection on the terminology can deepen our foresight and understanding of the difficulties which have to be appraised. Moreover, there is a very broad spectrum of relevant topics which takes in: the reduction in road and air travel; greater use of public transport; wastage of rare metals; pollution of land, sea and atmosphere; biodiversity; wind, marine and solar power; energy saving in homes and buildings; peat land preservation; and the traceability and purchase of food and goods.

This immense array of varied contents necessities a highly organised schedule across age bands and curricular areas in order to steer clear of duplication and to ensure maximum impact. It is commendable when schools have devised an inventory relating to the integration of learning prospects. Though these may seem arduous undertakings, the good news is twofold: staff in education are occupied already in this enterprise and, for pupils, their ensuing acquisition of comprehension and prescience guarantees advancement in terms of personal, social, emotional and cognitive development.

Love learning, love your planet

At the early and nursery phases, children form habits with regard to cleanliness, communication, personal safety, good manners and kindness to others. In creative and investigative play activities, they develop an appreciation of camaraderie, flowers, animals and parks. The value of an enjoyable and stimulating early education is undoubtedly of real benefit in fostering their respect and sensitivity towards their immediate surroundings and nature in general. Individual displays or in friendship groups, at times in the company of family members, can enable them to demonstrate their interests aroused by drawings, designs and photographs.

As pupils move through primary school, they have opportunities to learn more about everyday living and how to take good care of ecosystems. A firm basis for responsible citizenship is being established. Project work is often arranged to cover a wide variety of themes, allowing children to select, investigate and then share their findings. For example, on the fashion industry, they might examine disclosure as regards where goods are produced, what they are made from, the distance they travel before being sold, how well the workers are paid, whether these commodities are likely to be recycled or discarded, etc. Likewise, take the girl who reported that her investigation in an upper primary class had been on the damage caused by plastic waste. She mentioned that she had learned about an island of rubbish, larger than Britain floating in the Pacific Ocean, and the devastation of plastic to sea life. The following year, her class had taken part in a topic on rain forests with freedom to pick their own projects. Her skilful presentation had focused on the destruction of forests and its harmful consequences to biodiversity, including disturbance to animal inhabitants. This assignment promoted independent learning and touched on aspects of English, mathematics, biology, environmental studies and technology besides exploratory and fact-finding skills. All worthwhile and motivational.

The cross-curricular nature of ecology and green politics is evident throughout secondary education, an opinion forcefully made by a second-year teenager when interviewed, and requires effective cooperation from different departments. This characteristic holds the likelihood of deepening the understanding of complex issues though analysing them from separate perspectives. While STEM subjects are regarded as particularly pertinent – teaching about the efficient use of energy in physics or the production of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ hydrogen in chemistry – most subjects offer a great deal to explore. A few illustrations underline this point: business studies and economics highlighting how ethical investments can be advantageous for the environment; religious and moral education examining ways in which a united front on improving bionetworks can result in increased communal happiness; and art and design assisting in the production and distribution of imaginative posters or pamphlets for World Earth Day (22nd April).

Shouldn’t every day be World Earth Day?

Optimistically, by the time that students are leaving secondary school, they will be fully equipped to reflect expertly on perplexing dilemmas as migrations due to crop failure or tensions among nations arising from the pursuit of scarce commodities. They will have acquired the necessary competences to comment on how success and failure rates by governmental agencies should be published and judged. On occasions, they may feel obliged to monitor how mandatory requirements and subsequent penalties for non-compliance by individuals or public bodies are implemented. All being well, they will become the guardians urgently required to safeguard humanity.

Young people care, therefore they are part of the solution

If addressing climate change is urgent, why has headway been incoherent and tardy? It has proved to be comfortable to ‘talk the talk’ but considerably more challenging to ‘walk the walk’. The dominance of rationalism, following the philosophical dictum ‘Cognito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) of Descartes, lingers on in some current thinking and still influences much of what takes place at major conferences. No matter how erudite the conclusions might be, if they lack pragmatism and empathy, they are of little value. The concept of ‘caring’ in this context implies not only appropriate degrees of perception and understanding but a steadfastness in implementing evidence-based responses.

While they await to find out in what manner those in positions of authority are prepared to move forward, the futures of juveniles are to some extent put on hold. It is clear that many adolescents feel obliged to call out for vigorous action to avoid planetary suicide. As responsible outspoken advocates, they deserve our praise. Recently, it was enlightening to hear one primary school girl earnestly supporting the view that children can spread ideas on good practices to a widespread audience in addition to their families. Another touching and impressive case of pupil power and influence was a children’s play which was attended, among others, by the wives of the President of USA and the Prime Minister of UK while the G7 Summit was taking palace in Cornwall in June 2021. Heartfelt messages must be heeded. Virtue-signaling by dignitaries – especially when lacking in genuine honesty and affirmation – is merely hollow and hypocritical.

Youths who have studied and understood impending perils – whether these link to pollution, unrestricted excess, climate change, a dearth of international collaboration, and the like – neither desire to propose utopian dreams nor to write death wish messages. They comprehend that there is no quick fix and also that some countries are already living on the edge of existence. An emergency has already arrived but positivity has not been vanquished. For them, false narratives, complacency and nihilist stances on future calamities being ‘too big to handle so live only for today’ are not acceptable. Learners know that, cherish it or not, they too are involved and have their parts to play. They identify themselves as global citizens and demand a ‘can do, make it happen’ mindset to be adopted.

Concluding remarks

Education locations, at all stages from nurseries to universities, are in a very powerful position to promote life-affirming policies and practices and to assist in reaching ambitious targets which have been agreed. They deserve the support of governments and scientific communities to further develop their programs of study on how to save and improve the condition of a planet in need of loving care and treatment.

Effective educational inputs can be regarded as valuable human assets which enable students to concentrate on constructive routines for facing challenges rather than becoming accustomed to feelings of disempowerment. Using their own research and critical thinking, youthful scholars are able to embrace the role of ‘learner as scientist’ in their search for explanations and answers. It is an energetic form of attentive engagement. As a consequence of their successful efforts, they come to realise that individual behaviours and human customs cause so much damage. They want more than warm words (‘Blah, blah, blah!’) – they demand positive action.

Through their studies, all understand that there are choices which can no longer be sidelined by society at large. They learn to reject procrastination, doom-purveying pessimists, fake news and pseudo-scientific buzzwords. They understand that people, including themselves, need to make informed decisions and to confirm that they are completed inside designated timescales. Many have proved that they are already a force for good and aim to ensure that their incremental steps will ultimately result in giant leaps forward.

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

By O'Hagan

Dr Frank O'Hagan has formerly worked as a science and mathematics teacher, social welfare officer, teacher education lecturer, university lecturer and inspector of educational establishments. Now retired, he continues to have a keen interest in education and provision for carers.