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Author: Thea Nicholas
Date: 04 October, 2013

I reflect back on an experience I had six years ago which profoundly changed the way I taught my students.

It was a typical science lesson, in a typical science classroom, in a typical school. The learning outcome was the structure of the atmosphere as per the curriculum syllabus. As I taught the science behind the gaseous composition of each layer, a student asked me about climate change. The conversation drifted to how humans are responsible for the increased emissions and the changes to the Earth’s climate. We discussed the implications of these changes and how it would impact not just humans but all living things.

Suddenly, I noticed the general vibe of my students change. Two things happened to the mood of the kids; they become anxious or they switched off.

I stopped talking about long wave radiation and I said to the class, ‘right guys, I want you to answer the following questions honestly…

  1. Put your hand up if you are worried about climate change.’ Most of the hands in the room shot up.
  2. ‘Put your hand up if you think it will affect you personally and your future’. All the hands in the room shot up.
  3. Then I said, ‘put your hand up if you feel like it’s NOT too late and we can do something about this issue’ – only a few hands in the room were in air.

I realised in that moment that something was wrong. We had a bigger problem on our hands than simply teaching the science of climate change – these kids were feeling apathetic, anxious and hopeless. 

Had I failed these kids by just talking about the scientific gloom and doom and not considering the psychological and emotional impacts of my teaching? It was clear these kids were feeling hopeless and this broke my heart. For me, there is nothing sadder than a child that has lost hope. A child who has barely seen the world – yet has experienced enough to not want to be part of it and contribute to the future.

I realised that part of the solution was giving these kids the opportunity to apply their knowledge to the real world and the opportunity to act in ways that contribute to their local community. That very week, I set up a student action team and within one term the team grew from two students to fifty-five. 

We set about completing projects around the school. Their aim was to reduce our school’s ecological and carbon footprint.

I saw that when students made change they felt a greater sense of self-worth, achievement and empowerment. They took ownership of their own future, which gave them hope. By being part of this I witnessed their personal growth and built positive relationships with my students. This was the most rewarding and memorable experience of my life. One that defined my teaching career and ultimately who I am as a person.

Imagine if every child around the world woke up tomorrow and felt empowered. Imagine a school system that recognizes the critical point of time we are in and the unique learning qualities of the Gen Y. Sustainability education in our classrooms can achieve this.

The unique pedagogical approach embraces action-based and experiential learning. It connects kids to nature and teaches them to be passionate, resilient, critical thinkers.

Their perspective shifts from thinking they are the centre of the universe to being a part of an interconnected system – much bigger than themselves. 

They learn that we are part of the Earth rather than simply a presence on the Earth. Students understand that the new iPhone or Kim Kardashian handbag will not make them truly happy. They will feel emotionally and psychologically empowered to be conscientious choice makers and contribute to a better future.

We live in a time where our lives and actions matter more than ever before. We tell our students that the “business as usual” model isn’t working. A model of education that values the simple transaction of knowledge isn’t the answer. We need to support students and empower them to write a better story – and live it.

As teachers we are responsible for creating all other professions. We must make sure all children feel hopeful and enthusiastic about their future. Only then can they develop into CEO’S, politicians, nurses and builders who are solutionaries of the future.

And they will be solutionaries…if they learn how in schools.  

 Thea Nicholas, Sustainability educator

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