BONN, Germany — Last week, as world leaders were holed up in a United Nations conference center negotiating how to implement the Paris climate accord, German high school students sat in a theater a few hundred yards away, thinking up advice for them.
“Politicians should do something quickly,” said one student.
“Maybe they should add a little to our taxes and put it to the benefit of the environment,” said another.
“Stop talking about it,” said a third. “Just do it.”
The students were on a fieldtrip to “Climate Planet,” a traveling exhibition inside a giant, walk-in replica of Earth, which had taken residence next to this year’s U.N. climate summit. They had just watched an educational film outlining the perils of global warming, and a moderator was now leading a discussion of what should be done to address them.
It was hardly the first time the students had been introduced to the idea. Over the last 15 years, teaching climate change has become a central aim of the German education system. The tutelage frequently begins early in primary school and crosses a range of disciplines like chemistry and politics. And German schools don’t simply teach the scientific concepts underpinning climate change, but urge students to think deeply about their responsibility to fix it.
This approach stands in stark contrast to the reality in many American schools. A survey of 1,500 science teachers across the United States, published last year in the journal Science, found that 31 percent of teachers told their students climate change’s causes are still being debated, 10 percent said that humans are not to blame, and 5 percent chose not to mention climate change to their students at all.
In recent years, a slew of proposed U.S. state laws have taken aim at how climate change is taught to public school children. In Idaho, references to climate change were removed from state science standards. In New Mexico and West Virginia, officials have sought to limit their state standards’ mention of climate change or how human activity has contributed to it. And earlier this year, the Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank that rejects the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming, sent out packets of classroom materials promoting their view to hundreds of thousands of science teachers across the country.
Unlike the U.S., there is no real debate inside Germany about whether climate change happens, and whether it is manmade, said Ingo Eilks, a professor of science education at the University of Bremen in Northern Germany. That broad political agreement, he said, “permeates the whole society, down to the schools.”
“It’s hardly possible to avoid being confronted with someone trying to tell you about climate change in Germany,” Eilks said. “Teachers report that some students even get a bit tired of it – they say, ‘Again, again, again, climate change!’ They hear about it in geography, chemistry, physics, biology, politics. But it’s an important thing to teach, and I think it’s found its place in German education.”
Petra Lewalder, who teaches geography to several different grades at the public school Clara Schumann Gymnasium in Bonn, brought two of her ninth-grade classes to visit the Climate Planet. She said they were all very familiar with the concepts presented there.
“In kindergarten, they get an awareness of how a tree or a forest is valuable, and then the next years they go about learning the context, how everything is interlinked,” she said. “We talk about climate change in fifth grade, then pick it up in another context in seventh, ninth and eleventh grades, so they have a spiraling knowledge that continuously builds.”
There is no universal public school curriculum in Germany: As in the U.S., the national government has a relatively light hand in shaping curriculum, leaving decisions about what to include in science standards to state government. But in 2007, the federal government sent guidelines for teaching environmental concepts to every state education ministry, saying that schools must “play a very central role” in helping Germany reach a sustainable future.
This mandate is taken very seriously by the education ministry of North Rhein-Westphalia, the state where Bonn is located, said ministry spokesman Filiz Soytürk. Environmental concepts can be integrated “in all education plans and curricula,” he said in an email, with the word “all” bolded and underlined.
State schools not only teach the science of climate change, but also – “and I find this aspect especially important,” Soytürk said – teach students “to act in a responsible way.”
Teaching climate change within a moral framework is an extension of “bildung,” the educational philosophy that has underpinned German education for more than 200 years, and involves the simultaneous cultivation of knowledge and political consciousness. The word has no precise English translation, but is so central to education here that the name of the state education department in North Rhein-Westphalia is titled the Ministry of Schools and Bildung.
“We ask students to find their own point of view, and understand their own position within society,” said Eilks. “Let them know the problems but not give them fixed answers.”
After German schools began incorporating lessons about climate change into their curricula in the early 2000s, Corinna Hoessle, professor of biology education at Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, conducted a three-year study on how biology teachers were conveying the concepts of climate change. Teachers reported that they easily incorporated the scientific facts into their lesson plans, but found it more difficult to “improve the learner’s moral judgment.”
“Students might say, ‘No, we don’t care, we want to fly to Mallorca three times a year for our holiday, and we only live once, it’s me, myself and I,’” Hoessle recalled. “Teachers said they needed more materials to respond with.”
So Hoessle, Eilks and other academics have been working to develop a body of lesson plans that evoke a learner’s ethical judgment and critical thinking as they learn the basics of the sciences. Hoessle and Eilks compiled much of this work in a book titled “Acting in Times of Climate Change: Learning to Evaluate as an Educational Task.”
For instance, one lesson plan developed by Eilks for high school students is designed to accompany lessons and experiments on the chemistry of organic compounds. In it, the class is asked to form a committee weighing a fictitious mandate requiring the use of bio-ethanol fuel–controversial because it can spike the price of corn in developing nations. Students play the roles of expert stakeholders, representing industry, agriculture, technology, and environmentalism, and prepare for a hearing in which they defend their position. Ultimately the committee has to make a “binding decision” about whether to approve the mandate.
About 87 percent of students said they’d learned something from the lesson, and about 75 percent said it had changed their view of biofuels, according to a study evaluating the approach.
The Climate Planet in Bonn managed to provoke a moral response for 14-year-old Amina, who is in Lewalder’s class. Before the field trip, she could fluidly explain how the Greenland ice sheet is melting into the ocean, raising sea levels and endangering people who live on the world’s coasts. But it didn’t weigh on her.
“I don’t think a lot about it,” she shrugged. “I don’t think I’m responsible for it.”
But two hours later, as she emerged from watching the film and discussing what people and politicians should do about it, she’d had a change of heart.
“I didn’t know that so much animals will die in the future, and now my feelings changed a little bit because of the animals,” she said, referring to a moment in the film that depicted polar bears stranded on icebergs.
She was still unsure what to do about it, though.
Lewalder said her classes will spend time discussing this exact subject in the coming weeks.
“The kids ask me, but how can I save the world? I say, you can’t, but you can put in your share, and if a lot of people do that, you’ll be part of a big movement. So if it’s part of what you feel, you have to act,” she said.
This story was produced as part of a collaboration between FRONTLINE and The GroundTruth Project.