Rebooting education for the climate emergency

With the climate in crisis, technological innovation occurring at increasing speed, and waves of mass protests sweeping the globe, the world seems to be changing at an exponential pace. Keeping up can be a challenge, and worryingly, one place this is most noticeable is in our education system. As human rights activist Malcom X famously said ‘Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today’. Yet how to best prepare young people for tomorrow when the future seems so uncertain is not always straightforward.

Young people are often at the forefront of change. They are typically among the first to adopt new technologies and, as the school climate strikes illustrate, among the most active in demanding action on global crises like the climate. Yet our current education system is struggling to keep up with them. Over 75% of teachers feel ill-equipped to respond to their demands for climate education, and 70% think radical change is necessary to make the education system 'fit for the times we live in' according to recent YouGov research. Those who are responding, are doing so by providing as much education about the environment as they can. Whilst increased knowledge is important and an understandable instinct, providing the facts alone is insufficient.

What are we doing?

We believe that we need to radically rethink how we prepare young people to respond to the myriad of social and environmental challenges ahead of them. An increasing body of research from organisations like Common Cause Foundation shows that the development of compassionate values, rather than facts, will be key to unlocking positive and lasting behaviour change towards the environment, society at large, and individual well-being.

Over the next 18 months, working alongside our partner Global Action Plan, and some of the UK’s leading social psychologists, values practitioners and environmental educators, we will ask: What does environmental education look like when we apply what we know about values?

As part of this process, we are bringing together over 22 organisations (and growing) from across the environmental, education and policy sectors to review the values being nurtured in our education system, and to test new forms of environmental education that activate compassionate values. We hope our project will not only add to the growing evidence base linking compassionate values to positive environmental behaviours, civic engagement and well-being, more broadly, but also will ask fundamental questions of our education system, and specifically what educational "success" looks like in the 21st Century.

A supportive ecosystem

Of course, if we are to embed compassionate values within environmental education, and the education system more widely, we need collaborative effort across different parts of society. Arguably young people are best placed to reimagine what the future of education should look like. That’s why Reboot the Future, along with 27 other organisations, is backing Teach the Future, a new campaign led by the UK Student Climate Network, SOS-UK and Extinction Rebellion Educators. Teach the Future is demanding educational reform in response to the climate crisis, including the creation of an English Climate Emergency Education Act, and the institution of climate crisis education as a key part of teacher training.

Seismic change within education is possible, as we have seen in the past through examples like non-selective schooling, compulsory education until 18, and more accessible further education. This time change feels more urgent than ever. If we are to mitigate the climate crisis, address downward trends in young people’s mental health, and build a more equitable and sustainable future, education is arguably the most powerful tool at our disposal. Let’s use it wisely.