Our Education Programmes Coordinator, Hannah Fairley, discusses with Dr Melissa Glackin, Senior Lecturer in Science Education at King’s College London about the current state of environmental education and what the future holds.

HF: How do you define environmental education?

MG: In our report we state the definition upfront and build on Arthur Lucus’ definition. He defines it as education about the environment, for the environment and in the environment. So it is more than just going outside. And it’s more than learning about climate change. It’s really broad.

HF: How do you see environmental education being embedded into the curriculum?

It can’t be siloed, that’s the problem with it. It’s not geography, it’s not economics and it’s not maths- it’s all encompassing. We still have this traditional set up in our schools with easy to define subjects which educators can move around, in that way environmental education is falling through the gaps.

Environmental education is also not being effectively assessed. And currently in our schools what is assessed matters. It therefore has to be embedded across the curriculum, but there is no easy one way. Multiple folk have to be involved in that. It’s complex.

HF: How receptive would you say educators are to making space for environmental education in the curriculum?

MG: It’s important to say that it isn’t just the teachers, it can’t be – teachers burn out, and it isn’t just the curriculum. What our research shows is that you get keen teachers whose initiatives are often side-lined for other, considered more current, initiatives.

For example, what we are also not seeing when we analyse school aims and values, including their mission statement, is environmental education as a priority or part of everyday school life. I do think things are going to change, but we did find that schools were prioritising ‘competitive students for the workplace’ rather than those that were environmentally minded.

We have got to work with multiple stake holders, so that includes the parents, government, teachers and policy makers to make space for it in the curriculum.

HF: What do you think the long-term effects of environmental education are?

MG: The effects of environmental education are very particular to the individual’s belief, the context that they are living in, the context of their family home, their interests that they have or their disposition. For example, you and I may have experienced the same environmental education, but from where we are coming from and what our interests are we will take differently from it.

The longer-term benefits are also about connection to the environment. If we build that in our young people, whatever that looks like and however that plays out, it’s something more than just the knowledge they have. Because I think having a connection to the environment enables you to be curious because you actually know something about a subject to be curious about. And it does actually invite people to build upon these skills when they are older.

HF: What do you find the most effective techniques in changing unsustainable behaviours but also challenging the unsustainable lifestyles?

MG: As an educator, and this is where I feel the real weight upon us, I think it is being the example. And that includes about not taking it too seriously as you would never get out of bed in the morning!

Students pick up immediately when we are not practicing what we preach. For organisations such as your own you can imagine how that might play out. And similarly, I feel quite a responsibility related to this myself. I mean at the moment I am in Japan and obviously I didn’t walk here. So, the role of education is just more than what we teach – it is how this is also embodied.

HF: With the climate crisis becoming ever more present I would say we need change quite fast. But can the current education system keep up? What are your thoughts on that?

MG: Curriculum change can take time, but it can also be quite radical and quick. We saw that in 2014 with changes coming through in our curriculums in England. However, many of these were negative changes, but we know that changes can take place really fast if they are pushed through politically.

However, it’s a balance, as radical changes put through in a year or two put pressure on the profession. It’s about organisation and working collectively, for example with the Department for Education and Ofsted.

Ofsted have just been looking at renewing their inspection framework and making some changes. They are quite powerful in a sense, because that would enable more of a change in school ethos. This could then mean that it could be pulled across the curriculum.

HF: Do you see options for cross over between current movements such as the youth climate strikes and environmental education?

MG: Yes, I think we have got a real interest there. And real appetite. We found that in our report that teachers say that kids find the subject interesting.

Teachers have squeezed it into plenaries (teacher led classroom discussion) because it is actually not nearly substantially found in the curriculum at the moment. But they know that there is an appetite for it. Children are seeing the effects and are keen to know what’s happening. I do think we are on a path for change which can only lead to a good thing.

HF: Do you feel that there is enough information for young people out there to understand environmental issues and how to get involved?

MG: I think that is the key frustration and that is a real big role for schools. They have a lot of knowledge, and access to information, but students are feeling frustrated as they don’t know what they can actually do. For example, knowing what organisation to join and what they can actually do in those organisations to be able to feel that they are coming up with solutions.

The education system has to respond to those needs rather the needs of the economy and jobs which has driven our education system for the past 150 years.

“I stand for what I stand on” ©LeighMcAlea

About Dr Melissa Glackin

Dr Melissa Glackin has spent the past thirteen years as a lecturer in Science Education at King’s College London. She is a trustee of the London Wildlife Trust and a fellow of the National Association of Environmental Educators. With a background in secondary school teaching and environmental science she has always had an interest in outdoor learning and teaching.

More recently she has been part of the Environmental Education Research Group which has published two research papers titled ‘Understanding Environmental Education, in secondary schools in England’. You can read it here.

Last month she contributed to a Transform Ed podcast that discussed: Can education address our climate change? Listen to it here.

Towards the end of 2019 TRAID are launching a brand-new educational toolkit that explores the environmental and social issues caused by the clothing industry. If you would like to receive updates on the launch, please sign up here.