Teaching the teachers… how systems change can start at school

Students are growing skeptical over the need to be in class while an ecological crisis unfolds before their eyes. In exchange for lessons on Shakespeare, millions have taken to the streets with demands of education reform.

But what if secondary schooling could better prepare students by honing their skills and competencies for systems change?

After all, compulsory education presents a golden opportunity for exploring holistic thinking, systems analysis and complex problem-solving – the prerequisites for implementing positive climate action.

EIT Climate-KIC partner Olga Mayoral believes that teachers have a responsibility to instill a mindset that encourages a low-carbon lifestyle and drives effective climate innovation.

“Teaching has always been focused on knowledge, but we have to try and focus on other dimensions: the skills, the perseverance, and the willingness to act,” explained Mayoral. “It’s really easy to make an exam and test knowledge. It’s the other parts that are very difficult to approach, but they are essential.”

Education as a transformative tool

Mayoral is an Assistant Professor of Science Teaching at the University of Valencia (UV) and also coordinates the Biology and Geology specialization for the Master’s Degree in Secondary Education Teaching.

She leads trainings for pre-service teachers who are beginning to design their first practical classes in secondary schools.

One of her current research projects, “Inclusion of sustainability in teacher training,” exposes them to a challenge-led approach and systems thinking. The training they receive from the university is fundamental in developing their sustainability mindset.

“Secondary students are not the citizens of the future; they are citizens now”

“I love working with secondary school students, but when you work with teachers you have the multiplying effect,” said Mayoral.

As an ambassador of the Young Innovators programme, Mayoral understands the importance of education as a transformative tool for training younger generations in making informed decisions about sustainability.

“Secondary students are not the citizens of the future; they are citizens now. This is the moment to make them aware of climate change,” said Mayoral. “They have a lot of energy which they can decide to use in positive ways.”

“The glasses of sustainability”

Mayoral stresses that there are endless opportunities for teachers to incorporate climate science into their curriculum, regardless of the subject. It’s only a matter of putting on “the glasses of sustainability” during lesson planning.

Take physical education, for example. You can position environmental health as the relationship between your health and the planet. In the end, climate change issues affect all humans. It’s a question of life.

“From my point of view, it’s essential for teachers to be engaged in sustainability, and make the effort to put on the glasses and embed these issues into their teaching,” said Mayoral.

In an ideal world, climate change education would be integrated into every subject, in every school, in every country across the EU. But teachers are very busy and many of them are fed up with the perpetual changes to the education system.

“We tell teachers: You don’t need to be an expert; you need to be engaged.”

Furthermore, most teachers lack a climate science knowledge base. From Mayoral’s experience, teachers are seeking such knowledge but they feel insecure about their education level and shy away from approaching these issues.

Pre-service teachers studying at the University of Valencia are widely supported in bridging this educational gap. Since 2012, the city has been a part of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, which allows teachers to receive direct courses from experts and share these educational outlets with their students.

“We tell teachers: You don’t need to be an expert; you need to be engaged and offer your students the direct connection to experts,” said Mayoral.

No reform in sight?

Although a tipping point feels near, Mayoral does not see any nation-wide education reform in sight: “I think the 2030 Agenda would be the ideal timing for mandating climate and sustainability into the curriculum, to make sure that all schools are including these issues.”

However, similar efforts are underway across the globe. UNESCO reports that nearly all of the 194 reporting countries address climate change education as part of their national climate action plan. The agency itself has organised pilot projects at 258 educational establishments in 25 countries that integrate sustainability and climate action into everyday school life.

“We all have to be engaged,” affirmed Mayoral. “We don’t have to make a big change today, but we are many people who can make change, little by little.”