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‘Creating with Uncertainty’: experimenting with creative methods for climate education
Posted on behalf of: Dr Perpetua Kirby
Last updated: Friday, 29 July 2022
Sustainability ‘facts’ are an important part of any school curriculum, but are they enough? According to a recent BBC news article, experts and students themselves have highlighted the urgent need to restructure the curriculum as ‘current teaching is leaving children unprepared to live in a warming world’. A new project led by University of Sussex researchers is exploring how a creative focus on what is ‘not known’ might also support students to engage deeply with sustainability issues.
Covid recovery to educate for sustainable futures
Since its launch in March 2022, the project, ‘Creating with Uncertainty: Covid recovery to educate for sustainable futures’, has engaged students and teachers from nine schools and colleges in sustainability workshops. Participants reflected on their pandemic experiences and engaged in creative experiments with the uncertainty of sustainability: one that is necessary to meet the challenge of working towards net zero, i.e. achieving the balance between carbon emitted through human activity into the atmosphere, and carbon removed from it.
Students and teachers from diverse catchments in Brighton & Hove and Lewes – both areas committed to becoming net zero in the near future – are supported and inspired to engage deeply with sustainability issues, to relate the facts to their own experiences and to identify the place of their school/community/themselves in achieving net zero.
Embracing uncertainty and imagining alternative futures
The workshops were held on the University of Sussex campus, as well as in local sites within the South Downs and Sussex Coast UNESCO World Biosphere Region, on Brighton beach and in Stanmer Park. Over 20 academics and university students from different disciplines, plus partner organisations helped to facilitate workshops, including Paul Wiggins from the Brighton Permaculture Trust and New Scientist journalist, Adam Vaughan. Rampion Wind Farm and the Living Coast also supported the project.
In particular, the workshops aim to foster experimental net-zero activities in which uncertainty is foregrounded, to resist routinized expectations and to imagine alternative possibilities. The activities included storytelling alternative futures; crafting how kelp, dolphins, fisher people and environmental scientists might feel; playing a pollination game; creating the movements of waves and turbines; and listening using their whole bodies as well as specialist sound equipment to the lively world underground, the world of a pond, and the world inside a tree.
The experts shared their knowledge but also emphasised what they do not know in relation to their area of expertise and to the magnitude and timing of climate change impacts. The intention has been to inspire and support students from diverse backgrounds to engage deeply with sustainability issues, in ways that enhance their intellectual, emotional and community resilience.
Co-constructing inclusive and locally relevant sustainability curricula
While the young people – from primary, secondary and special schools – learned many important facts, the workshops also provided an opportunity for students to explore their thoughts, feelings and experiences about the issues being discussed. They examined different perspectives and difficult tensions where there are no clear ‘right’ answers.
Dr Perpetua Kirby, the project’s principal investigator, explained the emphasis on using creative methods: ‘We’re exploring how such methods might be an inclusive way to engage all students in complex sustainability issues. Do they support students to look at the world differently? Do they support students to connect the issues to their lives?’
A guiding question for workshop participants has been: what does this sustainability issue mean for me, my school, and my community? This invites them to consider what they might do – individually and collectively – in response to what has been learned and experienced during the workshops. This creative approach enables schools to co-construct locally relevant and deeply engaging sustainability curricula that also acknowledge the existential and uncertain dimensions of global crises and events. Sharing knowledge and experiences (local, scientific, etc.) allows students and teachers to recognise gaps and identify what more young people might need to know/do/hear, so as not to be put-off by complexity, anxiety or futility.
A local primary school teacher, Mhari Smith, said: ‘We are very lucky to have been part of something so needed to rethink our systems and tackle the issues of our future. I’m already planning a staff meeting and will have our children leading the activities.’
Teachers were informed of broader research and theories emphasising uncertainty, and invited to discuss why, educationally, it might matter in their teaching. A final workshop is planned for early in the new academic year 2022/2023, where the participating teachers and students will reflect further on the project outcomes, both for themselves and their schools, and begin planning subsequent action. Several of the participating teachers have taken up an offer to do a University of Sussex masters module on ‘Exploring Professionalism’, where they will be able to do their own follow up research. A resource pack for non-specialist teachers to use in the classroom is also being produced, including lesson plans and videos based on the workshop activities, with guidance on how these connect to the national curriculum.
The project ‘Creating with Uncertainty: Covid recovery to educate for sustainable futures’ is part of the university’s ‘From Covid Crisis to Net Zero’ programme, jointly funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) and the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP).
The research team brought together academics from the School of Education and Social Work (Dr Perpetua Kirby, Dr John Parry, Dr Rebecca Webb and Prof Simon Thompson) and the School of Media, Arts and Humanities (Dr Michael Jonik). Many other colleagues were involved in delivering workshops, including Prof Joseph Alcamo, Prof Peter Newell, Amarun Kitu (School of Global Studies); Dr Will Abberley, Chris Bates, Dr Augusto Corrieri, Dr Alice Eldridge, Dr Vinita Damodaran, Dr Will Greensides, Dr Joseph Walton, Dr Lisa Peck (School of Media, Arts and Humanities); Dr Beth Nicholls, Dr Rachel Mercer, Dr Mika Peck, Tara Ridley (School of Life Sciences); and Elsa Dahlberg, Lucy Edwards, Karen Hall, Francesca Knight and Odi Oquosa (School of Education and Social Work).