We mustn’t wait to regret a failure to face up to teaching climate change!

Thanks to Peter Langdon (@langdonhistory) for writing this blogpost to share further his work on teaching climate change in history. Peter makes a persuasive case and provides support to help us act to do our part, as history teachers, to tackle the climate crisis. This blogpost also contains details of how to join the growing network of history teachers working to do this.

In the global conversation about climate change one message rings out louder and louder: we don’t have time. Rightly, our attention is drawn to the dwindling days we have left to avert catastrophe. The time for talk is over. Now, we must act.

Perhaps this helps to explain why, in discussions about how school curricula can engage with the realities of climate change, one subject is often conspicuously absent. STEM subjects and Geography have obvious roles to play in building students’ knowledge, and arts subjects can help them to process their emotional responses to deeply uncertain futures. But if we don’t have time, surely there’s no space for history?

I believe that this view is misguided. As Neustadt and May warned in their book on the uses of history for decision makers, we have a tendency to ask “Damn, what do we do?” when we should be asking “What’s our problem?”. History offers the chance to understand climate change as one result of the way humans have interacted with nature over thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years. It lays bare the powerful threads of motivation behind these actions – from biological imperative to knowing greed – which need to be unpicked if we are ever to forge a different future.

This is a huge challenge, especially given that 75% of teachers reported in a recent survey that they didn’t feel they had received adequate training to teach climate change. But the time for action is indeed now, and it is incumbent on us as history teachers to face these challenges head on, and to begin to develop practical ideas for the classroom. 

In that spirit, I developed an experimental enquiry as my final PGCE assignment, and I have since taught it to two Year 7 classes (albeit in the strange circumstances of 2019-20). The enquiry was designed to span seven 1-hour lessons and focuses on the question “When did humans take over the world?”.

I chose this enquiry question for several reasons. Firstly, inspired by the work of Kate Hawkey and others, I wanted to embrace the biggest of Big History and offer students the chance to take a very broad perspective on humans’ changing relationship with the natural world. I also wanted an enquiry question which allowed for complexity and ambiguity, to avoid ‘monolothic perspectives’ (Shemilt & Howson, 2017) of the past and make possible a range of valid, interesting answers. Finally, I didn’t want to make this enquiry explicitly about climate change, partly because I felt that this might be offputting or even intimidating for some students, but also because I wanted students to see that climate change was not inevitable, but rather the result of particular pathways in human history.

Overview of the enquiry

I was acutely aware of the challenges posed by this enquiry. Perhaps uppermost in my mind was the difficulty some students face in thinking in time scales longer than their ‘personal time’ (Fordham, 2012), as well as the received wisdom that students need human stories to engage them. With this in mind, I designed the lessons on a variety of different time scales, from the first lesson’s 4.5 billion years to the mere 70 years (a human lifetime) in lesson 6. I sub-divided human history into 4 ‘thresholds’ (an idea borrowed from the Big History Project).

Thresholds used to sub-divide long time periods

I was confident that with support, as well as frequent opportunities for students to ‘anchor’ themselves in time, they could handle working with ‘lenses’ of ‘different magnification’ (Hughes-Warrington, 2005).

‘Where are we now’ provide a snapshot of the stage in history we’ve reached in each lesson

In teaching this enquiry, my Year 7 students – perhaps unencumbered at this stage in their education by too rigid a sense of period – proved adept at zooming in and out, and handled the scale of the enquiry with aplomb. There were some genuinely revelatory moments. One of my favourites came in an activity in the first lesson where students are asked to walk across the playground as if it represented the whole of earth’s history, and stop where they think human beings entered the story. The realisation that they should have stopped a single footstep from the end gave students a sense of how simultaneously long and short human history is, which I hope will stay with them. And all students were able to write interesting answers to the question “When did humans take over the world?”, which often showed considerable advances in their thinking from their first attempt to tackle the question in the first lesson.

My enquiry is just one way this topic could be approached in this history classroom. Perhaps the most straightforward approach would be to integrate questions about humans’ relationship with nature into many more ‘traditional’ enquiries (the Industrial Revolution, of course, but also the Little Ice Age, the American West, the advent of nuclear weapons, and even the British Empire). We need teachers to start this process now. I have made my full enquiry and other resources available to download here. I encourage anyone to use it, and if you do, please get in touch with any feedback so I can continue to improve it. I’m also working with Alison Kitson of the IoE, and others, including Arthur Chapman, Kate Hawkey and Michael Riley, to put together a working group of teachers interested in this challenge. If you’d like to join, please do send us a message here, or get in touch on Twitter.

Our profession is currently reckoning with a collective failure to face up to teaching colonialism. My message to history teachers is that we mustn’t wait to regret a failure to face up to teaching climate change. This is a challenge we can embrace: not only because we must, but also because if we can help young people to figure out how we get ourselves into this mess, we just might help them to figure out how they can get us out of it.

References

Fordham, M. Out went Caesar and in came the Conqueror: A case study in professional thinking in Teaching History 147, July 2012, pp38-46

Hughes-Warrington, M. T. E. (2005) Big history. Social Evolution and History, 4 (1), pp7–21

Shemilt, D. and Howson, J. (2017) Frameworks of knowledge. Dilemmas and debates in Davies, I. (ed) Debates in History Teaching. 2nd ed. Abingdon, London : Taylor & Francis Group

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