Nearly 95 percent of teachers across 100 countries agree: students need to learn about the effects of climate change. 

In a growing number of regions, it has become a critical part of the curriculum. Take New Jersey, for example, where state standards recently shifted to include climate change. The topic now spans seven different subject areas across kindergarten to 12th grade. 

The motivation behind these kinds of shifts is simple. Climate change education equips students with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate a changing world. If you want to explore why this topic matters, we’ve written about it here.    

But we’ve only scratched the surface. In this follow-up, we dive deeper into what climate change instruction looks like in action – from the curriculum maps you create to the lesson planning ideas you bring into your classroom.

What Should be in a Climate Change Curriculum?

Climate change is anything but a simple, open-and-shut issue. And it s scope stretches beyond a single industry, region, culture, or field of study. Due to its uncertain and complex impact, addressing it can be a daunting task for even the most climate-savvy educator. 

For the purposes of effective curriculum mapping and lesson planning, UNESCO breaks down climate change education into these dimensions:

Understanding and Attentiveness

What is climate change and what factors drive it? What changes are happening right now? 

Some changes are obvious; others are much more invisible. In this dimension, students learn the nuts and bolts of the processes at play. They also develop alertness and mindfulness to the changes that are happening in their day-to-day lives.

Adaptation and Mitigation

How do we respond to climate change? How can we live a more sustainable lifestyle? What skills will students need to develop? 

Instruction around adaptation teaches students how to adapt to changes in economic, social and ecological levels. With a focus on increased resiliency and reduced vulnerability, it involves teaching decision-making skills for an uncertain future. Mitigation considers the core causes of climate change, identifies the contributing systems and focuses on creating a more sustainable path. For example, mitigation-focused education might teach students about ways to cut emissions and reduce pollution.

Local and Global

How does climate change affect our local communities? What global impacts do we need to consider? 

A local focus can give students hands-on experience while preparing them for the real-life situations they may face. It can even involve taking learning outside of the classroom and into the community where they can contribute to initiatives in their own backyard. But in an interconnected world, students need to think about how actions in one region can affect other regions, too. Plus, examining climate change on a global scale can highlight successful initiatives from other groups.

Past, Present and Future

How does our past influence our present? What opportunities and possibilities are on the horizon? 

This dimension focuses on intergenerational connections. It helps students understand how attitudes have changed from the past, what outcomes are possible and what work needs to be done today to create a better future. 

Building the Skills that Matter

Knowledge is half the battle – but what about the skills that students need to develop to succeed in an uncertain and complex world? “There is no fixed and final destination to our learning,” writes UNESCO, “only learning that adjusts what we think before new learning comes along.”

That’s why the organization recommends prioritizing six areas of skill that prepare students for change.

  • Information management: how to collect, receive, organize, express, present and evaluate information
  • Critical thinking: how to solve problems, think creatively, decode and deconstruct messages and make sound decisions
  • Action: how to advocate, get involved, adapt to change and avoid risk.
  • Interaction: how to negotiate, build consensus, listen, cooperate, manage conflict and empathize
  • Future thinking: how to forecast and backcast, envision and extrapolate
  • Personal: how to cope with change, live simply and find congruence with personal values

Climate Change Across Subjects

Climate change often falls under science and geography education. After all, it involves biological systems, geophysical cycles, research and data analysis. Almost two-thirds of teachers say they don’t tackle climate change because it lands outside of their subject area.

But the effects of climate change reach into disciplines like law, policy, sociology, economics, technology, agriculture and even art. Delivering that kind of learning takes a much more integrated approach to curriculum mapping and lesson planning.

How can all of these different areas align?

Let’s take a look at a few lesson planning ideas on the topic of sea level change:

  • Science: students might run an experiment that shows the impact of melting land ice and thermal expansion.
  • Earth studies: students might map cycles in the Pacific Ocean (like El Niño and La Niña) and identify how those patterns impact climate across the world.
  • Math: students might use satellite data to graph and compare long-term and short-term sea level rise.
  • Social studies: students might compare policies from countries around the world that address sea levels.
  • Health and physical education: students might examine the measures that governments enact to protect food supplies from coastal land loss.
  • Computer science: students might analyze computational models used to measure and predict changes in sea level over time.
  • Visual and performing arts: students might explore the genre of activist art and create a piece of their own addressing sea level change.
  • Languages: students might learn vocabulary about bodies of water, aquatic ecosystems and climate change in a target language.
  • English language arts: students might write a short story about a character coping with the effects of sea level rise 100 years in the future.

Of course, potential topics run the gamut from greenhouse gas emissions and green energy to extreme weather patterns and shifts in ecosystems. But this should give you a starting point for creating a cohesive curriculum that introduces, reinforces and applies climate change education. 

Need Some Extra Help?

We know putting together a climate change curriculum along with individual lesson plans is a tall order. Especially if you don’t already have a solid foundation for one (or the time to build one). 

Good news for busy teachers: some of our favorite resources come from climate change experts and are built for easy integration into K-12 classrooms.

Climate Kids

Bring the big questions and key issues to life for young audiences with fun games, interactive features and exciting articles.

NASA and JPL – STEM lessons for educators

Find classroom activities, materials, assessments, discussions and resources for K-12 students that align with Next Generation Science and Common Core Math Standards.

Stanford Earth – Climate Change Education

These middle school and high school curriculums lead students through the core issues of climate change. Each is backed by research and delivered alongside professional development for teachers.

NOAA – Teaching Climate

Access instruction, demonstrations, experiments, interactive tools, learning activities, multimedia resources and teaching guides selected and reviewed by educators and scientists.

UN CC:e-Learn

With online courses, tutorials and self-paced learning, this platform is a one-stop shop for climate change education that focuses on developing countries.

National Geographic – Education Resources

National Geographic offers a bevy of activities, articles, lessons and more that dive into the topic from many vantage points.

With so many curriculum resources and lesson planning ideas to choose from, you can select the best by considering factors like:

  • Universality: the materials and topics matter to students across interests, specific backgrounds and experiences
  • Credibility: information has been created, vetted or curated by experts in climate change and its related fields
  • Quality: the resources are comprehensive, clear, engaging and accessible to your students
  • Currency: the information reflects the latest developments in climate change research and technology

And above all, the resources you choose should support student success by guiding your class through a progression of learning that promotes understanding, inquiry and evidence-led instruction.

From Problem to Solution

When the State of New Jersey announced its new standards, First Lady Tammy Murphy pointed out that climate change education isn’t about adding new requirements. “It is a symbol of a partnership between generations,” she said in a statement

Teaching the problems is part of that equation. But experts are quick to add, we also need to focus on an approach that equips tomorrow’s leaders with the skills to make decisions and find solutions. As Vice-President Al Gore puts it, “We will need leaders who are not only well educated about the effects of climate change, but leaders who can craft the solutions for climate change and implement those solutions.”

And the best way to do that? A whole-school approach that tackles the subject across multiple dimensions and subject areas.

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