Richardson: Teaching climate change — how we can help empower students


After a summer of record heat, wildfires and torrential storms, kids will be back in class trying to make sense of what they witnessed.

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As students return to class, how should teachers talk to them about the summer’s extreme weather?

July was the hottest month recorded in human history. Across Canada, 1,000 forest fires blazed and more than 15 million hectares were incinerated. Toronto had the second-worst air quality in the world due to smoke. In Ottawa, three tornadoes touched down and the city was drenched by double the normal amount of rain.

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South of the border, one-third of the population lived under extreme heat advisories and in Phoenix, Ariz., the city’s specialist burns centre ran at full capacity from people scorched by coming into contact with the ground.

These are just a few of the amazing, alarming, terrifying phenomena that children and adolescents heard about, read about or saw with their own eyes during summer vacation.

How is a teacher to make sense of all this to worried children? What can they say to teenagers watching on TikTok and Instagram and through their windows as their world quite literally burns?

To answer these questions, I spoke with Dr. Veronica Boix Mansilla, a senior principal investigator at Project Zero, the storied research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and co-author of Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Students to Engage with the World.

In her book, Boix Mansilla argues that the most important goal for educators everywhere is to teach for “global competence.” This means teaching students to think through big global issues, recognize and respect different perspectives, communicate with people different from themselves, and make positive change by taking action.

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The stakes could not be higher. “Human survival depends on how we act based on how we think,” she writes. “This evolutionary fact places the education of our young at centre stage in ensuring cultural and environmental survival.”

In our conversation, Boix Mansilla noted that climate events have grown exponentially worse in the short time since she wrote her book. While mitigation of the most damaging effects of climate change remains an urgent goal, adaptation to the harsh realities of extreme weather events is now itself a pressing imperative.

Deep, lasting, meaningful learning starts with students and teachers working together to address big, engaging questions and topics with global reach, the author told me. The climate emergency is one such topic. It makes clear that global issues have an impact on all of us. It can also lead to rich, inter-disciplinary learning and to meaningful action that takes students beyond the classroom and into the community.

For example, students could create a temperature map of their city and work with urbanists to figure out measures to protect the most vulnerable citizens from heat, water shortages and loss of infrastructure. They could interview people whose lives have been affected by climate change and make their experiences known to the community through visual art and drama.

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“I am really hoping that the book can help us think through how to make schools places for deliberation, places where kids get to find solutions for the types of issues that will be with them, the systemic issues,” Boix Mansilla said.

As students return to school anxious about a climate in crisis, educators can help them to achieve what Boix Mansilla termed a “lighter, more empowered stance” by understanding what is happening and taking action.

“When kids are empowered to participate, to find solutions, to talk with real people outside of school, all of a sudden we have kids much more engaged and less willing to give up,” she explained. “Why? Because they see the meaning, they see the purpose.

“That’s what we need in education. Kids need to know the purpose of everything that they’re doing.”

John M. Richardson teaches at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education.

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