How can maths teachers engage with the climate emergency?

The maths classroom is often seen as a place of simple right and wrong answers and rote learning but it can and should be a place where children learn to think critically about complex real-life problems. What are we educating them for if it isn’t? The climate crisis provides an urgent, timely and ideal interdisciplinary context in which to set these problems.  Yet, sustainability and the climate emergency have turned out to be almost totally absent from staff professional development events, in-service day training, department meetings and general curricular delivery. Staff working groups are often not established or meet less often than monthly. Even in science course plans, climate change was only given the most cursory of mentions. Yet we are talking about an existential threat to humanity that should be top of every agenda.

During the first lockdown I met some like-minded (and equally concerned) individuals and we started to create events to give young people a chance to engage meaningfully with the issue. The first of these was a series of Scottish Parliament election hustings focussed on climate change which was eye-opening for candidates, who saw how well-informed and articulate young people could be.

Next, we decided to create a climate summit to take place around COP26, bringing together secondary school pupils from around Scotland and the Global South. This had several elements – sharing perspectives and stories; learning more about different countries and analysing data; and addressing real-life climate-related problems posed by the participants themselves. These activities gave young people a rare chance to take a leading role in their learning with scaffolding and facilitation from a teacher. This is how true Learning for Sustainability (LfS) must work if it is to be empowering and impactful for pupils.

1.5 MAX: Global Schools’ Summit finished with pupils making pledges for action in their schools and communities; this included rewriting school improvement plans to include LfS, tree planting, creating interdisciplinary units for the whole school to engage with, and creating locally-based climate board games. Plans received support from headteachers, MSPs and MPs in the Western Isles, and even HRH King Charles himself congratulated Boroughmuir High School (my school in Edinburgh) and Janakalyan Secondary School (Nepal) for their sterling work for the summit in late October 2021.

The pupils’ resolve and commitment to making a difference was nothing short of inspiring – and all that this involved was providing them with a dedicated window of time to plan, design and bring their ideas to life. A full showcase of the event is available at the PowerPoint link here: 1.5 MAX : 2021 : Survey Responses

“Through participating I realised just how compassionate and willing to make a change my young people are. They were all so motivated and had so many great ideas. I feel as a school we have not been offering enough opportunities for the pupils to be active in the fight against climate change so our pupil sustainability group will be starting up after the October holidays.”

– Rowan Cannell, Biology Teacher at Turriff Academy

We invite schools to join us for our next summit in 2023 (we are closed to new entrants for November 2022’s summit), but I recognise that not everyone has the time or inclination to take on a project as time-consuming as this.

Some useful starting points and resources for maths teachers wanting to bring climate and nature themes into their classrooms in a simple way may be found in the Resources pages.

Author: Tom Bird

Tom Bird is a Mathematics teacher at Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh. He takes a keen interest in interdisciplinarity and sustainability issues and is active in lobbying for action on climate change.

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