We face a problem with the problem of climate change. We can’t seem to decide what kind of problem it is.
Technological? Economic? Geopolitical? This indecision allows us to imagine that the solution rests with someone else — scientists or economists or politicians.
Further, such diffuse ownership of the problem results in newer crises easily taking precedence. Climate change had barely finished taking a backseat to Covid before being demoted by the war in Ukraine, en route to being relegated to the back burner behind the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Each of these lenses — technological, economic and geopolitical — offers substantial truth. Yet, all have failed to adequately address the challenge.
So, what might a new perspective — climate change as a “modern” educational problem — look like? And how might a new framing help address the crisis?
The dividends we might reap from a new perspective are multiple.
Seeing climate change through this lens would highlight the multifaceted nature of the challenge — with critical emotional, attitudinal, motivational and behavioral dimensions complementing the requisite learning of key concepts.
Given that learning is intrinsically motivating, this new orientation could spark more energy and optimism to address the issue.
A learning-focused orientation would shift us toward curiosity and away from hostility; toward “What can I learn from others’ divergent positions on key issues?” and away from “How could anyone think that way?”
Climate change deserves the same status that math enjoys as a core subject taught to all students, all the time.
Also, politically, education is an enduring priority. Framing climate change as an educational challenge could enhance the sustainability of our efforts to address environmental problems.
Perhaps most intriguing, this educational framing might create powerful intergenerational learning alliances.
Before unpacking these benefits, let’s differentiate between a “modern” educational problem, like climate change, and its more traditional counterparts, like teaching algebra. In algebra, educators worry about content knowledge and conceptual understanding. Exceptional teachers might go further, asking students to apply their knowledge to real-world situations.
Although teaching a subject like climate change as a modern educational challenge encompasses those same features, it requires much more. Teachers must also manage students’ emotions about a topic of existential magnitude, navigate hostile attitudes that their subject is “fake news” and motivate changes in students’ behavior outside the classroom.
Furthermore, as a society, we desperately need to broaden who receives exposure to this subject matter. Currently, students in elective courses in certain grades at select schools receive environmental education. Yet, climate change impacts the entire population: pre-K to gray.
In short, a modern educational problem embodies a much broader, more daunting set of challenges than teaching the quadratic formula to ninth graders.
Related: Climate change: Are we ready?
So, if we conceptualize climate change as a modern educational problem — what specific benefits might be realized?
First, we might feel more optimistic and energized about collectively tackling this daunting challenge. Although our politicians seem gridlocked on this issue, we all learn constantly. Berkeley researchers showed that changing participants’ knowledge — teaching the mechanics of how greenhouse gasses trap heat — increased their subjects’ belief in human-caused climate change. Additional studies have illustrated how simple interventions can shift climate skeptics’ attitudes about climate science and motivate people to behave in more pro-environmental ways.
Second, we might approach conversations about climate change with more curiosity than condemnation. Successful algebra teachers do not get mad when students forget which type of curvy line goes with x2 and which goes with x3.
Instead, they meet students at their current level of understanding and strategically nudge their learning forward from there. An empathic approach to teaching about climate change is sorely needed in our current moment of political and social media-induced frustration with those who think differently.
Third, education represents a constant priority. While we’ve experienced pauses and glitches in schooling during the pandemic, education has remained an ongoing imperative — not something that we attend to if and when other competing initiatives allow for it.
Given the magnitude of the issue, surely climate change deserves the same status that math enjoys as a core subject taught to all students, all the time.
Finally, understanding climate change as a modern educational problem could help forge a stronger intergenerational alliance — a much more productive approach than youth blaming those in power for the current state of the world and decision-makers accusing the younger generation of failing to appreciate the necessity of making hard choices.
Nothing brings people together like working on goals in which everyone shares a common interest. One particularly clever curriculum showed the promise and power of this intergenerational learning approach: Middle schoolers in North Carolina who talked to their parents about climate change raised not only their own level of concern about the changing climate but also their parents’.
Surely, we have enough evidence to suggest that the current technological, economic and geopolitical approaches to climate change are not making nearly enough progress, quickly enough, with enough people on board.
We know the myriad ways climate change impacts education. Let’s use an educational perspective to frame the problem of climate change. We might even learn something by doing so.
Hunter Gehlbach has been a professor at Harvard, the University of California at Santa Barbara and Johns Hopkins University; currently he directs the Johns Hopkins School of Education Ph.D. program. He also serves as the senior research advisor at Panorama Education.
This piece about climate change as an educational problem was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.