Mention “nature table” to anyone under 40, and chances are they won’t know what you’re on about. A table at school would be transformed into a mini-museum of natural objects brought in by pupils. Acorns, lichen-covered hawthorn twigs or a shell would be labelled and displayed, inspiring subjects such as art, Irish, spelling and maths. Since their exile, little has filled what they offered teachers and pupils: a daily opportunity to notice nature.
In 2019, the Government told us we were in a climate and biodiversity emergency, so it’s naive to think conkers and feathers in the classroom could make a difference. Accepting that climate change and nature loss will profoundly shape schoolkids’ personal and professional lives is deeply uncomfortable, but it is a reality.
Is climate and nature literacy embedded in teacher training? Or is our education system burying its head in the sand, hoping someone else will educate young people about what they face, and how to deal with it?
In a classroom in Waterford, the seeds of a revolution are being sown by Patrick Kirwan, a science and biology teacher who has set up an organisation which may, eventually, transform how the Department of Education sees its role in young people’s lives.
Kirwan spent a decade teaching in London. He saw that his pupils had no exposure to nature at home (half of them lived in houses with no gardens) and did not understand it. And so, he created a small school garden with a greenhouse, chickens and an outdoor workshop. Each day after school ended, he showed a small group of kids how plants grow. They loved it.
Nature is the basis of our economy, our health, and where we get our food from. It should be its own subject, like French or Irish. But it’s not— Patrick Kirwan, science and biology teacher
Kirwan asked his principal to schedule the classes into the school timetable. To help manage the class, he designed a leadership programme to train some kids as nature teachers. When the programme was evaluated, the pupils said the sessions were relaxing and good for stress relief. They transformed their understanding of nature, giving them a more positive sense of themselves.
In 2020, Kirwan moved home to work in Ardscoil na Mara, a secondary school in Tramore. His students were enthusiastic to learn outside, but, just like those in London, they knew nothing about climate change or wildlife – they couldn’t even identify a conker. In the staffroom, teachers weren’t talking about it. Far from being woven through the fabric of school life, climate and ecological literacy were absent.
During class, Kirwan explained the basics of climate science to his 6th year students. They claimed that nobody had told them about it before; they didn’t know it was happening or how it was going to affect them. The conversations weren’t happening at home (one student said to him that her parents told her to “stop talking about it” when she brought climate change up) and although “sustainability” is a cross-curriculum subject, it was clearly falling through the cracks.
Kirwan was deeply concerned that the Irish education system was not physically, mentally or intellectually preparing students for a radically altered future shaped by climate change. In March 2021, he contacted teachers elsewhere to see what, if anything, was happening. A teacher in Tipperary got in touch. During lockdown, they hosted a Zoom call for their students to discuss sustainability. Within a few weeks, teachers from eight schools had joined in; many were lone voices in their schools.
And so, the Irish Schools Sustainability Network was born. It now has 240 teachers from primary and secondary schools involved, and organises an annual Climate and Nature Summit; this year it begins on October 16th, World Food Day, with a discussion on food and farming.
“Walk into a school and ask a teacher: why is nature important? I think they’d find it difficult to give a decent, comprehensive answer,” says Kirwan. “It’s because they don’t know. And yet, nature is the basis of our economy, our health, and where we get our food from. It should be its own subject, like French or Irish. But it’s not.”
By not making space for this, schools are telling the kids: ‘we don’t care’ – that it’s their problem in the future, not ours— Patrick Kirwan
Like most of us, many teachers don’t sufficiently grasp climate and nature science and the moral and ethical questions that emerge from it. The scale of the crisis is constantly expanding; teacher education and training need to be turbo-charged if they’ve any chance. To this end, Kirwan has set up a free “Teaching Nature” leadership programme in Ardscoil na Mara which includes practical sessions in their new outdoor classroom.
Climate and nature literacy has particular relevance for the future workforce as the global economy attempts to transition to carbon neutrality. According to the International Labour Organisation, an extra 18 million green jobs will be created by 2030.
Even more critical is managing climate anxiety and mental ill-health. In a 2021 study published in the Lancet, 10,000 young people across 10 countries were asked about the climate crisis; 59 per cent said they were “very” or “extremely” worried about it, and 75 per cent said the future is “frightening”.
The antidote to anxiety, says Kirwan, is knowledge and action. Schools can offer young people a safe, informed place for these conversations to empower pupils with knowledge, a sense of agency and hope.
“By not making space for this, schools are telling the kids: ‘we don’t care’ – that it’s their problem in the future, not ours,” he says. “I see my students gain confidence about nature and climate – learning, improving, working on their communication skills, networking, making friends and having fun. If we treat this as an emergency, our best days could be ahead of us.”