Climate at the Apex of Education Re-Design

climate change education
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

COVID-19 continues to force us toward a fundamental redesign of institutions and systems.

The time has come to release our grip upon the outdated twentieth century, tired, ineffective, hierarchical, and disconnected model of schooling. Nelson Mandela professed, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” More than ever in my lifetime, currently there is an unparalleled demand for change and to achieve far greater equity. Voices before inaudible, now righteously turning to screams. A marked momentum of awareness, symbolic in the actions of millions taking to the streets. A call to action, or reset, of society’s structures. The foundation of our education system is but one example of collapse; and it needs far greater context, as we build empathetic, interdependent communities.

Harvard C-Change Partners with Putney Pre-College

On April 17, the pandemic had infected more than 2.1 million people and killed at least 146,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. This same day, Harvard C-Change partnered with Putney Pre-College, to release a no-cost, five-part on-line series of lessons exploring connections between climate change and public health. Teachers and students were invited to engage in issues specific but not limited to the situation posed by COVID-19. “The ability to turn climate change around into an opportunity to create better public health for all communities is the opportunity we need to grab today,” asserts Gina McCarthy, Chair of Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard C-CHANGE). McCarthy is no stranger to the field, having led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Green School Impressively Paves the Way

More than a decade ago, Scott Horsely reported for NPR how climate change was moving to the front burner. That same year, Green School opened its doors. The school’s mission to “create a global community of learners, making our world sustainable.” This was before “going green” was cool and also greenwashing, a deceptive ploy used by PR departments to persuade others by putting on a “green sheen.” Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations Secretary-General visited and expressed, “I have visited many different places and many schools but Green School is the most unique and impressive school I have ever visited.”

So, what is it about Green school that impresses? Certainly its progressiveness but also the school’s focused approach of viewing all learning through a lens of sustainability. It is about connection, teamwork, adaptability, and solutions. Could COVID-19 not make it any more clear that these are the sorts of aims our education system should be re-designed around? And add place-based project learning!

Twelve years after opening, Green School now has 515 students from 43 countries at the Bali campus alone. Green Schools are also in New Zealand and South Africa, with plans to open in Tulum, Mexico in the Fall of 2021.

Caring for Community of Spirit, Land, and People at Hawaii Preparatory Academy

Another harbinger in the field is Hawaii Preparatory Academy (HPA). When Captain Cook came upon the Hawaiian islands, he named them The Sandwich Islands. This was not because they were “sandwiched between anything.” Hawaii actually is considered the most remote landmass on Earth. Instead, the archipelago was named after Earl Sandwich. In Hawaiian, ‘ike (ee-kay) means “sense of place.” Students at HPA have a unique opportunity to take advantage of the sea, land, and stars.

In 2011, HPA opened the first of its kind, a LEED Platinum building called the Energy Lab. A space high on the hill, to be used as a sort of “living laboratory.” The building initiated the school’s focus on sustainability and mālama kaiāulu (care for community of spirit, land, and people). It is about interconnection but also providing students opportunities to be involved in authentic and purposeful learning.

One such project resulted in high school students being partnered with six scientists-researchers who would spend 120 days in isolation atop Mauna Loa, the sister mountain to Mauna Kea. The students monitored and maintained the instrumentation, gathering data as the scientists simulated living and working in a real Mars habitat.

Both the Green School and Hawaii Preparatory Academy have committed to what some might call, “the long game.” It’s not about competition, high-stakes test scores and seizing the day. In effect, it’s not even about tomorrow. Rather, it is entrenched in passion and commitment to thinking about forever.

Climate Justice Curriculum in Portland Public Schools

It will take more than individual schools to put a gust in the sail. An example on a more macro scale is Portland Public Schools (PPS). It is the largest district in the state of Oregon, consisting of 79 schools, and educating close to 50,000 students. Change at this level is more systematic and audacious but also encouraging. PPS embraces a more comprehensive approach to climate change education and has plans to implement a K-12 climate change curriculum in fall of 2021. The curriculum explores the causes and consequences of climate change, as well as potential solutions. Moreover, the curriculum and training materials will be open source, meaning they will be publicly available to other districts and schools.

This was the first year for PPS to have a Climate Justice Programs Manager. Nichole Berg enthusiastically filled this role, immediately dedicating herself to developing the curriculum. More importantly, Berg endeavors to be learner-centric commenting, “Students are in a really nice position to help lead us in terms of how we, as a system, can become more educationally responsive to them.”

The Next Step Up

At an even more macro level, as far back as 2004 the state of California introduced Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs). Not only implemented in the classroom through standards-based instruction, since 2016 environmental literacy is by law in all California adopted textbooks and instructional materials. According to the California Education and Environment Initiative, the intent is to provide students an opportunity to “examine real-world issues, thinking critically about the relationship between humans and natural systems, and make informed decisions about the challenges affecting our world.”

A Decisive Crossroads

World Economic Forum founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab recently opined, “The world must act jointly and swiftly to revamp all aspects of our societies and economies, from education to social contracts and working conditions.”

Leaders find themselves at a decisive crossroads. Choices made or possibly skirted have the potential to lead to power or peril. Some see the response to COVID-19 as a sort of “practice run” for schools and that very soon there will be widespread disruption from effects of climate change. Meanwhile, others are not understandably willing to adopt a, “let’s wait and see” attitude. Rather, the spirit of the time, or Zeitgeist, implores change. Tracy Chapman’s second single forewarned of this, “Cause finally the tables are starting to turn. Talkin’ bout a revolution.”

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Matt Piercy works at the International School Bangkok. You can follow him on Twitter @mpiercy35

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Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

We’re going to get through this together, and we invite you to join us. Please email [email protected] with any questions or content you’d like considered for publication. We also invite you to join the conversation and on social media using #GettingThrough.

Matt Piercy

Matt Piercy works at the International School Bangkok.

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