It is hard to think of an event that has taken place in Scotland during my lifetime that has more significance than COP26. It should be an historic moment, but that will depend on what is achieved as a result of it. That outcome might be uncertain, but what is not in doubt is how much it means to school aged pupils. If we underestimate how significant sustainability is to young people then we do so at our peril.
This raises an interesting question. Why does the climate crisis mean so much to them? We have known about the need for education on sustainability for a long time. The first time the UN held a conference on this theme was in Tbilisi in 1977. The UN even marked 2005 to 2014 as the Decade for Education on Sustainable Development (DESD). Yet it wasn’t until 2018 when a young Swedish school pupil decided to launch her own individual protest outside the Riksdag that the issue really found the voice that it needed. We know why the cause is important, but why did it take until 2018 for the dam to burst?
I am certain that if I knew as a teenager what I know now about sustainability, I would have lived my life differently. I wish I had the clarity of thought that Greta Thunberg and her peers possess when I was their age. As she pointedly said: "Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?"
As a teacher, this provocation is unsettling. It is one thing to say that leaders of governments and industry have got it wrong, but are teachers just as complicit? And if so, what do we need to do now in order to change that narrative?
This is where COP26 comes in. It could, and should, be a turning point for the world, for Scotland, and for Robert Gordon’s College. This is a time when the term ‘climate anxiety’ is gaining currency; according to a recent study led by the University of Bath, 56% of young people surveyed believe that humanity is ‘doomed’. Such language is unhelpful because the two things that COP26 is trying to do is to change attitudes and behaviour. To do that, we need to help foster the agency of our pupils.
We are far, far past the point of raising awareness. What we need is to empower young people by helping them to see that what they do can, and will, make a difference. If what we do in classrooms leads to positive changes in their everyday decisions and actions, then we are doing what we ought to be doing as teachers.
This will have a powerful effect on all ages and that is what we need to create the mindset that will make the difference in the battle to build a sustainable future. After all, how many of us have already been inspired to do something differently as a consequence of a conversation with a child about the environment?
I know that our pupils are incredibly energised by this challenge and that COP has really caught their imagination. If there are grounds for optimism, it is due to the activism and leadership that our pupils are showing.