At the end of last month, the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, said that climate change would become an obligatory subject for students to learn in the third and fourth grades of secondary school in history and science classes.
The President said, while making the announcement: “We are confident of the effects that this policy can have in the long term for future generations. Environmental education is an opportunity for pedagogical innovation that can transform educational establishments into living spaces for learning”
Incorporating climate change education into curriculum was one of the themes investigated in the 2016 GEM Report: Education for people and planet. Our analysis of national curriculum frameworks from over 78 countries over the 2005-2015 period highlighted that only 40% mentioned climate change in their curricula. We also analysed the extent to which textbooks emphasise environmental issues across the world. Our research found that only half of secondary textbooks covered issues of environmental protection or damage.
Not including climate change issues in the curriculum takes its toll. According to the 2015 PISA assessment, only 70% of 15 year olds achieved a minimum proficiency level on major ideas and theories on the earth, space and eco-systems. In Chile, 65% reached that level. In Brazil and Peru, meanwhile, less than half did, showing that Bachelet’s example is surely one to follow.
Another assessment of grade 4 and 8 students, the TIMSS, showed that the average score for those who understood general knowledge about the earth fell in Chile from 2011 to 2015. A new strategy for the country was clearly in order.
How climate change will be reflected in Chile’s curriculum is now being debated, with a final proposal to be put to the National Board of Education to approve. Our research found that schools can increase knowledge and awareness of climate change by incorporating environmental sustainability into classroom materials and curricula.
In Bangladesh, for example, the National Curriculum and Textbook Board prepared a school manual on climate change and health protection. Students received classroom training based on the manual and some others received a leaflet on climate change and health protection. Six months later, children’s knowledge of the topics in both schools had increased dramatically.
Education can also reduce vulnerability to climate change. A comparative study on Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti focused on the role of formal education in reducing vulnerability, and explored education’s potential impact on disaster management and prevention and on post-disaster management. It found that a lack of education and low literacy rates prevented people from understanding warnings. In Cuba, a country with high literacy and enrolment rates, the level of vulnerability to climate-related disasters was reduced thanks to schooling.
But Chile should recognise during this reform that education for climate change is not only a matter of just adding a subject to the curriculum. It should also be adopted in a whole-school approach, addressing climate change in school priorities and school ethos, including in the way teachers are trained, and how schools connect with communities.
The way this announcement plays out in practice will be one to watch. What it tells us already, however, is that the Paris agreement is still being put into effect, even if it has been put into question. If some are denying the existence of global warming, Chile is accepting it and more.