A  rapid change in curriculum for a rapidly changing planet

A rapid change in curriculum for a rapidly changing planet

Jun 24, 2019

How should schools, and teachers specifically, take on climate change? Meryl Batchelder gives us some wide ranging approaches that you can ally to build a robust and successful curriculum. With this you can ensure the future generation has the knowledge, and thus the power, to adapt to a changing planet and the confidence to hold leaders to account.

When I was a child, many moons ago, I thought about the university course I should choose, the job I would have, who I might marry and where I could travel to. I seem to remember worrying about little things but generally my life plan looked pretty much like that of my parents.

Now, imagine you are a child today. What are your hopes and fears for the future? What are the most pressing concerns in your life? Are you anxious about anything?

Many informed young people would identify that climate change is one of the most important issues they will face in the future and they are right to be concerned. The evidence now seems unquestionable. Human activity is causing global heating, destabilising weather systems that have been relatively stable for generations and we are already starting to observe the serious effects of climate breakdown.

So, how do I prepare the pupils in my classroom for their future on our rapidly changing planet?

The new Ofsted framework talks a lot about curriculum. This can be reduced to the three Is:

  • Intent - What are we trying to achieve through the curriculum?
  • Implementation - How are we going to deliver this? 
  • Impact - What difference is this curriculum making to our children? 

I am very familiar with the English national curriculum for science in KS2 and KS3. There is a huge amount of content but an incredible lack of environmental education. Having raised this issue with the Department for Education they simply stated that “Schools are not restricted to teach just what is set out in the national curriculum. Teachers are free to expand on topics such as climate change if they want to.”

Therefore, with climate breakdown fixed firmly in my mind, my 3 Is are:

  • Intent – I want to prepare our pupils for the future on a rapidly changing planet.
  • Implementation – I am going to use up to date resources on environmental education and link them to the curriculum.
  • Impact – Our pupils will understand how their actions and those of the wider society affect the planet including effects on the lithosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere.

In order to maximise the amount of environmental education for my pupils I have already been linking all curriculum topics taught in science to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It’s a quick win and means that learning is engaging and relevant. I think of it as a Green Curriculum.

However, to ensure I give my pupils the best education, the education they deserve, I recently registered and completed the UN accredited Climate Change Teacher course with the Educcate Climate Change Teacher Academy (www.unccteacheracademy.com).

The ambition is for a body of accredited climate change teachers - one in every school

The course is based on some excellent online courses on Climate Change and Climate Literacy developed by the United Nations (www.uncclearn.org). A partnership with Harwood Education with sponsorship by YPO has made these courses available and fully-funded for teachers. Their aim is to have an accredited Climate Change Teacher in every school.  The courses are incredibly accessible, have been created by a panel of 190 experts, and use a variety of different media formats including video, PowerPoint and PDF. 

The courses include:

  • Introduction to Climate Change Science (no certificate)
  • Children and Climate Change (certificate)
  • Cities and Climate Change (certificate)
  • Human Health and Climate Change (certificate)
  • Gender and Environment (certificate)
  • International Legal Regime (certificate)

Certificates are awarded from the UN CC:Learn website once a short answer quiz is completed and passed with a score of 70% or above. Up to three attempts are allowed for each quiz – admittedly they are a little bit tricky. As part of the course there are some really useful case studies that could be used in class to engender the understanding of what it means to be a global citizen, to encourage empathy and to promote philosophy for children (P4C). Even if you don’t complete the course this is an incredibly powerful piece of CPD. It gives the confidence to teach a complex topic and, if you do achieve UN accreditation, authority on the subject both within the classroom and beyond the school walls.

Climate change in the national curriculum – or absence thereof…

The national curriculum of England doesn’t touch on climate change until KS3. To overlook earlier key stages puts pupils at risk of hearing conversations but not understanding the big picture which could cause anxiety.

To introduce the topic in small chunks, across all subjects from early years would be ideal. The aim is to build knowledge of the causes of climate change and develop a feeling of shared responsibility for taking climate action.

As students get older they will feel empowered and may be confident enough to lobby their MP, vote for the issues they believe are important using their democratic rights, or demand steps for climate change mitigation from industry and business. In the words of Francis Bacon, “knowledge is power” and the young people need to be informed about the legacy that is being handed over to them. 

The way you choose to teach climate change will depend on your year group, your subject and your school location. The Climate Change Teacher Academy course will give you the confidence to teach about the causes, effects, mitigation steps and possible adaptation strategies but it doesn’t give lesson plans or a full set of resources. Personally I like creating my own resources anyway as, ideally, in addition to teaching about the effects of climate change worldwide, such as the melting ice-caps, I develop a curriculum to meet the needs of my students.

How do I make my teaching relevant to my students and their environment?

The school I teach in is based in rural Northumberland so for causes of climate change we specifically discuss energy (there are proposed coal mines in the area), farming and deforestation. When we consider the effects we refer to moorland fires, drought and flooding.

For mitigation steps we discuss wind energy, rewilding of the moorland and how land owners could move to forestry rather than beef or dairy farming as people adopt increasingly plant based diets.

In terms of adaptation we think about how rural communities can work more locally rather than commuting and how we could prevent flooding on the Tyne River.

If your school is in a coastal, urban location you could focus on different examples such as issues caused by sea level rise or the benefits of moving away from fossil fuelled vehicles for emissions and improvements in air quality.

What about Early Years and KS1 and 2?

Climate change isn’t tangible. Young students don’t have an appreciation that daffodils flower earlier each year as their point of reference is too short. Practicals and demonstrations can help. For KS1 or 2 use a globe wrapped in a blanket to demonstrate how the atmosphere keeps us warm, then count out building blocks to show the amounts of emissions from energy, industry, transport and agriculture –then stacking them on top of each other, finally add another blanket to the globe to show what happens when emissions get higher. 

Creating models can be useful such as an Arctic scene using ice blocks and animal figures. Ask pupils to monitor what happens over the day as the ice melts, the water rises and the animals fall into the sea.

For KS2 to 3 you can start to do real investigations using thermometers in bottles, heat lamps, ice and water, solar cells or model wind turbines – your pupils will need to be creative and develop technological solutions in the future so where better to start than in school? Problem solving will build resilience and give pupils the ability to cope with, and rise to, the inevitable challenges and set-backs they will meet in the course of their lives, and come back stronger from them.

Thread environmental education through the whole curriculum

I am well aware that climate change is covered by science and geography teachers at KS3 through GCSEs to A Levels.  However, although in many schools teaching is excellent and pupils develop a deep understanding of the topic, in other schools the resources might be dated (the KS4 science curriculum still mentions ‘uncertainties in evidence’ and the ‘potential effects’) or it might be considered as a stand-alone topic and only covered in a small amount of detail. Also, many students do not take Geography beyond GCSE and miss some important learning.

A truly Green Curriculum should start in early years and extend environmental education through all key stages. It should be a thread through all subjects – from the food miles of the ingredients we cook in food technology to the use of debates on humanitarian issues such as mass migration in RE or PSHE.

Many countries are better at environmental education. My school is near Hadrian’s Wall but below the border with Scotland. I occasionally look north and wish I worked at a higher latitude. The Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ is far ahead of the curriculum of England. In Scotland ‘learning for sustainability’ is an entitlement for all learners and relevant to all aspects of their curriculum. It includes sustainable development education, global citizenship and outdoor learning. They already aim for every school and centre to develop a coherent, whole school approach to learning for sustainability that impacts on their culture, curriculum and campus and connects them fully to their wider communities.

That said, rather than taking a big step to move north of the border, it’s much easier to adapt the science curriculum in my own classroom with the intent to provide a Green Curriculum of Excellence that considers the needs of my pupils. I can implement this using the SDGs and using my recent knowledge gleaned from the Climate Change Teacher Academy so I feel totally prepared to do so with significant impact. Ofsted, I’m ready for you.

Next Steps: How can CDEC help you provide a Green Curriculum of Excellence?

Learn more about the Sustainable Development Goals and how to bring them into your classroom – reserve your place on our open course on 19 September or book your whole-school Inset at a time convenient to you. Find out more!

Build your expertise in global learning with the Global Teachers Award – our next fully funded course aimed at KS2 teachers is on 2 October. Find out more!

As a member of CDEC, you can loan our resource boxes that, where possible, link into the SDGs.  Ones associated with the environment include:

  • Environment and Sustainability
  • Environment and Recycling
  • P4C in the Outdoors
  • Recycling
  • Water
  • Wild Words in the World

Find out more about CDEC membership here and see our full collection of resource boxes online.


A rapid change in curriculum for a rapidly changing planet