The Current

Is an activist rally a field trip? Teachers split on how to properly teach climate change

Swedish student Greta Thunberg cut classes and started protesting outside Stockholm's parliament to draw attention to the climate crisis. But this activism has Thunberg's teachers and those elsewhere divided and debating how much climate change should be taught in school curriculums and whether it should include activism.

Sweden's Greta Thunberg, 16, cut classes and started climate strikes that has teachers divided

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg attends the Friday For Future rally in Berlin on March 29. Thousands of students gathered in the German capital, skipping school to take part in a rally demanding action against climate change. (Michael Kappeler/The Associated Press)
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When she was a young girl, Swedish student Greta Thunberg wanted to be an actor or a scientist. But when she learned about climate change in school, those plans changed.

Thunberg, now 16, cut classes and started protesting outside Stockholm's parliament to draw attention to the climate crisis.

Since then, her climate strike has inspired a movement of kids staging their own climate strikes around the world.

But this activism has Thunberg's teachers and those elsewhere divided and debating how much climate change should be taught in school curriculums — and whether it should include activism.

Mathieu Morin, who teaches environmental studies and chemistry at a high school in Pickering, Ont., said climate change is part of two mandatory courses in Ontario: Grade 9 geography and Grade 10 science.

Morin, who teaches an integrated full-day program, thinks climate change can and should be integrated into every subject instead of teaching high school subjects in silos.

He said his students want to know what to do about the climate issue, and the majority of them ask him when they learn things for the first time why they didn't learn about them earlier.

"Like Greta Thunberg says — this is their reality, and they have to be prepared for it," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Morin doesn't see himself pushing them to activism.

"I think they're naturally going there themselves," he said. Some students skipped class on their own to attend the climate justice rally in Toronto a few weeks ago, he said.

April Soni, a Grade 7/8 teacher at Goulbourn Middle School in Stittsville, Ont., said she has a responsibility to teach students to be critical thinkers and to be part of the solution.

Some of the topics that her students have covered in class include land reclamation projects, land use conflicts, the importance of educating girls and changes to water systems.

They also visited an air quality monitoring station run by Environment Canada.

Her students took part in the first global climate strike on March 15, as well as the climate strike last Friday, which she attended.

"I was with them," Soni said, adding that two other classes joined them on Parliament Hill. "We made our presence visible, and it was a very successful, very meaningful participation from our students at Goulbourn."

Ada Dechene took part in the climate strike at the Regina legislature on March 15. (Matt Howard/CBC News)

'I get concerned'

But high school teacher Michael Zwaagstra, who is also deputy mayor in Steinbach, Man., said he has issues with this approach, specifically about making students into activists.

Zwaagstra said teachers need to make sure that their role is to help provide information to help students learn how to think — not teach them what to think, "and not push something that we may be passionate about upon them."

"I get concerned when I see particularly young students all going to these rallies, and I question how much do they actually know about this topic. Or, is it more because they were influenced by the adults that are around them?" he said.

He also said taking students to rallies is promoting a particular viewpoint.

"I find it peculiar that every single student in a Grade 7 and 8 class would have the identical position on a controversial issue where there are many different perspectives."

Soni said it would be wrong to teach students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers and then to not give them the experience of being a part of the solution.

The Current spoke to this panel of teachers about school climate curriculums and whether that includes encouraging student activism:

  • Mathieu Morin, who teaches environmental studies and chemistry at École secondaire Ronald-Marion in Pickering, Ont.  
  • April Soni, a Grade 7/8 teacher, who also leads the EcoTeam at Goulbourn Middle School in Stittsville, Ont.
  • Michael Zwaagstra, a high school teacher just outside Steinbach, Man., and co-author of What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Showwei Chu. Produced by Kristin Nelson and Danielle Carr.

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