Preparing young New Zealanders for a climate-changed world

Professor Martin Thrupp, University of Waikato

The recent report of the NZ Climate Change Commission was really about the science and economics of mitigating climate change, but it does have numerous wider ramifications for education. In a recent blogpost, Rachel Bolstad points out that education is mentioned in the report in quite a few places. One example is the need for prepare students for different career opportunities as Aotearoa transitions away from a high-emissions economy.

Will Aotearoa’s education system be able to respond in a timely way?

Bolstad and colleagues at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research have been surveying both primary and secondary schools and have found that some are doing quite a lot related to climate change. But with primary schools typically having a more integrated curriculum, many more primary teachers are involved in teaching related to climate change than secondary teachers. And a lot depends on the enthusiasm of individual teachers or principals in any case.

Meanwhile, the education sector as a whole is only slowly rising to the challenge, according to wide-ranging interviews carried out as part of the same NZCER project. There is a palpable sense of needing to awaken a slumbering giant, a challenge which mirrors the same problem with our society more broadly.

Naming and opening up the problem of climate change and education

As the skies over Aotearoa darkened ominously from the Australian bushfires last year, our Ministry of Education put out a resource for schools called ‘Climate Change: Prepare Today, Live Well Tomorrow’. This Curriculum Level Four resource provides a structured programme of lessons and activities to use when teaching about climate change and actions in response.

Chris Eames and colleagues have argued that this programme is quite well conceptualised, although it could have put more emphasis on collective action alongside personal action. They suggest it’s a good start but call for more support for teaching at other levels as well.

In producing such packaged programmes, there’s a risk that many will see climate change as just another curriculum area to be covered off. Tick, job done. At the same time educators concerned with climate change are often looking for more fundamental reconsiderations of schooling as they try to deal with the very many educational implications of climate change.

This is clear, for instance, in a 2017 article from Australian academics Robert Stephenson and colleagues entitled ‘What is climate change education?’. They talk about the need for teachers to engage in inquiry and co-learning with students and the need to use co-curricular and community initiatives for student investigations and learning.  

Still, the notion of ‘climate change education’ has itself become problematic because of the way it encourages a response to climate change through a bounded or packaged part of the school curriculum. Certainly we should respect the expertise of those with scientific and environmental credentials who have typically led the way with climate change education. But now I think we need to use more open expressions such as ‘education for a climate-changed world’ or ‘education in a time of climate change’.

These namings of the problem are more invitational of educators from other disciplinary backgrounds and walks of life to become involved in what needs to be done. I’m one of those ‘other’ educators myself, having expertise in education policy sociology and school-level educational reform rather than science and the environment.

I can see that in trying to address climate change, we are going to be up against the inertia of an education system that usually only changes incrementally. It’s not just a New Zealand thing but a global problem. David Tyack and Larry Cuban once described US school reform as a process of ‘tinkering towards utopia’.

One reason for inertia in education is that societal expectations weigh heavily on schools, and these expectations are usually based on the experiences that parents themselves have had in the past, rather than consideration of the future. So if we are going to move faster we will need a public awareness programme about the climate crisis so that communities can become more focussed on it and therefore support change in schools.

It is possible to point to the concerns of young people in this area, the school strikes for climate, and other youth actions, and these are important developments. But the matter is too urgent to wait for generational change (even with the hopeful assumption the adults of tomorrow have similarly progressive values and priorities to the young today). The current Government and future ones need to unsettle the climate complacency of adults/parents today if faster change in schools is to be achieved.

Day-to-day processes in schools are also very complex. So we need strong leadership from the education agencies, in partnership with teachers and principals, community organisations and other parts of government, to create new climate change education emphases for the school sector and to explain them as well. We also need the resourcing to support new emphases. Responding to climate change could become a key component of the recently announced refresh of the national curriculum for schooling, if there is the political will, that is.

What does education in a climate-changed world need to include?

One way to work on the agenda for schooling is to envisage the lives that we think our present children and young people will need to be leading in New Zealand in, say, 20 years’ time, based on climate science. Those lives will need to be well-informed about the state of the world and much less resource-intensive than adult lives at present.

Certainly people will need to become more aware of the kinds of climate change and mitigation topics that the Climate Change Commission is on about – topics such as transport, building and waste. Understanding how climate change patterns highlight and reflect the impact of social inequalities is another important aspect.

But like COVID-19 at present, most people will not actually need to fully understand the science to realise the gravity of the situation and what actions broadly need to be taken.

Instead, in a world where slogans, spin and celebrities often win the day, it’s probably going to be just as important for New Zealanders to be able to deal with climate change denialism and to critique content that is not grounded in reliable scientific evidence. We will also need to be able to recognise when political, corporate or other interests are working against climate change mitigation.

This means that fostering critical thinking about social and environmental matters needs to become a more urgent priority for schools. Teachers need to be willing and able to enter the fray, finding out what students think and creating safe places for discussion and debate. The alternative is to leave too many students at the mercy of dodgy social media platforms.

Changes needed within the curriculum

A possible objection to reorienting schooling in this way is that it could lead to the neglect of curriculum areas such as reading, writing and maths. But all of these curriculum areas can be turned to the purpose of thinking more critically. For instance, the teaching of statistics can show how truth gets manipulated depending on how data is reported. The teaching of literacy can foster students’ critical literacy – their ability to identify the agendas and motivations that influence texts (whether videos, social media posts, news articles or official documents) and to critically evaluate sources.

Many curriculum areas will also have new importance for supporting leisure and lifestyle options that can be closer to home and use fewer resources, for instance, the habit of reading, appreciation of nature, or exploring the arts. Te Ao Māori clearly has a huge amount to offer here.

Indeed, education can prepare young people for a life of the mind, not necessarily in the high-brow sense, but in ways that can help people appreciate and enjoy living more simply. This is becoming more important in a world where environmental awareness means it’s no longer so desirable to hop on a plane, drive for hours to a holiday home, or head to a shopping mall.

Careers advice is a further area of schooling that climate change has implications for. The NZCER research suggests that schools could better recognise sunset industries that will decline because of climate change and new career pathways that are opening up for the same reason.

We should not forget the ‘hidden’ curriculum of schools – those things which are taught but not overtly. This would include the way schools use resources, both day to day and during school trips and events. There are also the ways teachers and principals model and talk to students about responses to climate change in their own lives. Teachers who walk or cycle or take public transport to school or who drive EVs could probably have many interesting conversations with their students about their reasons for doing so.

Remaining hopeful

Finally, another great challenge for schools will be to leave students with a sense of possibility despite the enormous problems that cluster around climate change. At a time of wide-spread eco-anxiety amongst children and young people, we need students to have the kind of complex hope that recognises the very real challenges ahead but which can also sustain their adult lives and lead to actions that support social justice and the environment.

Educational reform may often be slow, but it is also always coloured by the political and social conditions of its era. These days, our school system in Aotearoa needs to be prioritising knowledge and practices that could help reduce climate change. The sooner we New Zealanders can get our heads around that, the better.

Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato. His research interests are in education policy, with a particular focus on school reform as it plays out in different national and local settings.  He has previously undertaken research in England and across several other European countries as well as in New Zealand and is currently working on a comparative study of the privatisation of schooling in Finland, Sweden and New Zealand. 


  1. Thanks Martin, for those thoughtful and timely comments. You have identified several key questions that are germane to ‘climate change education. I will just pick up on one for now the moniker under which we do this mahi. This debate had parallels with what might be regarded as the parent of climate change education – environmental education (EE). Those working in the EE space have long debated what to call the ‘field of endeavour’ we work in. Some have felt that EE is too narrow and pushes a focus on the environment only, when it is clear that the focus needs to be on wider aspects such as social, cultural and economic factors (in the same way climate change education (CCE) can be perceived as just gaining knowledge about climate change without doing anything about it). Others have advocated for Education for Sustainability (EfS) or Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in the same fashion as you suggest Education for a climate-changed world. Some argue that this use of the word ‘for’ creates a sense of determinism which is inappropriate for a democratic, empowering and transformative education. On the other hand, given the urgency of the crisis, some determinism might be necessary, as you note. Finally, the term education in a climate-changed world (your term in the subheading at least) appears more neutral and allows a focus on the breadth of education required across all levels and modes of learning. Would this be too open and would educators need more direction? Quite probably. We do need thinking about what we are trying to do and what we call it is part of it, but most importantly we need to get on and do it. I would encourage educators to submit on the Climate Change Commission’s Draft Advice to Government. It is currently inadequate in its consideration of education and the Commission needs our advice. A group of University of Waikato educators are currently collating detailed feedback and we hope others can too.

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  2. Thanks Chris, I thought that was a very gentle illustration that you know an awful lot more about this area than I do! But I can see it’s of central importance to any discussion of education in 2021. So I want educators (teachers, principals, researchers, policy-makers, Ministers, Prime Ministers, the great New Zealand public, etc. etc.) to wake up and smell the coffee (might struggle to get any with climate change?). Climate change needs to be prioritised. And I would also encourage us all to submit on the Climate Change Commission’s Draft Advice to Government as Chris has asked.

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