Tag Archives: education

How Not to Teach Climate Change

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Last week I substitute-taught a Year 5 class that was learning about climate change. One of our pre-planned activities was to continue making posters about “good gases and bad gases”. I immediately noted that every student had slapped carbon dioxide (CO2) in the “bad gas” column.

I quizzed the class, and discovered that they had been taught the following line of thinking.

  1. Carbon dioxide is a harmful and poisonous gas.
  2. Nearly all daily human activity – turning on lights, jumping in a car, using an electrical device etc. – creates carbon dioxide.

They had no idea of the following:

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a natural constituent of the atmosphere… 
Carbon dioxide is by far the most important (organic compound) for the sustainability of the biosphere (the whole of life on Earth).
 
Without CO2 the life of photosynthetic organisms and animals would be impossible, given that CO2 provides the basis for the synthesis of organic compounds that provide nutrients for plants and animals.

Just think about that for a second.

Imagine you’re a naive child, and your teacher tells you that your every daily action creates poisonous gases that destroy the planet.

I was shocked, and quickly set the record straight by informing them that CO2 is actually essential for life on earth; it feeds plants, and it is a crucial ingredient in their, and in every other living creature’s, bodies. I added that scientists think it may be warming up our planet, but they’re still not 100% sure.* These facts came much to their surprise and relief. Clearly, some of these kids were among the increasing amount who suffer from eco-anxiety – a debilitating and potentially life-destroying form of neurosis.

I’ve since been investigating this issue further, and recently discovered a sickening truth. Some of those trumpeting the dangers of climate change, from the UN down, have been intentionally terrifying children in order to consolidate their message. This is abusive and irresponsible on a monumental scale. Furthermore, many other well-meaning educators (including the teacher of the above-mentioned class, who’s a lovely person) and parents have unintentionally compounded the children’s mental distress, not realising the effect that fear-mongering can have on an immature mind.

Eco-anxiety (aka climate anxiety) is a major concern because it is not something that simply disappears when a child is “old enough to know better”. As is well-understood, childhood anxiety often persists throughout life, affecting achievement in the academic and social domains. Do we really want to “educate” our children into nervous wrecks?

It seems important that climate change is taught in schools, but surely it must be taught in context. To teach it to primary school children, who are still incapable of grasping the underlying science, is pedagogically ignorant and therefore negligent. At the very least, climate change should be taught as a secondary science unit, after students have learnt basic biology, chemistry and physics. Only then do they have a chance of accurately assessing the issue, and only then can they receive a safe, healthy psychological upbringing.

*Clarification: The full extent of my short introduction to climate temperature was to mention that CO2 keeps the earth warm and always has, that scientists think our extra CO2 is ever-so-slightly warming the earth, and that it is not understood what impact this could have on the planet or on mankind.

Five Leadership Lessons from Furahini Godlike

Every school has its leaders, though they have different styles and strengths. But on a recent trip to Tanzania, I met an eighteen-year-old boy who set a new standard in school leadership. His name is Furahini Godlike.

Furahini and I

Tanzania’s capital city, Dar es Salaam, has seen rapid urbanisation in recent years. Infrastructure cannot keep up with the rising population. Arguably the biggest victims are the city’s students. One municipality provided the following figures, which outline the challenges the government faces. All figures relate to primary schools:

  • 22% more classrooms required
  • 63% more school latrines required
  • 80% more school libraries required
  • 95.4% more teacher homes required

The numbers for secondary schools are similar. Throughout the city, schools are overcrowded, understaffed and under-resourced. And the gap between supply and demand is swelling.

Amidst these conditions, Furahini recently graduated from high school and earned an invitation to attend a college in Arusha. Unfortunately, although his college classes have already begun, he cannot yet afford to pay his enrolment fee. Rather than add to his parents’ burden by asking them for assistance – they have already been significantly burdened by his brother’s recent four-year battle with malaria – he is trying to earn the money through his own t-shirt startup. At the same time, he juggles three community-based side-projects:

  • a campaign to improve student health by redeveloping the canteen of his old school;
  • an English Club that he founded in 2010 and continues to run at the school; and
  • an Environmental Conservation and Health project that promotes care of the local environment, again aimed at reducing health problems within the community.

Clearly, Furahini is not your typical kid; he is a resourceful, natural leader with an entrepreneurial streak. I was fortunate enough to spend some time chatting with him just before boarding my plane back home, and from this conversation I gleaned five key lessons about leadership.

Lesson 1. True leaders do what is right, no matter what everyone else is doing.

When Furahini was a student, even teachers wagged their classes. On average, he estimates that teachers attended around two out of their eight lessons per day, sheltering in the staff room the rest of the time.

The concrete “classrooms” more closely resembled crowded prison cells, albeit with open doors. Within these rooms, up to eighty students sought refuge from their daily lives, entertaining themselves in ways that any unattended teens would.

Furahini and a few of his fellow students fought the status quo by actually trying to learn. Furahini recalls finding “any textbook he could”, sitting under a tree and teaching himself and anyone else who was interested. Often these “rebels” would be laughed at and ridiculed by the other students, but Furahini and his comrades kept their spirits up with positive self-talk.

“I’d tell myself ‘It’s OK, it’s OK just keep going.'” he says. “Now I look at what’s happening – I am able to help others learn English. I am so happy. I feel like I have already reached a new level so it was worth it.”

Lesson 2: True leaders value their community.

Even though he graduated from high school last year, Furahini regularly returns to his old school to continue to develop his aforementioned projects. He has a strong sense of responsibility to those he left behind, and is determined to use his experience and position to help others broaden their opportunities.

By returning to their own communities and developing more leaders, true leaders demonstrate an innate understanding of the principle of positive feedback. True leaders want to give back to the community that has helped them become what they are.

Lesson 3: True leaders do what must be done, whether it is their job or not.

I visited Furahini’s old school as part of a group of teachers and architects. We were travelling together as part of a CEFPI (Council of Educational Facility Planners International) project. Leading up to our trip, Furahini caught wind of our visit from one of our group members, who had met him when he was Head Boy in a previous visit to the school. Furahini immediately took it upon himself to personally coordinate our visit.

It was Furahini, not a staff member, who ensured that significant preparations took place in order for us to feel welcome. It was he who greeted us upon arrival, and subsequently led us from classroom to classroom to view the school. It was he who took the English and ATYA clubs aside and practiced welcome songs so that we would feel welcome in their school, and it was he who facilitated our meeting with these bright-eyed future leaders.

All this from a boy who had graduated from the school and was not obliged to have anything to do with it!

Lesson 4: True leaders think, speak and act with humility.

After listening to Furahini’s story, I was moved to suggest that I could help him raise some funds to get him into college before the enrolment deadline. To my surprise, the young man became slightly uncomfortable, and baulked at my offer.

In his words: “To be honest, I would feel a bit funny about taking money from people. I don’t want people to help me, because I know I can help myself. I want them to help those who really need it.”

This is the attitude of a true leader. A true leader is acutely aware of those who are less fortunate than himself, and understands the importance of their own self-sufficiency (see Lesson 5). A strong connection with less fortunate people helps keep leaders grounded on a personal level, whilst also keeping them connected to the challenges that their communities face.

Side note: When I consider such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, it seems to me that an awareness of the less fortunate may be a prerequisite not just for humility, but also for a highly developed sense of responsibility.

Lesson 5. True leaders know how to take care of themselves.

It may come as some surprise to find that, despite his obvious philanthropic bent, Furahini is fully aware of the pitfalls of martyrdom.

“First I have to look after myself,” he told me. “If I am trying to save someone who is drowning but I don’t care for my own safety, two people die. I have to take care of myself by saving my money and caring for my health and my family, or I won’t be able to help anybody.”

Update (3/8/13): I have set up a pozible project through which anyone can donate a few dollars to help Furahini get to college. Go to http://pozible.com/furahini for more information.

If you would like to know more about Furahini’s projects, please leave a brief message using the form below.