How teachers can push for environmental awareness in class

How teachers can push for environmental awareness in class
Date22nd Feb 2021AuthorJennifer VaughnCategoriesTeaching

One of the best places to nurture environmental awareness is inside the classroom—with teachers taking point. Today’s students can be tomorrow’s stewards of nature. So, they need a firm understanding of the many environmental issues that need to be addressed and a clear grasp of what it will take to deal with them. Some of these issues include climate change, wildlife annihilation, and worsening pollution, and all are putting a tremendous strain on the planet and its finite resources.

Now is the perfect time to push for environmental awareness inside the classroom. Public concern for the environment soared to record levels in 2019 after climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s visit to Parliament and the Extinction Rebellion protests in April. The environment is even ranked as the third most pressing problem the UK is facing. More importantly, nearly half of young Britons aged 18 to 24 rank environmental problems as a top-three concern that needs to be dealt with.

Despite the many other pressures on teachers’ plates at the moment, they must address this growing concern. And the important thing is to do so positively by pushing for environmental awareness inside the classroom. The suggestions below can help them do that, both in specific relevant lessons (such as science, geography, and politics) and in every classroom:

Be an advocate

Before teachers can even think of raising environmental awareness, they themselves must be advocates of environmental causes. This advocacy does not necessarily mean becoming a Greta Thunberg. It does, however, entail commitment and action that students will be able to pick up on and maybe even want to emulate.

Teachers, for example, might want to follow in the footsteps of Bec Wakefield, a teacher at Down Hall Primary School in Essex. In May 2019, Ms. Wakefield completed a course by the UN Climate Change Teacher Academy, and upon completion became the world’s first accredited climate change teacher. Now, she teaches climate literacy at primary school.

Another example, this time in Indonesia, is the Green Teacher Network, which is an initiative of local educators to promote environmental advocacies. They will eventually integrate these advocacies into the curriculum of state-run elementary and high schools—with a special focus on mangrove protection and preservation as a means to mitigate climate change. By being environmental advocates themselves, teachers can raise awareness about the environment with credibility and authority, especially in classrooms with older, more discerning students.

Leverage modelling and scaffolding

Teachers need to take into consideration cognitive load theory in discussions about environmental awareness. They must familiarise their students with the problems—global warming and deforestation, for instance—that must be dealt with, and then work with them to come up with solutions. This modelling and scaffolding approach can help students better internalise their learning, until such time that their knowledge of it is so ingrained that they no longer need external guidance.

The reason this approach is effective is that it prevents cognitive overload, as well as concomitant emotional overload at the scale of the problem we face, which makes it more likely that students will retain information and apply it properly. It relies on the students' innate ability to process information at their own pace, and then formulate their own conclusions and opinions.

Zero in on carbon footprint

Carbon footprint, or the amount of greenhouse gases one’s actions generate, directly correlates to the problem of climate change. The larger the carbon footprint people generate, the more noxious gases permeate the atmosphere. It is crucial that teachers in relevant disciplines discuss with their students what a carbon footprint is, its impact on the environment, and the steps being taken by various sectors to lower it.

In particular, teachers can introduce the UK government’s continuing efforts to reduce the entire country’s carbon footprint in the years ahead. ‘Go Green 2020’ details how in its fifth carbon budget, the UK is aiming to reduce its carbon footprint by 57% relative to 1990 levels. To accomplish this goal, the government is banking heavily on businesses that rely on vehicle fleets to do their part, as traffic is now the leading cause of air pollution in the UK.

But individual companies and government aren’t the only ones with a part to play in lowering carbon footprints. Teachers need to remind their students that everyone can do something to contribute to this effort. Wired’s article on ‘The Practical Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint’ lists some of these ways, which include flying less, going vegan, and optimising one’s home (by switching out halogen bulbs for LED ones, installing solar panels, and installing an energy-efficient gas boiler).

Emphasise sustainability

The op-ed 'Environmental Sustainability—Necessary for Survival' explains that sustainability must be emphasised because it is "one of the biggest issues faced by mankind at present" and is due to the "tremendous escalation in anthropogenic activities" (like urbanisation, industrialisation, and modern agricultural practices). The result of all this is the over-exploitation of natural resources, which is further exacerbated by contamination from toxic chemicals and other pollutants.

The goal of sustainability is to alleviate the strain human activities are putting on the environment, and this goal must be communicated inside the classroom. In doing so, students will be able to realise the importance of sustainability, and their immense role in ensuring it. This is a role they can play by reducing their carbon footprint (as outlined above) and adopting other sustainable practices such as recycling, minimising waste, and planting more trees.

Entrepreneur James Ellsmoor offers this reminder: conservation starts in education. That is why teachers must push to increase environmental awareness inside the classroom, as the planet's future will ultimately rest in their students' hands.

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