Educator activists: climate change and thinking outside the box

Last night I watched a David Attenborough clip urging us to address climate change face on. It is not something happening to other people, it is something happening to our people, our children, our species. He said, ‘we must act together in the interests of us all’ urging us to find a way to live sustainably and to live in a way that natural resources are valued more than money.

Naturally, it got me thinking. I car pool. I recycle. I buy second hand where practical. I try to tread lightly on the earth and teach my family the same values. But what else can I do?

It occurred to me that in my curriculum design I don’t teach these things explicitly. I don’t talk about climate change because it feels like it is a topic outside of the boxes of my curriculum areas. But is it? (The NZ government released a climate change pack to support teaching and wellbeing of students in January 2021 in case you haven’t seen it yet – you can look at it here: https://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/News/Climate-Change-Learning-Programme-Wellbeing-Guide).

Here is my question: What might education look like if we actually listened to the warnings of David Attenborough and actively pursued the interests of the all?

Art is a means of expression and communication. It can be used for activism, social awareness, developing ideas, therapy and communication of abstract and complex issues. I did not have to look far to find a website that is dedicated to art ideas that explore climate change. Whether designing learning for primary or secondary or home schooling with supplementary learning This climate change visual arts website has a wealth of resources and further links.

The bit about coal and charcoal made me remember studying William Kentridge at university. He made amazing stop motion animation films using charcoal drawings that were used like a palimpsest. Drawing, rubbing out, redrawing and repeating. He is an artist model that could present an amazing opportunity for thinking, steam learning, algorithm design, digital technology and mixed media drawing… what an extraordinary way in to using art as a space for ‘considering the all’ of climate change.

So what if I let students design their own animation? What if I opened up the charcoal requirement to mixed media and painting? What if I added a climate change to designing a meaningful narrative? What if we then could share our films with a real audience?

Suddenly I have a digital technology, english, art, science multimedia exciting project on the brew.

Suddenly something exciting is happening.

It is not a new concept to be adding a new filter to learning design. Whether it is a current pedagogy or approach or a part of the inquiry process – but using art as a means for actively addressing climate change is a filter that is new to me. What if this is the beginning of an amazing opportunity to apply new lenses like this to more areas of learning?

I wonder: what might the classroom look like with a wellbeing focus? We could explore colour theory, Rothko and make immersive installations… what if we could design escape spaces? What if we designed a mural to raise awareness? Or what about gamifying experience and designing a game to support mental health like This one? The potential to make immersive virtual worlds (even if they begin as just a conversation) could be something worth exploring…

My role as within school teacher for our Kahui Ako means that current filters of cultural capacity, agency, wellbeing and transitions are applied often. All lenses when presented as opportunities to ‘take it and run’ present immense opportunities for agency. With a cultural lens we might design a digital marae or might transform a landscape painting into an augmented conversation about turangawaewae, belonging, travel and projected futures (of the all). But a climate lens, this idea was only discovered yesterday.

See, it all comes back to the earth eventually.

I’ve been reading ‘Thrive – schools reinvented for the challenges we face’ by Valerie Hannon and Amelia Peterson. This book is like being slapped in the face by a crowd of people holding signs we actually can’t ignore. Actually it’s like being plunged in an ice bath. You can’t shake the feeling once you have felt it.

They point out that educators are unethical if they do not address the changes needed. Teaching the way we always have done is ignoring our duty to respond to the current climate (whether this is literal, political or social). How can we redefine the purpose of what we are doing to be realigned with deeper values?

“For change to become systemic, we need a new narrative about education’s purpose that is authentic, based on evidence of our predicament, and is in tune with our deepest values. Everything starts with the story we tell about ourselves.”

“…It is morally indefensible to continue with a process of mass schooling which is indifferent to and ignorant of the scope of these disruptions, and which promotes a value system (competition, growth, efficiency, homogeneity) that steers us towards the darker of the potential paths ahead. Acknowledgement of the realities that lay ahead is the first step to equipping young people with the ability to shape the future.” (Thrive, p599).

The first part is acknowledging the issue.

Then we can teach kids to think.

So what might an environmentally sustainable classroom look like?

It should be a space for questioning and a space for knowledge making not knowledge taking. We can create the think tanks that look to the past (like William Kentridge’s stop motion technology as a small example) and re-vision it for a future focused meaningful narrative. We are not trapped by subject boxes.

Thinking transcends boxes. Thinking and sharing ideas is just the tip of the iceberg.

What do you think?

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