In today’s blog, Richard Dawson and Ben Ballin explore the work they are doing on climate change education within primary schools in the Change the Story project.

Over the next three years, a group of six European education organisations will be exploring effective climate change education within upper primary schools as part of a project called Change the Story.  Through the project, learners will explore evidence of how humans have affected the climate, how some people are acting now to address it, and will produce their own stories about how they would like climate change to be tackled from now into the future.  This think piece is to start a conversation and explore what good practice might look like, within and beyond the lifetime of the project.

Key to our approach is narrative storytelling.  Stories are an effective way to understand and make sense of the world around us; indeed, they are the primary way people make sense of their lives. But are the stories young people hear about climate change empowering? Do they have better stories? Can they change the story?

Below are some initial thoughts regarding the thinking and principles which will underly Change the Story and characterise its overall approach to learning and change.  We offer these to stimulate debate and discussion, because clearly the current educational responses to climate change are not enough.  We have organised them around six key questions:

  • Hope or fear?
  • How to deal with denial?
  • Do appeals to self-interest work?
  • Do current climate change education programmes do enough?
  • How can we try out new futures?
  • Is it really about climate change alone?

Hope or fear?

It is important that learners understand the causes and impacts of climate change (what’s happening?).  They also need to understand the implications (why does it matter?).  And we need to support learners to turn concern into action, to create agency for change (how do we move forward?).*

Fear as a response to climate change can be disempowering.  Action can, and should, lead to hope.  Action can be personal, school-wide and/or community-based; and it can also be a call to action from decision-makers, businesses and the wider community.  Ultimately, the stories learners create will create positive feedback loops.  Taking action leads to increased hope, which in turn generates a greater commitment to more action.  A positive cycle begins.

*these helpful questions are sourced from Tide – Climate Change, Local and Global.

How to deal with denial?

We might need to address scepticism about climate change.  In doing so, we need to clearly identify what the scepticism relates to and how it influences opinion about climate change.  We also need to be careful to distinguish between what is due to climate change and what is not, and how climate change can be an underlying factor which conditions other events such as increased forest fires and flooding.

Science is always based on the best available evidence.  We can use stories of the past and present to test this out.  Evidence must also be applied to the stories of the future; are they sufficient to address the scale of change required?

Do appeals to self-interest work?

Climate change reaches beyond the individual; appeals to self-interest alone are not working.  We need to extend the boundary of care.  One response to this is based on the moral imperative to act, often activated through guilt.  Unless we share a common set of morals (which we don’t), action is limited.  To act out of a moral imperative for issues which are far bigger than self requires a strong feeling of connection with others beyond our normal circles of influence and identifying meaning with them.

The youth climate strikes have made a strong appeal for action based on the grounds of intergenerational equity: going beyond guilt and moral good to a more fundamental appeal to justice and the right to life.  This has proved a powerful motivating force for young people.

Enacting and strengthening values of commonality (universalism) will play a significant role in moving and connecting beyond self.  The requisite care for our natural world and addressing climate change flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened, so that conserving nature and addressing climate change is felt and conceived as a protection of our very selves.

This could be summarised as a move from an ego-system view of the world to an eco-system view of the world: one where we experience ourselves as an intimate part of a deeply connected whole; as part of a world we co-create rather than merely participate in.

Do current climate change education programmes do enough?

Current educational responses to climate change are not working; either they are not pervasive enough for all learners to benefit or they are not addressing the issue.  William Scott and Paul Vare suggest an approach for learning which integrates learning for change and learning as change; an attempt to steer education towards addressing known challenges (doing good things) and critically reflecting on the knowledge of what is good today might not be good tomorrow.

This can be thought of as:

First order learning Second order learning Third order learning
We know what the issues are, we know how to address them; the role of education is to inform society what it needs to do.


An example is recycling as a solution to the issue of waste. The goals and paradigm of society remain unchanged i.e. consumption and a market economy are good.

We know what the issues are; addressing the issues requires radical change in how we approach solutions and the role of education becomes developing competences to explore and implement new solutions.


An example is the circular economy which views ‘waste’ as ‘food’ for new processes. The goals and paradigm of society remain unchanged.

In this level, the goals and paradigms of society itself are questioned; new forms or organising and being emerge; solutions become contextualised in a whole new way.


The role of learning seen as constant experimentation, feedback, revision and iteration as learners tackle complex and inter-related issues.

The three orders of learning are not hierarchical: there is movement between them.  When we are clear on what needs to be done first order learning is sufficient.  But when faced with wicked problems such as climate change, we need to ask if first and second order learning are enough? As we address issues such as climate change through third order learning, the results become normalised as first/second order learning.

Another way to explore this is through the iceberg model.  Rather than looking at the surface symptoms of an event (like climate change), it asks deeper below the surface questions: what trends and patterns have there been? What influences these? What assumptions or beliefs and values to people have about the system? This final question is critical, if we belief there is serious systemic failure leading the climate breakdown, then we must address the worldview which created them.

How can we try out new futures?

To move beyond ‘traditional’ framing of climate change, learners will need the freedom to prototype alternative narratives.  Enabling this creative freedom will require ‘suspension’ of the mental models underlying current behaviour.  Stories of how others are rethinking responses to climate change will be vital in opening up the field of vision of learners towards new solutions.

Is it really about climate change alone?

It’s about change: a normal process that happens, whether we like it or not.  We live in a continuous process of history, which both defines the conditions in which we live and is made by us.  Climate change is another (albeit significant) one of those changes.  What matters is how well we learn to dance with / engage with change and the direction we want to move it in, so that change can be a positive motivational force rather than a source of fear.  So yes, it is about climate change … and much more than that, it is about the wider benefits that addressing climate change can bring about for us all.


Richard Dawson is Director of Wild Awake and Ben Ballin is a project worker on Change the Story and an NAEE Fellow.  They can be contacted at: and


  1. No repeatable experiment exists demonstrating man made co2 drives climate as per fallacy indeed the only long term study shows co2 is a result not a cause of warming

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