Climate in the classroom

26 Jun 2023

Sustainability topics are not yet sufficiently represented in formal education. Katrin Geneuss explains in an interview how this could be changed.

Dr. Katrin Geneuss works as a researcher and teacher trainer at LMU for the el mundo certificate program, which responds to calls from the spheres of science, politics, and society at large to enshrine sustainable development education in school syllabuses across all subjects. She is also responsible for the schools program and sustainable education in the CDRterra research project, which is investigating the potential of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. In October, CDRterra will host an education conference in Munich, bringing together experts from research, education and policy to develop a vision for sustainable education.

Climate topics in school

Today's students are the generation that will feel the immediate consequences of the climate crisis the most. They must be enabled and empowered to shape their own future.

© IMAGO/Pond5

Why incorporate climate and sustainability topics into school lessons in the first place?

Katrin Geneuss: Climate change is the great challenge of our time. Many conclusions flow from this premise which are not limited to the ecological sphere but also implicate society, business, and culture. We must address these problems – here and now and with an eye to the future. It follows, then, that this group of themes has to be covered in the classroom. Schools contain the full breadth of a society’s population of young people. So we reach everybody there, regardless of their bubble, their social class, or their origin. Furthermore, today’s students are the generation that will feel the direct consequences of the climate crisis most strongly. They must be enabled and empowered to shape their own future.


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What is the status quo? How is the topic currently being addressed in schools?

In a study from 2018, teachers were asked to what extent sustainable development and climate education came up in their teacher training. Eighty percent answered: not at all. When young teachers were asked about teaching methodologies, moreover, it was found that neither climate education nor education for sustainable development have been incorporated in core curricula.

The fact that climate topics are being covered in the classroom today is owing in no small part to the efforts of the pupils themselves. Schoolchildren are clearly very interested in the subject and are actively demanding that it be taught and discussed in schools.

Climate and sustainability are now enshrined in syllabuses as so-called cross-disciplinary topics (Querschnittsthemen) and are thus mandatory, but the question as to when, where, and in which subject they must be covered remains unanswered. Teachers still have to acquire the knowledge on their own initiative. Moreover, it’s often unclear where in the syllabus there is the scope to meaningfully address the topics. There’s a lack of materials, of time, of structures, and of lesson plan templates.

Which topics does this involve and which educational approaches are used?

As a learning and instruction concept, education for sustainable development proceeds on the assumption that the ecological component should be at the heart of climate education, but that the economic and social aspects are also essential. We need to always think of these three areas in conjunction. Indeed, this is where the idea comes from of enshrining education for sustainable development as a cross-disciplinary topic in the syllabus and weaving it into multiple school subjects. There is a lot of catching up to do here, however, particularly as regards the question of socioeconomic consequences.

When we think, for example, of a concrete carbon dioxide removal method – let’s say a biomass plantation with carbon storage – we must ask ourselves: What would the implementation of this measure mean socially and ethically? Our project CDRterra takes these important issues into schools such that they are covered in all subjects, from geography to physics and biology to German and art.

What is the CDRterra project about?

CDR stands for carbon dioxide removal – that is to say, methods for actively reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This encompasses a whole range of possible approaches, some of them the subject of intense debate – from reafforestation to technical solutions. Such proposals are always bound up with questions of feasibility, proportionality, costs, and effectiveness. Some CDR measures have unwanted side effects or could produce a misplaced sense of complacency in the population and among politicians and industrial leaders.

We’re taking the major topic of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere and using it as a model based on which we can subsequently develop a comprehensive concept for sustainable education at schools. In October, we’re organizing an education conference, where we will summarize and set out the goals and results. We want to provide a model for sustainable development education which others can emulate. In addition, we want to pinpoint where adjustments are needed in the educational system so that it becomes easier for teachers to introduce these topics to the classroom in a way that makes, structural, substantive, and methodological sense.


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What are the best methods for engaging students?

Expert knowledge is the foundation. But expert knowledge doesn’t always have to come in the form of lectures or pontificating, but can be arrived at collectively. In this respect, we need a paradigm shift toward greater participation. We must allow there to be more learning where students and teachers explore subjects as equals.

CDR measures are a great example. There are no right or wrong answers here, rather there are possibilities, drawbacks, challenges, perspectives. Things that have to weighed against each other. We want children and adolescents to grapple with such complex issues from an early age. To manage this effectively, we need to develop new forms of learning. Many existing approaches, such as management games and simulations, game-based learning, and digitally supported learning environments, would be excellent starting points for these new forms. And the same goes for all methods that help students acquire planning and implementation skills through participation, creativity, and social learning. This includes the ability to independently acquire and evaluate knowledge and then use it to take competent action or make sound decisions.

Dr. Katrin Geneuss

Katrin Geneuss is responsible for school programs and sustainable education at CDRterra | © Anton Sieber

Who is invited to the CDR education conference and how can people contribute?

We want to have the full range of the educational landscape at the conference. There will be university lecturers, who can provide best-practice examples of how they’ve integrated the topic of CDR, or how and why they place their focus on certain forms of teaching and learning. Other participants will come from the fields of teacher training and continuing teacher education as well as from the teaching profession itself of course – teachers, trainee teachers, and school principals. But also representatives from the domain of non-formal education, who connect what’s going on in schools with real life. Another important group is policymakers – for example, in government ministries – who are essential for implementing the new concepts that are developed. All these groups are meant to engage in dialog with each other at the conference and constructively map out a vision of what school could and should look like in the future. At the moment, we’re still putting together the program and are happy to receive further submissions. So anyone from the spheres of research, pedagogy in higher education, the teaching profession, or policymaking who would like to contribute are more than welcome to get in touch.

The CDRterra education conference on carbon dioxide removal is being held at the Deutsches Museum in Munich from 10 to 11 October 2023. Participation in the conference is free of charge. Proposals for workshops or lectures can be submitted until 1 July.

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