Climate education is inconsistent across Canada, but these students and educators want to fix that

What and how students learn about climate and the environment is inconsistent across Canada and too often limited to science class. But a wave of Canadian educators and youth climate activists are working to change that. 

Climate must be 'talked about at school … we don't have the time to not talk about it,' says young activist

How students and educators are working to improve climate education

2 years ago
Duration 2:05
Climate education is being taught inconsistently in schools across Canada, according to researchers. Some students and educators are stepping up to fill gaps in the curriculum by providing recommendations to provincial officials and delivering solutions-based projects on climate change.

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

For Subashini Thangadurai, it all began with science-fair projects in Grade 4. Researching climate change for those early school assignments eventually led to at-home discussions about the environment with her family and friends.

Ever since, however, she says her classroom learning about the environment has been less than inspiring.

"The mentions about climate change are very few and they're normally in textbooks that are quite outdated," said Thangadurai, now a 15-year-old youth climate activist in Calgary who is in Grade 10. 

"I am quite lucky to have an Earth club at my school right now, which I'm able to take part in. But other than that, there's not a lot in the curriculum, to be honest."

Teen activist Subashini Thangadurai says the climate emergency 'needs to be something that's being talked about at school because it's super important.' (Colin Hall/CBC)

What and how students learn about climate change and the environment from kindergarten through Grade 12 is inconsistent across provinces and territories, according to climate educators and students passionate about the topic. Too often, they say, it's limited to science classes. 

But a wave of Canadian educators and youth climate activists are working to change that. 

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Spurred on by a teacher, Thangadurai joined Alberta Youth Leaders for Environmental Education (AYLEE), a union of students interested in climate issues who advocate for better environmental education.

In 2020, AYLEE published an updated look at the state of climate and environment education in Alberta and offered a clear list of recommendations to politicians and policy-makers for improving it. 

This weekend, the group is preparing for a virtual education and action summit, where Thangadurai anticipates swapping ideas for school initiatives with peers and hearing from experts in the field. 

"[The] climate emergency needs to be something that's being talked about at school because it's super important — and quite frankly, we don't have the time to not talk about it," she said.

'Piecemeal and inconsistent'

Curriculum can naturally differ between Canadian jurisdictions, but in her most recent research, education scholar Ellen Field found that climate education curriculum and expectations are "piecemeal and inconsistent from province to province." 

For starters, some provinces situate the topic in science classes and focus many learning expectations there, while others make climate education a component of social studies, said Field, an assistant professor at Lakehead University at its campus in Orillia, Ont. She researches climate education in Canada's K-12 school system.

A few provinces are still starting this learning by debating the cause of climate change, "which is just so out-of-step in terms of the very strong scientific consensus that we have on human-caused climate change," said Field. 

Given that instructors currently teaching climate issues report they're often only able to devote between one and 10 hours to cover the topic each semester, she said, "debating something that is so established is really questionable in terms of how we spend our time with students."

WATCH | Why climate education needs to go beyond science alone:

Why teaching about solutions is needed with climate education

2 years ago
Duration 1:57
Lakehead University professor Ellen Field explains why climate education must go beyond just teaching the science to including solutions and action to engage today's students.

Field also found that most of the climate education in Canada remains focused on foundational knowledge and understanding of climate science, with less time on solutions or action. She says that's a concern.

Field and her team spoke to about 500 students aged 12 to 18 as part of their research; 46 per cent said they were aware human-caused climate change is happening, but do not believe we can do anything about it.

"If most of what [students are] experiencing is around knowledge and understanding of climate change without necessarily a focus on solutions or … getting involved and taking these actions, then it's really not going to help shift that kind of climate anxiety that they're currently sitting with," Field said.

She believes a multi-pronged approach is needed to address the overall situation. This includes every teacher-candidate learning about climate education during their post-secondary studies, education ministries better integrating climate education across curriculum and scaling up the professional development that working teachers get right now.

Schooling the teachers 

Leading learning sessions for teachers and principals is Aishwarya Puttur's approach to moving the dial on this issue. 

The 16-year-old student from Waterloo, Ont., is involved with Teach the Teacher, an international campaign that has students give presentations to school staffers about topics such as climate justice, eco-anxiety and teaching environmental issues across different subject areas.

"What we're trying to do is open up this discussion — a holistic conversation — about climate change, and trying to convey what the youth today want to see being taught within their schools," said the Grade 11 student. 

"I definitely do not think I received the climate change education that I should have received — and that is why I'm fighting for it today."

Like Thangadurai, Puttur also feels the climate education she's had in school was too basic: "What climate change is, what global warming is and [about] recycling, reducing and reusing," she recounted.

Puttur thinks today's youth — who are "seeing the direct impacts of climate change now" — can handle more complexity and need to learn about action they can take.

"Climate change is about intersectionality. Climate change is about justice. [It's] about understanding everyone's experiences with climate change, and it's also understanding how colonialism and capitalism have a role within this crisis," she said. 

While Puttur said she was initially nervous approaching her school's administration about hosting a Teach the Teachers session, she was thrilled when they agreed. The session just took place on Monday.

"I felt a sense of not necessarily accomplishment, but a sense of relief that there are adults out there who are listening."

Hands-on learning

Some regions are tapping into the expertise of outside organizations to broaden the climate education for its students. 

For instance, the Fredericton-based Gaia Project leads hands-on learning in schools and reached 25,000 students in New Brunswick last year through various projects, said executive director Lizzy Gresh. That's about a quarter of the province's K-12 students.

This year, the goal is to reach 200 of the 300 schools in New Brunswick.

WATCH | How tracking trash and other hands-on projects inspire students: 

How hands-on climate and environment education can inspire students

2 years ago
Duration 2:42
Lizzy Gresh, executive director of non-profit climate education organization The Gaia Project, on the value of providing hands-on experiences to students from kindergarten through Gr. 12.

"We wanted to prepare the next generation to be ready to act on climate change, as well as understand that it was going to influence their day-to-day choices for their whole lives," said Gresh.

She feels it imperative that teachers improve upon and better incorporate climate education into all their teaching going forward, because "students are seeing this on the news. They're talking about it at the dinner table."

"It's [their] No. 1 election issue in the past two federal elections.… They want to know what's going on. They want to know how they can make a difference," she said.

While education talk often revolves around preparing students for the future, Gresh pointed out that young people "are citizens of today."

"Students have the ability to take action today on climate change, so that's what we really try to do: Get them to take action now and not delay. Start the habits right now, at a young age."

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt

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