What can we learn from a PDF?

smoke stacks belching  smoke
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

it seems climate change is a hot topic in many places at the moment – not surprising given the unprecedented outbreaks of fire across Australia in recent weeks, not to mention the same thing happening across the sub-arctic region. It has become the new ‘buzz word’ at social occasions, and is frequently among the lead stories on the evening news.

In response to calls for more action about climate change the NZ government has recently announced the release of a Climate Change resource for schools. The announcement has been greeted favourably by some, and by accusations of an attempt at ‘state organised bullying of kids’! Without doubt, the debate will continue for some time – particularly as schools prepare to open for the new school year and decisions about what to include in the curriculum at a local level are made.

Why the sudden interest in this initiative? At the launch of the initiative Climate Change Minister, James Shaw stated:

“Children today are understandably growing up worried about how climate change will affect their lives. They see the simple fact that every year they have been alive has been one of the hottest record and they expect us to act,”

My question is, if a key issue here is the fact that our young people are growing up worried about how climate change will affect their lives, then how does the development of a climate change resource assist – more importantly, what sort of thing should count as a ‘resource’ for learning about climate change? If concerns about wellbeing and worry are a driver here, I’d assume a suitable resource would be something that builds a sense of empowerment, confidence and optimism about the future and the role that the young people might play in shaping that.

Gordon Campbell states in his response to the announcement of what he calls an “excellent climate change resource”;

If education is about preparing children for the future, then it seems like a total no-brainer to be teaching children about the intensifying consequences of climate change for the world they will soon inherit from us.

Sounds great – but couldn’t “teaching them about the intensifying consequences of climate change for the world they will soon inherit from us” simply contribute to or further aggravate the level of worry and concern our young people are feeling? Do we really need exposure to more ‘stuff’ about climate change?

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m a passionate advocate of involving kids in thinking about their future – and climate change is certainly likely to be one area that will have significant impact on their lives. And the evidence suggests the impact is likely to be severe – and increasingly so if we take no steps to reduce or minimise the things we know now are contributing to it. And there is a growing expectation that schools should be playing a role in helping educate our young about this judging from the response to a recent US survey.

But the issue becomes one of what do we mean when we say we want to be ‘teaching them about..‘ climate change?

When it comes to providing access to climate change resources we can find plenty of them online already – including the NZ Ministry for the Environment Climate Change pages where you can access up to date data and contributions from scientists about a range of climate-related issues. Others include the NASA resource pages for teachers, NIWA climate chance scenarios, WWF resources, IODP Expeditions, NOAA’s Climate.gov site and resources, plus material from the UN and OECD on this topic – to list just a few.

As this list illustrates, there’s no shortage of materials available to inform classroom studies of climate change, and many educators have been accessing and using these in their classrooms for some time. The question is ‘how’? Educational theory confirms for us that simply exposing people to information will not change minds or shape behaviour. We are instinctively led by our emotions and affective dispositions, the facts, logic and sense-making follow that. This is why the evidence supports pedagogical practices that prepare young learners with the skills, knowledge and dispositions to actively inquire, participate, contribute and problem solve etc. in the process of actually being a part of taking action and creating solutions.

So what value does this recent resource from the Ministry of Education add? Well, for a start there are actually two resources, one providing a teacher resource with a sequence of targeted lesson outlines and the other a wellbeing guide with lesson ideas and activities designed to address the affective responses to climate change by learners. So marks given there for addressing both the cognitive and affective aspects of learning in/about this complex topic.

At first glance the resources look promising – given that they are intended as a teacher resource and not for students (whew!). They provide the credentials of those who have developed them, and the sequence of lesson ideas for time-poor teachers to follow appears logical and leading to action. All good so far…

But my anxiety kicks in here when imagining how this resource may be embraced and enacted in classrooms. Sure, it will have made a lot of sense to the group of educators who developed it – who ‘owned’ the ideas and the intent of the approach etc. But there’s always a tension with this sort of resource that it will simply be ‘followed as a recipe’ by those who are less well informed about the bigger issues, or who are told they need to implement it as part of a school programme.

Further, the fact that both of these resources are provided simply as a downloadable PDF file which limits the ability of schools and teachers to adapt and change things concerns me – after all, we live in a world of multi-media, interactive, online experiences – where the richness of being able to explore multiple perspectives through links and draw these ideas together in personal or group managed collections etc. are now the norm (or definitely should be).

My concern here isn’t simply that it’s a PDF vs online debate. It’s the fact that a well-designed interactive online resource can do significantly more to help develop critical engagement with the topic as opposed to simply following the traditional approach used in these resources of “learn about it first, think about it next, act on it last…” We know this approach has limited impact – so often deep, personalised and rich learning occurs when we begin by acting, and then by searching out and engaging with the information we require along the way. Fact is that there’s no single ‘right’ way for every circumstance – which is where the beauty of a well-constructed, online environment full of rich, immersive and interactive possibilities wins out. The format of the MoE’s Pūtātara (call to action) website is a useful model here.

My final concern about the sequenced PDF approach, while containing lots of useful ‘stuff’, is that it focuses mostly on the topic in hand – with lots of information and background on climate change, its causes etc. This is all extremely useful – but what teachers really need is more support and guidance about the “how” – including things like how to build empathy, develop critical thinking skills, examine multiple perspectives, create and defend arguments, negotiate and persuade others… etc. These are the skills and dispositions that will ensure our young people are prepared to address the issues they face in the future – across a wide range of issues and events that will confront them, not just climate change.

So… thumbs up to the MoE for taking a rather bold step to bring climate change to the fore of thinking about a future-focused, localised curriculum. But let’s not stop with PDFs and sequenced lesson plans. Let’s look to how we support educators themselves to become confident, connected and critically developed life-long learners who can fully utilize the resources available to them to be able to design and foster great learning that leads to positive change in our society.

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