Spotlight on climate literacy: What role does school and extracurricular education play for climate-friendly behavior?

September 3rd, 2021

Introducing the project network “CLiF@IPN”

Hanno Michel, Carola Garrecht, Kathryn Leve und Ute Harms

Anthropogenic climate change is and remains one of the greatest challenges facing our global society. While new solutions are constantly being developed and discussed, when it comes to implementing them - i.e. actually taking climate-friendly action - we are increasingly coming up against the limits of what is socially supported and shared. At the individual level, our actions are often driven by desires for personal freedom, convenience or lower costs rather than climate protection, for example when traveling by air, choosing an electricity provider or buying a car.

Jointly set goals - whether in international agreements or in the local context as goals of a city or municipality - often seem to conflict with each other. This leads to uncertainties; there is often no clear-cut solution. Rather, we have to negotiate compromises (for our individual as well as for collective action), which in turn require a willingness to engage in dialogue and strategies for raising awareness of one's own and others' interests as well as their evaluation. Empowering people to deal with such uncertainties and providing them with knowledge and strategies for finding solutions are central goals of climate literacy that aims to impart not only knowledge but also skills and encourage people to critically examine their own attitudes. The extent to which climate literacy ultimately affects climate-friendly behavior, however, or whether this is determined primarily by value orientations, the personal environment or other factors that cannot be influenced by education or can only be influenced with difficulty, has so far only been partially clarified.

Within the project network CLiF - Climate Literacy in Focus, which currently comprises four individual projects at the IPN, we want to investigate the role of school and extracurricular education for climate-friendly action in detail and from multiple perspectives and strengthen it on the basis of our results. Our work is based on a heuristic model that combines elements of different established models of action from educational science and psychology (Integrated Action Model according to Martens and Rost; Expectancy-Value Model according to Eccles and Wigfield; Utilization of learning opportunities model according to Helmke). This model hypothetically explains how learning opportunities, among a variety of other factors, affect climate literacy, corresponding intentions to act, and ultimately climate-friendly actions and participation in societal decision-making processes. For example, research from environmental psychology, sociology, and education science shows that knowledge about the climate system and the factors that lead to its change (climate knowledge in the model), as well as, for example, the ability to analyze data or to research and evaluate information (skills), help people to engage in informed discussions and to make decisions. An understanding of the consequences of climate change, in particular the risks and dangers also for one's own environment (risk perception), has an influence on whether someone acts in a climate-friendly way. But attitudes and value orientations (attitudes in the model), which in turn depend on age and level of education, family and cultural background, can also determine to what extend someone takes climate-friendly action.

The CLiF project network aims to review and develop this model step by step and to derive criteria for the design of lessons and other educational and participatory formats.

Preliminary work: How do you measure climate literacy?

CLiF builds on existing collaborations from the ReNEW - Research Network on Energy Transition project conducted within the Leibniz Energy Transition Research Network and builds on work from the IPN EnergyBio project. The EnergyBio project investigated the role that understanding the concept of energy plays in understanding the causes and effects of climate change. In an effort to consider not only knowledge but also skills of students as part of climate literacy, specific items were developed that each link an aspect of climate knowledge to a skill that is significant in the context of climate change (e.g., data analysis, source evaluation, reasoning skills) and are now being used in the CLiF projects. For example, one such item looks like this:

BriCCS: What role does risk perception play in learning processes?

In the BriCCS (Bringing Climate Change to Schools) project, we are working closely with scientists at Karlstad University in Sweden. The aim is to identify how educational programs can be designed in the sense of climate literacy in such a way that, in addition to knowledge and skills, they also convey an awareness of the risks of climate change and thus strengthen the motivation to act in a climate-friendly manner. The first sub-goal is to investigate the interplay of the various aspects of climate literacy (knowledge, skills, and motivational factors). We then investigate which aspects of climate literacy characterize in particular those people who already live in a climate-friendly manner and actively advocate a corresponding lifestyle (e.g. in the Fridays for Future movement). In both sub-studies, we also survey teachers to capture the importance and use of the topic in different subjects. Science education in schools lays the foundation for a lifelong development of knowledge and skills needed to address climate change and its impacts. So far, there is a lack of empirically validated results showing which features of learning opportunities in science education are relevant for supporting climate literacy. Based on the results of the first two sub-studies, the BriCCS project will investigate the effectiveness of appropriately developed learning opportunities in intervention studies.

SaerbeckPLUS: What do I need to know in order to participate in the energy transition?

In cooperation with the association of the climate community Saerbeck in Münsterland (Förderverein der Klimakommune Saerbeck), we are investigating the role of climate literacy for the participation in local energy transition measures and for municipal knowledge transfer in the SaerbeckPLUS project. In a citizen science project, citizens in Saerbeck can use mobile environmental measuring stations to identify local problem areas and challenges for a successful transformation, and then work together to develop proposals for solutions. In order to provide the necessary know-how, knowledge and skills are imparted in expert workshops that can help in dealing with the self-selected topics. Questionnaire surveys before and after the project, as well as interviews with stakeholders in the climate community, will be used to investigate the role that climate literacy and the corresponding transfer of knowledge play in successful involvement in municipal climate protection measures even beyond the time spent at school. The experiences of the citizen science project, the accompanying studies and the many energy transition measures already successfully implemented in Saerbeck will ultimately be used to create a criteria-based action guideline. The aim is to enable other municipalities to follow Saerbeck's path toward becoming a climate community and to provide them with a roadmap.

EnergieweltenPLUS: What constitutes good climate change instruction and how can it be learned?

If climate literacy is one of the foundations for climate-friendly action and participation in social decision-making processes, it should also be given appropriate consideration in the classroom. A particular challenge here is that climate change and its causes and consequences cannot be assigned to a single subject, but are strongly interdisciplinary. This calls for an examination of the topic across subject boundaries, which is not always straightforward. Which aspects should be dealt with in which subjects? In which grades are the basics of the topic accessible to the students and what everyday ideas do they have? Which instructional strategies and methods are particularly suitable? We address these questions in the EnergieweltenPLUS project in an iterative interrogation of experts (Delphi study). Modules for teacher training will be developed on the basis of the results, which we will implement and evaluate in cooperation with the Center for Practical Teacher Training in Muenster (Zentrum für schulpraktische Lehrerausbildung Münster). At the same time, the existing modules offered at the Saerbecker Energiewelten extracurricular learning site will be further developed and evaluated. The objective here is to establish the basis for a transfer of knowledge to other locations.

Klub: How can assessment skills be taught in the context of climate change?

Socioscientific decision-making, i.e. the ability to weigh different arguments on an issue, to access additional information in case of doubt and finally to make an informed decision, is crucial for climate literacy. From the project Tube, we already have results and experiences on addressing socioscientific decision-making in the context of a publicly controversial topic, which are now to be transferred to the context of climate change. In particular with regard to searching information in the context of climate change, students are often confronted with munch and sometimes contradictory information. Therefore, the project Klub investigates how dealing with uncertainties influences students’ socioscientific decision-making. For practical use in schools, this project will produce an evaluated best-practice module and a list of criteria for assessing the quality of teaching material in the context of climate change. Furthermore, this project will result in a proven instrument for measuring socioscientific decision-making in the context of climate change.

(1)    Mittenzwei, D., Bruckermann, T., Nordine, J., & Harms, U. (2019). The Energy Concept and its Relation to Climate Literacy. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 15(6). DOI: 10.29333/ejmste/105637

(2)    Michel, H. (2020). From local to global: The role of knowledge, transfer, and capacity building for successful energy transitions. WZB Discussion Papers SP III 2020 – 603. Berlin: Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung

(3)    Garrecht, C. (2021). The Promotion of Socioscientific Decision-Making – Adressing four Challenges in Science Education Practice and Research. Dissertation. Kiel: Christian-Albrechts Universität

Dr. Hanno Michel

is a research scientist in the Department of Biology Education. Along with Prof. Dr. Ute Harms, he coordinates the projects SaerbeckPLUS and EnergieweltenPLUS at the IPN, where he is primarily concerned with the role of knowledge and knowledge transfer for participation in the context of the energy transition.

Carola Garrecht

did her PhD in the Department of Biology Education at the IPN on the topic of "Socioscientific decision-making in biology education". As a research scientist, she leads the Klub project and coordinates the IPN's work in the BriCCS project alongside Prof. Dr. Ute Harms. In the context of climate literacy, she is particularly interested in the role of risk perception, attitudes and socioscientific decision-making.

Kathryn Leve

is a doctoral student in the Department of Biology Education at the IPN and a research scientist in the EnergieweltenPLUS project. Her research focuses on the requirements of climate literacy in teacher education and training and how these can be implemented.

Prof. Dr. Ute Harms

is Director at the IPN and heads the Department of Biology Education. As Principal Investigator she leads the projects BriCCS, SaerbeckPLUS and EnergieweltenPLUS, which are funded by the Swedish Science Council, the BMBF and the DBU.