We don’t need no eco-propaganda

A geography expert explains why he’s pleased that schoolkids will be taught less about climate change.

Alex Standish

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Alex Standish, a lecturer in geography education who has advised the UK Department of Education on the geography curriculum in schools, discusses the recent climate-change teaching controversy.

A debate has broken out about the dearth of references to climate change in the Lib-Con government’s draft national curriculum for UK schools. According to the Guardian, the government has ‘failed [in its] duty to future generations’, by including only one reference to carbon-dioxide emissions in the science curriculum and having no mentions of it in the draft geography curriculum.

NGOs, teaching unions and former government advisers are angry about the omission of climate change. ‘It’s quite scary and outrageous. We have a huge crisis on our hands and we need education to resolve it’, said Camilla Born of the UK Youth Climate Coalition. Over 12,000 people have signed a ‘pupil-led’ petition to have climate change reinstated.

Most school discussion of climate change takes place in geography lessons. But the new curriculum for geography has little direct mention of climate change, instead focusing on locations (like Africa, South and East Asia, the Middle East), physical geography (including glaciation, geological timescales, rivers, weather and climate), human geography (population, urbanisation, economic activity, the use of natural resources), and how human and physical processes interact to shape distinctive landscapes. It’s a similar story with the draft science curriculum: it’s full of scientific concepts rather than political issues.

There are two revealing things about the heated debate on climate change and the curriculum. First, it confirms that many educationalists now have an aversion to subject knowledge. In these people’s view, for geography teaching to focus on geographical knowledge and skills, rather than on controversial ‘issues’, is problematic. They want lessons to be less subject-based and more politically orientated. And yet, without a hint of irony, the former government science adviser Professor David King said of the new climate-change-free draft curriculum: ‘What you seem to have is a major amount of political interference with the geography syllabus.’

The aversion to teaching a subject for its own sake, and the preference for using lessons to raise awareness about some social problem, was starkly illustrated in a letter published in the Independent. Signed by 100 education academics, it berated Conservative education secretary Michael Gove for overburdening the curriculum with ‘lists of spellings, facts and rules’, thus demanding ‘too much too young’. The letter said: ‘This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think – including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.’ The logical flaw in this argument should be clear to all: it elevates ‘thinking’ and ‘creativity’ while simultaneously deriding the very content of the curriculum that enables a child to think and be creative.

In order to understand something like climate change, children need subject knowledge. Subjects like geography and science teach pupils about the mechanisms of atmospheric systems, the factors that influence climate patterns and variation. Through these subjects, children should be introduced to the hydrological cycle, weather fronts, air pressure, depressions, anticyclones, ocean currents, atmospheric cells, the structure of the atmosphere, how solar radiation varies with the curvature of the Earth’s surface, the differential effect of sea and land on climate, and more.

With a basic understanding of how the atmosphere works, pupils can start to learn about how human activity may have altered the composition of the atmosphere, possibly causing sea-level rises, changing patterns of rainfall, and so on. But this is a complex matter, which can only be understood through knowing more about the subject of geography, not through being told that man caused all climate change and as a result we might all die. Telling children that greenhouse-gas emissions will cause all coastal areas to be flooded and will fry millions of human beings isn’t education – it’s political propaganda.

The second striking thing about the climate-change curriculum debate is what it reveals about the projection of political problems on to schools. Schooling is increasingly orientated towards addressing social, economic, environmental and political issues, such as inequality, allegedly declining self-esteem, cultural integration, happiness, and so on. Teaching children about climate change is viewed by some as another way of addressing future environmental and social problems. So its absence from the draft curriculum is an affront to activists and academics who see geography and science as vehicles for changing society. They treat geography and science as moralising projects rather than as means of education, with one newspaper headline even describing the absence of climate change from the draft curriculum as a ‘sin of omission’.

The complaints from NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth about the ‘omission’ of climate change shows how politicised schooling has become. Under New Labour, NGOs played a leading role, alongside government quangos like the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, in writing policy documents with titles such as Developing the Global Dimension in the School Curriculum. The Global Dimensions website for schools is now run by Think Global, a group which encourages schoolchildren to ‘engage with global issues’ like sustainability, human rights, fair trade and climate change.

Under New Labour, NGOs received substantial funds from the Department for International Development (DfID) to produce curricular materials for schools and to train teachers in the virtues of development education and global citizenship. These NGOs, like DfID itself, are political organisations, not educational ones – and yet they’re paid to promote their agenda in schools. Sadly, and for all the claims that Gove is wiping green issues off the curriculum, the cosy relationship between political NGOs and schooling is being extended under a new £20million DfID Global Learning Programme.

The conflation of education and politics reveals the demise of both. Those campaigning for climate change in the curriculum never ask themselves why children are so key to their cause. Is it not the responsibility of adults to address climate change and its associated problems? It seems clear that, for some campaigners, seeking to change the values and behaviour of children has replaced the old political project of achieving social transformation through engaging with and organising adults. As well as pointing to the hollowing out of politics, the burdening of schools with issues-based education has a negative impact on education, too, taking the focus off subject learning and putting it on the cultivation of the right attitudes and political views instead.

The draft curriculum is by no means faultless. But to their credit, Gove and his Department of Education have at least tried to stick to educational ideals rather than pushing more political campaigns into schools.

Alex Standish is a lecturer in geography education at Institute of Education, University of London. He is the author of The False Promise of Global Learning: Why Education Needs Boundaries, published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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