Updated: Aug 10
How can we use traditional teaching methods and approaches within education on climate change and plastic pollution?
Climate change and plastic pollution are topics of continuous discussion, and this constant presence of impending doom is causing a sharp rise in eco-anxiety, "a chronic feeling of environmental doom", especially among young people. A recent survey titled 'Young people's voices on climate anxiety, government betrayal and moral injury: a global phenomenon' (Hickman, C. et al. 2021) conducted research into the feelings, thoughts and functional impacts associated with climate change among 10,000 young people (16-25) from 10 different countries. The results reported are shocking but not surprising. The results showed that 60% of respondents felt "very" or "extremely" worried about climate change. As well as this, 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives. On top of this, countries expressing more worry and impact on functioning tended to be poorer in the Global South and more directly impacted by climate change. With this in mind, although climate anxiety generates feelings of worry, fear, anger, grief, despair, guilt, and shame, it also allows for hope.
Climate Change and Plastic Pollution in Schools
The facts are clear on just how devastating the effects climate change and plastic pollution have on young people's mental health and wellbeing, and I believe it's key to consider what schools are doing to address it. JD Whitman, an installation artist, educator, and ocean advocate and current director at Plastic Tides, a non-profit ocean conservation organisation, believes very little is being done. Whitman is responsible for pairing young people (students between 12 to 18 years old) with mentors, such as scientists, policymakers, experts in sustainability, and volunteers from around the world; to reduce plastic pollution in their local area through a pre-conceived or newly developed model. The program offers a variety of models that the students can pick from, ranging from community gardens to plastic utensil phase-out. Whitman described that many of the young people who signed up for the global program did so because they were not receiving enough environmental education at their school or support on projects due to political reasons or regulations. Whitman also pointed out that, in some countries, students (especially females) were not allowed to pursue these projects due to their gender. She concluded our discussion on the program by saying that (during her time at Plastic Tides) she had interviewed up to 150 students from different countries: all of whom expressed that their motivation for joining the program was due to a lack of education and support on environmental topics and projects. Following on from this, Whitman shared some of her research with me surrounding climate change and plastic pollution education within schools in the US. Whitman began with a blanket statement claiming there (currently) was not enough time spent on education surrounding climate change and plastic pollution. The claim presented by Whitman was backed up by her research which showed that the average time spent (per year) was 0-2 hours, with only 75% of schools even addressing climate change. Although this is stark, especially when contemplating the severe effects these issues have on young people's mental health and wellbeing, things are changing. In June 2020, New Jersey became the first state within the US to incorporate climate change education across its K-12 learning standards. It was also announced in March of this year (2022) that there will be a segment within the curriculum (across all states) devoted to climate change. In addition, the UK announced (also this year) a new climate change GCSE focusing on environmental conservation, which will become available to students in 2025. Although this all seems like positive steps in the right direction, I wanted to look beyond western countries and focus on countries in the Global south. The countries expressing more worry and impact on functioning; countries that are impacted more by climate change. I decided to focus on the Philippines, which consistently scored high along with Brazil (Fig.1) with statements such as; (the) Future is frightening, and, Humanity is doomed. In research from Tarubal (2021), the Philippines is not behind in making policies for education on the environment. However, there is a lack of education programs, curricula, or teaching strategies that engage learners to practice environmental protection and preservation: which correlates with the research results. In other words, there is a correlation between lack of education on climate change and plastic pollution and young people's mental health and wellbeing.
Teaching Methods for Climate Change and Plastic Pollution
Early in my research, I read a paper titled, Plastic Waste Problem and Education for Plastic Waste Management (C.-F. Chow et al, 2017), which first highlighted the importance of education within schools on plastic pollution:
"To reduce plastic waste, education is of utmost importance as education can change people's knowledge, attitude, and behaviours toward plastic waste management."
- C.-F. Chow et al (2017)
Referring to studies by Mobley, Vagias and DeWard (2009) and Olofsson and Öhman (2006) (as cited in Manning, 2010), "the level of formal education people have received seems to correlate directly with the amount of environmental knowledge people have and the formation of positive attitudes." In addition, Scott and Willits (1994) (as cited in Manning, 2010), "also found that the more highly educated one is, the more likely one is to engage with environmentally responsible behaviours." (C.-F. Chow et al, 2017). Secondly, the paper went on to detail a study to determine what style of teaching method is best suited for teaching the subject of plastic pollution. The study took 61 students from 7 primary schools (aged 8 to 12 years old) and split them into three groups that aligned with three different teaching styles to determine which one would be the most effective. The teaching methods were:
Simulation game-based teaching
The study revealed students from the simulation game-based teaching group achieved significantly higher scores than the other two teaching groups regarding plastic pollution, with the hands-on teaching group following next with the second-highest scores. Overall, the students that participated and interacted more, benefited more. Although the study was short, students were able to acquire new knowledge quickly; however, the paper argues for attitudes and behaviours to change significantly, plastic pollution would have to have a more fixed place within the students' education.
Dales's Cone of Experience
Simulation and hands-on teaching methods aren't only successful in teaching plastic waste management. During the 1960s, Edgar Dale theorised that learners retain more information by what they “do” as opposed to what is “heard”, “read” or “observed”. His research led to the development of the Cone of Experience. Today, this “learning by doing” has become known as “experiential learning” or “action learning”. The cone (Fig.2) is a visual diagram that reflects this theory.
Overall, students that participate and interact more, benefit more. Referring back to the study, although it was short, students were able to acquire new knowledge quickly; however, the paper also argues, that for attitudes and behaviours to change significantly, plastic pollution would have to have a more fixed place within the students' education.
Whilst considering Dale's Cone of Experience, I discovered this style of “experiential learning” isn't new. Through the Hato website, I came across their Play-Well exhibition (Fig.3) which explores the ideas and objects that have shaped the way we play from the mid-1800s to today. It was here that I came across the Genevan philosopher and writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the principal elements of pedagogy in his book Émile. I found the book incredibly interesting and insightful as it detailed Émile's (a fictional character) growth, development and acquirement of knowledge through Rousseau's guidance. The following quotes (I felt useful in moving forward and developing my design) from the book are in line with the age of the students my project is aimed at, after infancy between the ages of 4 and 6 years old.
"Do not give your pupil any sort of lesson verbally: he ought to receive none except from experience."
"Keep his organs, his senses, his physical strength, busy; but, as long as possible, keep his mind inactive."
"The wise physician does not give directions at first sight of his patient, but he studies the sick man’s temperament, before prescribing. He begins late with his treatment, but cures the man: the over hasty physician kills him."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau's way of teaching is very much through guidance and letting the student develop, grow and acquire knowledge naturally and organically. Rousseau explains that his purpose isn't to prescribe the student knowledge but to present the tools for acquiring knowledge for him/herself.
Rousseau discusses the importance of engaging the senses during the early years of childhood. It's here where I started to bridge the gap between teaching method and design, with Bruno Munari. Bruno Munari took the pedagogic teaching method and incorporated it into much of his design work for children, notably his books. After WW2, he launched the experimental, interactive books called the I Preblibri (Fig.4) or the Books before Books, which were made to deconstruct the concept of a book. They were pre-reading experiences for children who haven't been taught to read yet, giving them the possibility to explore a book sometimes with only coloured or blank pages or with different materials and shapes. Exploring these special books, page by page, the child could enjoy a book interacting through the five senses (Orlandi, 2010). As well as I Preblibri there is Nella notte buia (Fig.5) . Nella notte buia is a beautifully designed book that dedicates itself to engaging the senses. Munari does this through illustrations, a transparent paper that rustles as it's turned, the card that is cut in such a way that demands you to touch it and a general surprise on each page that draws your engagement. I realise that I'm talking about this book from an adult's perspective, so I can only imagine the buzz children get from it.
Munari's attentiveness to the material is well-documented. In his book, Design as Art, he discusses the many characteristics of bamboo that, in turn, make it such a pleasant material to use. He mentions its versatility and how it has been crafted to make moneyboxes, fishing rods, vases, sports equipment and musical instruments, to name a few. He briefly mentions the limitations manufacturers put on themselves and makes an example of this by visiting a stocking factory and creating a lamp inspired by bamboo (Fig.6). Munari's attentiveness to materials is something I want to incorporate into my design. I believe all school realia should use materials wisely, thus enabling and encouraging students to view materials without limitations, a skill I think is necessary for future generations to adopt as we hone in on a more sustainable future.
Victor Papenek discusses this topic in his book The Green Imperative. Papenek says;
"Design can bring great benefit to education, not just with the education of designers, but with the education of everyone - specifically children from kindergarten and nursery school all the way through secondary education and beyond."
"School curricula and teaching methods can be greatly aided by systems design. Finally, there is educational software - seats, desks, tables, teaching aids, wall charts, teaching machines and audiovisual materials - which is in desperate need of creative innovation and redesign."
Papenek (1995) describes children as being naturally active that often have to be kept inside classrooms for long periods throughout the day; with this in mind, classrooms need to compete with the stimulation of outside and public spaces. Referring back to my conversation with JD here: towards the end of our conversation, we discussed the best ways to teach climate change and plastic pollution and encourage children to feel connected to the natural environment. JD stated over anything else, field trips and physically being in nature would have the most significant impact. I agree; I fondly remember regular field trips throughout the seasons during my childhood years. The evidence that argues the importance of field trips is substantial. It would be almost impossible to disagree that field trips do not increase interest or understanding of a particular topic or subject. Of course, field trips still happen in schools, but as JD mentioned, field trips (like those I enjoyed) happen scarcely.
"There has been an entire shift from nature-based experiential learning to classroom-based learning."
-JD Whitman (2022)
For example, most recently, the Coronavirus subjected people (globally) to lengthy periods spent inside. As well as this, there are the ever-mounting precautions and regulations teachers face when organising such trips. My memories of field trips were that they were safe but probably not enough by today's standards. Cost is also a significant factor; just from scanning through odd forums I often read that teachers would have to endure any extra costs they encountered on such trips.
During a recent beach cleaning event, I set up a stall (Fig.7) to collect email addresses for a monthly newsletter from Plastic Tides. The event itself attracted many people; during one conversation I had with one of the attendees, she mentioned how her school in Hong Kong used to organise events to clean up local communities but continued to say how these events no longer happen. As well as this, it is important to consider schools within urban environments, where access to natural surroundings becomes even more difficult. By taking this into account, the next (and possibly only) other option is to try and bring nature into the classroom.
"There needs to be a way where people can have access, tactile sense access, to nature while they're learning about it."
-JD Whitman (2022)
With this in mind, design within the education system can have a massive impact, such as on how the entire school is designed. Of course, in an ideal world, this would be taken into consideration before we even get onto the task of looking into the most effective ways of teaching climate change and plastic pollution. For example, it is well documented that schools in Finland enjoy great success due to their reimagining of the whole schooling system, from school start times, class and break times to architecture (Fig.8). On a smaller scale, Papanek discusses simple ideas generated by his students, such as Floppy Math, a game which introduces students to many mathematical concepts. Papenek describes the game as fun and simple to make: using brightly coloured cotton that can be adjusted through sewing by students or their parents. In addition to this were the Icosahedral Dice (Fig.9), 20-sided dice used for creative problem-solving. The dice design and origin can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. There are numerous theories on how they were used, although there is speculation that they were used for games or to contact the supernatural. Papanek discusses how his students had used the dice design to help facilitate teaching on subjects such as geography, plot development, history, biology and others. Could simple design solutions, such as these, also be used in education on climate change and plastic pollution?
As Papenek discusses Floppy Math, a simple yet effective game that could easily be created from recycled materials, I feel compelled to discuss circular design. Circular design is becoming a lot more prevalent in society as more people are waking up to the encroaching dangers our planet is facing due to plastic pollution and climate change. Through visiting an exhibition on circular design (Spiral) at the Taiwan Design Museum (Fig.10) I became aware of what and how businesses were doing incorporating circular design within their products. The exhibition was very insightful and inspiring which lead me to the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia. Patagonia is a brand that is leading the way in how clothing retail businesses should be operating in today's market, and what we, as consumers, should expect. As consumerists begin to shift their attention to making important decisions through their spending, I feel there should be more of an effort made to engage children with the possibilities of recycling, thus bringing circular design into the classroom.
VR & AR
Towards the end of my conversation with Whitman, she mentioned the next best thing to physically being in nature was to bring nature into the classroom via virtual and augmented reality. Whitman explained that AR and VR technology is starting to be utilised in some schools. Although this technology is costly and, as Whitman mentioned, a step removed from nature, studies have shown the positive impact made by AR and VR. Decades of research have also suggested participants treat virtual experiences as real experiences (Blascovich and Bailenson, 2011, as cited by Markowitz et al, 2018). There is some fascinating evidence of this, such as embodying someone of a minority race (a black avatar, for example) reduces levels of bias toward black individuals based on their skin colour (Peck et al, 2013, as cited by Markowitz et al 2018). However, along with cost, early work by Bricken (1991) (as cited by Markowitz et al 2018) suggests other challenges associated with VR. One is usability (the technology or experiences in VR can be unintuitive); second, fear (being placed in a fully immersive space can be daunting), especially for young children. The novelty of a virtual experience might also undermine VR's effectiveness as an educational tool, as most people do not currently own immersive VR hardware—or have limited experience with the technology (Markowitz et al, 2018).
Although it is reasonable to believe climate change and plastic pollution education lies within virtual and augmented reality: it can be argued that it won't be suitable for young children; yet. Researchers at the University of Cambridge analysed data from almost 1,700 children, collected when they were aged three and seven. Those with better peer play ability at age three consistently showed fewer signs of poor mental health four years later (Fig.10). They tended to have lower hyperactivity, parents and teachers reported fewer conduct and emotional problems, and they were less likely to get into fights or disagreements with other children. Although virtual and augmented reality can be used to facilitate play, this research suggests that play should be emphasised (regardless of technology) in allowing children to build the cognitive skill set necessary for their development, thus coping with the effects of climate change and plastic pollution. Furthermore, the recent pandemic meant that (globally) children were isolated from their friends during a formative period in their lives. In an article in The Independent, Dr Jenny Gibson (a researcher from the study) said: “Given that the pandemic restricted children’s ability to play with friends, there is reasonable cause for concern that many of them may have missed out on important opportunities to develop skills that will support mental health outcomes later.
“Because the link between peer play and mental health has only just been established, we don’t yet know how quickly children will recover from those lost opportunities now that they are socialising more again.
“It is clearly very important, however, that as part of the post-pandemic recovery we give young children especially time and space to play with others, rather than just focusing on academic skills alone.” This research has brought up a critical development to consider when moving forward with my design. There is more of a requirement to emphasize play now to avoid any long-term implications brought on by the pandemic. However, emphasis shouldn't solely be put on play: as academic skills have also suffered. Ｗith this in mind, the combination of academic learning and play would make for a smooth transition post-pandemic.