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 June 17, 2011
How is climate change really taught in our schools?

 Tom Young investigates why proposals to drop climate science from the national curriculum will make little difference in the classroom

Tim Oates, the head of a government review of school syllabuses, suggested this week that the teaching of climate change should be dropped from the national curriculum in favour of "real science".

As the inevitable media furore erupted on both sides of the debate, BusinessGreen takes a look at what is really taught about climate change and sustainability in our schools, and asks how far it can be controlled by Whitehall.

The reality of climate change teaching in schools
Take a look at the national curriculum for science and you will find surprisingly few mentions of climate change. During key stages one and two, taught to children aged four to 11, it specifies only that pupils should "begin to think about the positive and negative effects of scientific and technological developments on the environment".

It is not until key stage three, taught from ages 11 to 14, that the curriculum encourages pupils to think more specifically about "ways in which living things and the environment can be protected, and the importance of sustainable development", and "about the interplay between empirical questions, evidence and scientific explanations using historical and contemporary examples such as global warming".

During key stage four, taught from ages 14 to 16, pupils do learn about "how the impact of humans on the environment depends on social and economic factors, including population size, industrial processes and levels of consumption and waste and the importance of sustainable development".

And they also learn at this stage about "how the Earth's atmosphere and oceans have changed over time". But the entire programme of study for key stages one to four mentions "global warming" only once - hardly an environmentalist's manifesto.

As one science teacher who wished to remain anonymous told BusinessGreen, the science curriculum is focused around the teaching of method and analysis, rather than inserting foregone conclusions into children's minds.

"We use a scheme of work that is based around making them ask questions rather than teaching them scientific facts," she said.

"So we may show graphs of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over the years, and the various factors that could affect those levels, and let them try to draw conclusions of their own just as a scientist in the real world would."

And it's not just science
Most of the debate over Oates's comments has failed to address one key issue: the government can remove all traces of climate change from the science curriculum if it likes, but pupils will still learn about it in geography lessons.

In fact, a revamp of the curriculum four years ago saw changes that gave geography teachers more scope to bring in topical issues relevant to the changing world, including specifically global warming and climate change.

The changes came after a survey of 11 to 17 year-olds found that half wanted to spend more time learning about climate change at school. One geography teacher told BusinessGreen that his pupils like learning about climate change because they know it is something they hear about outside the classroom.

Relating knowledge relayed inside the class room to real-life issues that interest children is one of the holy grails of teaching.

"What's more, it presents huge scope for holistic learning about an issue that transcends subject borders," he said. "Climate change crops up in geography and science, yes, but it also crops up in business studies, economics, English, politics and philosophy."

What's interesting about this is that climate change is not a topic mentioned on the curriculum of many of those subjects; teachers just use it as an aid because it is a relevant issue that pupils will have heard about.

So what differences would the changes make?
If teachers are using climate change as a topic even when it's not on the curriculum, does that mean removing it from the science curriculum is a pointless move?

The answer is yes, according to the head of science at one central London school. The subject is perfect for illustrating a number of scientific concepts and too good to ignore as a topical issue.

"The curriculum to start with is necessarily quite loose in terms of defining what should be learnt," she said. "Then it is taken and interpreted by five different examining bodies. Then their definitions are taken and interpreted by the teachers. So top down control from Whitehall is pretty hard to enforce."

In other words you can't dictate at classroom level whether a teacher is going to use a topical subject to illustrate a point. Especially when the focus at key stage four and beyond is on developing higher level thinking, reasoned argument, and increasing responsibility and capability for one's own learning.

Outlawing a particular issue from discussion in this context seems totally counterintuitive, many teachers believe.

And even if climate change were outlawed as a subject, all sorts of related issues would still be taught in schools. Children learn about the importance of sustainable development and the effects of air pollution in geography, and about the need to consider and reduce the energy use of computers and televisions in IT classes. They learn about the carbon cycle in biology, and they learn about the importance of insulation and double-glazing in home economics.

As one teacher put it, not only would removing climate change from the national curriculum be unenforceable, it would undermine one of the principle tenets of learning: that children should constantly question and evaluate what they are being told.

"It sends the message that the issue is so controversial that they can't make judgements on it for themselves," he said. "No other topic I can think of is treated as taboo in schools. Why should climate change be?"

By Tim Young