Climate change education is still a patchwork in Canada with more work needed, say researchers

Melting glaciers, diving leopard seals, getting up close with a humpback whale: it’s not the standard backdrop for a school field trip to the symphony.

But it’s the kind of imagery Andrea Brown’s Gr. 5 class saw on a recent visit to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for a composition blending music with powerful visuals showing the effects of climate change in Antarctica.

It inspired Vancouver elementary teacher Brown to introduce a new interdisciplinary unit: she’s tasked her students to pick an environmental issue they’re interested in to explore via an art form of their choice. The French Immersion students will also submit a write-up at the end.

The VSO trip “was such a great jumping off point…. When I saw their reactions and I saw this is something that they’re also passionate about, I wanted to incorporate it into our learning,” Brown said. 

“I really want to teach them about climate change through a positive lens … [to have students] show their environmental concern and show that message, but also show the hope behind it and give them space to kind of sit with feelings that might come up.”

WATCH | Excerpt of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s Life Emerging: Antarctica: 

Most Canadian students will encounter climate change during their elementary and secondary school education, but what that learning actually looks like in the classroom is inconsistent across jurisdictions, according to experts following the issue. 

With climate change education among the key topics in the spotlight at the annual United Nations climate change conference known as COP28 — continuing in Dubai through Dec. 12 — education researchers, teachers and students themselves are pushing to highlight what’s needed now. 

Lack of climate education ‘a missed opportunity’

Since education is a provincial and territorial responsibility, it can be challenging get a national view on how Canada is doing integrating climate change into its formal education systems.

However, the situation is worrisome, according to Lakehead University professor Ellen Field, who has researched climate change curriculum and policies across Canada.

WATCH | ‘Real gaps’ teaching Canadian students about climate change, says researcher:

‘Gaps of inconsistency’ in Canadian climate change education, says researcher

Education researcher Ellen Field offers a quick portrait of how climate change education fares across Canadian jurisdictions, how prepared our teachers feel in offering it and whether a climate strategy is a priority for school boards.

She notes, for instance, that climate change often turns up as a topic in elective senior high school level classes, which means students can opt out of them. Across jurisdictions, there’s inconsistency where the topic shows  up in the curriculum: predominantly it’s covered in science units, but sometimes it’s in social studies. 

Ontario has a mandatory climate change course, Field noted, while British Columbia and Nova Scotia are provinces with a strong climate curriculum overall. Yet only four school boards of the nearly 400 across Canada have actual climate action plans. 

Noting that ministers of education from many different countries have been attending COP28 this year, Field believes improvements require action from the top, by policy-makers and school board decision-makers alike.

“If we’re in this moment that really we need to halve our emissions by 2030, we need to make sure that every institution … is doing what they can,” she said. “We just need to make sure that this is happening in all institutions — and school boards in particular have a role to play here.”

A trio of smiling female students in uniform are seen planting a tree in a grassy field outdoors.
UNESCO’s Greening Education Partnership is working with researchers, including Lakehead University assistant professor Ellen Field, to create a policy framework for a climate change curriculum that can be adopted by member states. (Westock Productions/Shutterstock)

Field is co-authoring an initiative for UN education agency UNESCO’s Greening Education partnership. The goal is to create a climate change education curriculum for member states to adopt, one that drills down to which topics and concepts can be introduced and built upon in an age-appropriate way, from the youngest learners straight through to high schoolers, and a framework of how to do this.

Stemming from this, however, is the understanding that teacher preparation is a vital piece of the overall puzzle.

“I see [teachers] doing unbelievably innovative and thoughtful practices with their students. I also see that it doesn’t actually take much to provide teachers with enough of a framework that they can go and innovate and develop resources or modify things for their students,” she explained from Orillia, Ont.

“But in order to move the entire system, we need policy and we need funding toward professional development.”

If children and youth are learning about climate change on social media or on the news, but not in the space where they spend the most time — their schools — it’s a missed opportunity, Field said. 

Engaging students with action

Through COP28’s nearly two-week run, UNESCO is hosting a series of events and sessions highlighting the essential role of education systems in combatting climate change. 

As part of its ongoing Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report, the UN agency partners with researchers worldwide to track what climate change education looks like across 80 countries.

A man in a dark button-down shirt smiles slightly as he looks into the camera.
Manos Antoninis, director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring report, says action-oriented climate change curricular are ‘seen now increasingly as the way forward,’ so students know what the problem is and how to contribute. (UNESCO)

In its most recent update, the research team noted that while 87 per cent of the countries examined have laws, policies or plans that include climate change education, only 38 per cent of the countries have a law, policy or strategy that is specifically focused.

Also, only about one-third have embedded climate change into what teachers themselves must learn for their profession. 

“Laws and plans take time to change … the demand we’re placing on [educational authorities] now is very, very high,” Manos Antoninis, director of UNESCO’s GEM report, acknowledged in an interview from Paris. 

Still, he added, education systems need to speed up their approach with more timely and targeted action. 

“How we are able to plan more spontaneously — following a little bit more our instincts — [while realizing] that things cannot go on the way they have historically is the big ask…. More direct action is needed.”

In addition to ensuring adequate teacher-training and development, Antoninis calls for more action-oriented teaching for students, expanding learning beyond knowledge of facts and science class alone.

“Even in countries where [students] learn about climate change, they don’t necessarily translate that into behaviours that will help us mitigate the consequences of climate change,” he said.

Some countries that have improved their climate education approach are ones integrating the topic across the different subjects students learn — for example, science as well as social science, Antoninis pointed out. He also singled out a strong civics education as another element that can help, since students can better see themselves as agents who have a greater role to play in society. 

“Essentially, it’s beyond curriculum reform: it’s about how students learn. It’s about speaking to their hearts and it’s about engaging them into actions, into projects where they first-hand can see directly how their behaviour can change and what impact it can have.” 

Emphasizing hope

Back in Vancouver, with her VSO-inspired, arts-based climate change project, school teacher Andrea Brown is living the approach Antoninis has encouraged by creating the interdisciplinary assignment in the first place and encouraging hope and agency for her students as they complete it.

“It’s really important to emphasize hope because that’s motivating them to get their messages out, to take action in a way that they’re choosing,” she said.

“Just getting started and not having perfectionism as the goal…. Just taking that first step and knowing there might be mistakes along the way, but learning from those mistakes and really just putting one foot in front of the other.”

Standing in front of a bookcase full of school textbooks, three female students pose in a row smiling, with their arms wrapped around each other.
Learning about climate change has evoked a range of feelings for Gr. 5 students Primrose Hoskins, from left, Emily Kordyback and Ellie Mukai, from upset and disappointment to empowerment and purpose. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

Learning about climate change has stirred up a range of emotions for Brown’s students, including sadness and disappointment, but a feeling of empowerment as well.

“Lots of people are just adding more garbage to the ocean and adding more pollution,” said 10-year-old Primrose Hoskins, who said “learning more about [it] makes me feel more powerful, so that I can help change what we’re doing.”

Learning both at school and from her mom about topics like pollution in the oceans spurred classmate Ellie Mukai into ongoing campaigns of clearing garbage from neighbourhood schools, working with her friends. 

“I want to teach people that even just little things like cleaning up around the neighborhood, reusing plastic bags and putting our recycling in the recycling [bins are important],” said Mukai, also 10.

Currently working on a carbon neutrality project with another classmate, fellow Gr. 5 student Emily Kordyback wants to inspire more discussion and learning in those around her.

“[We] want to teach them about why it’s an important thing to talk about and how we can help…. And I think that if we all try it a little bit, we can help a lot.”

WATCH | Schools need to devote resources to climate change education, say researchers: 

Schools need to devote resources to climate change education: Researchers

Researchers say school boards need to take action to improve climate change education, including additional resources for teachers, because students seem to be keen to learn.