A new approach for teachers to engage in climate conversations in the classroom

A new approach for teachers to engage in climate conversations in the classroom

From global climate strikes to bushfires and political footballs, climate change in schools has become impossible to ignore. But what is an effective framework for teachers to use?

Monash outdoor education expert Jodi Evans outlines a teaching model she has adapted to tackle this issue.

When you work in outdoor education, it is impossible to ignore the increasingly visceral impacts of climate change. We paddle down a river and see the impact of prolonged drought. We hike, and find hundreds of dead birds. It’s the very definition of ‘teachable moments’.

But it’s not a one-off conversation. Psychologist Susie Burke, along with the Australian Psychological Society have coined a simple acronym A.C.T.I.V.A.T.E.

This now guides every formal classroom lesson or informal campfire chat I have with students (and sometimes friends and family) about climate change.

A – Acknowledge feelings

The global school climate strikes show many young people want action. Their desires may stem from an in-depth understanding of the cause, impact and trajectory of climate change or maybe they googled it for the first time when Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned it in his Oscars speech. Either way, knowledge of an impending doom elicits a strong emotional reaction that can include anger, horror, fear, denial and helplessness. A great way to start the conversation is to acknowledge these feelings. Empower students to own their emotions through mind mapping, role plays, personal journals or small group story sharing.

C – Create social norms

In year 11, my geography teacher said serving endangered orange roughy fish for dinner was as socially acceptable as serving cat. At the time, the analogy was terrifying. I also realised how easy it is to make something socially unacceptable within your circle of influence.

Give your students agency to create new social norms that build on existing norms around waste reduction and conscious consumption. In your classroom, show students just how many people in Australia are also worried about climate change (81%, for the record). To understand global trends, have your students collect and critically analyse statistics on renewable energy, jobs and economic growth.

T – Talk about it

Despite years of vested interests trying to turn climate change into a political football, at the end of the day it is just science. And you can unpack it from many perspectives: social justice, capitalism, colonisation, politics and equality. Make a judgement call which of these are most relevant to your learners.

By talking freely about the far-reaching impacts of climate change, students have a chance to raise their concerns or doubt and have them addressed in a factual and rational way. Ultimately, collective voices make a megaphone that also helps to create new social norms.

I – Inspire positive vision

This may be the easiest part of the ACTIVATE model for teachers because sustainability is a cross-curriculum priority and links to many different aspects of the curriculum.

Help students to understand and celebrate the positive benefits of renewable technology, low-carbon food miles, ethical fashion, revegetation and clean air projects. The possibilities in this space are as endless, with more ‘green’ ideas and technologies developed every minute.

V – Value it

At a recent climate change workshop, I was told every person shares the same core values, we simply place them in a different order based on life experience and circumstance.

Giving students in your classroom and opportunity to express their core values and perspectives is a fantastic way to get to know them on a deeper level. Respectfully tapping into these values helps people of any age understand that acting to avoid climate destabilisation is beneficial to everyone in the community.

A – Act

This is a difficult step to convey meaningfully because it can be difficult to find a realistic, age-appropriate action that is not tokenistic and does not trivialise the environmental behaviour that students already engage with.

Think about extending ideas.

Example: student picks up rubbish

You notice that a student picked up some rubbish off the ground.

Picking up rubbish is an important action and needs to be acknowledged. But it does not reduce your carbon footprint. You can use this action as an opportunity to extend and deepen a student’s thinking. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Congratulate student for doing something good for the local environment
  2. Suggest the act is coupled with a tree planting session
  3. Follow up with an article in a school newsletter to raise awareness, and grow group
  4. Consider aiming to engage local MP in carbon reduction strategies.

T – Time is now

In the first episode of Game of Thrones, Ned Stark predicted winter is coming. Yet most characters only acted when winter arrived, in season 8. Research suggests that humans aren’t very quick to act on long-term, slow burning problems. However, climate change is happening now. Have your students research the changes already underway from climate change. It helps them understand the threat is real, immediate, local and current. For example:

  • loss of life during extreme heatwaves
  • food scarcity during prolonged droughts
  • displacement of entire communities of people due to extreme weather events.

E – Engage with nature

Being an outdoor educator, this is my favourite directive. Get outside and play. Fall in love with the environment around you and understand it for intrinsic and extrinsic worth. Allow students to get their hands dirty planting trees in the school yard or their local park. Visit local beaches to monitor erosion and bird migration. Embrace the bushwalking camp that allows students to remove themselves from screens and connect with the environment. Allow them to enjoy the environment we are all so desperately trying to protect.

For more detail and examples about ACTIVATE visit Australian Psychological Society.. The Climate Change Empowerment Handbook is available to download.


Australian Psychological Society. (2017). The Climate Change Empowerment Handbook. Australian Psychological Society.

Kilvert, N. (2019, September 10) ABC News, Science. Climate change survey shows Australians want action on emissions, but are divided on nuclear.

Marshall, G. (2015). Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury USA.