Teaching the Future to Drive Change Today

A study published in Nature Climate Change last week asks whether teaching middle-school children can be done in a way that promotes engagement (and drives the views) of their parents:

“Because climate change perceptions in children seem less susceptible to the influence of worldview or political context, it may be possible for them to inspire adults towards higher levels of climate concern, and in turn, collective action. Child-to-parent intergenerational learning—that is, the transfer of knowledge, attitudes or behaviours from children to parents—may be a promising pathway to overcoming socio-ideological barriers to climate concern.”

The study was performed on families with middle-school students in North Carolina, and involved four lessons and a project, as summarised here:

“The first lesson taught the difference between weather and climate. The next was on how the environment relates to animals and where they live. The third looked at how people who work with wildlife can help the animals adapt to climate change, if they can do so. The fourth lesson focused on how an individual can directly affect the environment.[…] The students also did a climate change-focused service learning project, created a blog post about what they were learning and interviewed their parents about the topic.”

The results presented in the abstract suggest the strategy is effective at influencing:

“Parents of children in the treatment group expressed higher levels of climate change concern than parents in the control group. The effects were strongest among male parents and conservative parents, who, consistent with previous research, displayed the lowest levels of climate concern before the intervention. Daughters appeared to be especially effective in influencing parents. Our results suggest that intergenerational learning may overcome barriers to building climate concern.”

It should also be pointed out that promoting parental engagement is, in the modern era, a worthwhile outcome in and of itself.

But I think it is also reasonable and important to acknowledge that promoting some of these strategies is not without risk. We have learned that there’s no shortage of people, with all sorts of agendas, trying to hack social systems and institutions to exert influence today.

While better tools for broader education are desirable (and badly needed), too often these have also been to obfuscate and indoctrinate. So critical thinking skills, a credible evidence basis and opportunities for robust two-way discussions (i.e. embracing [real] debate, and bringing counterpoints back to the classroom) are all going to be keys to doing this in a responsible way.