Developing a methodology for the empowerment of teachers-as-researchers in the context of Climate Change Education

How can teachers be enabled to collaborate together at scale as researchers? What barriers and opportunities exist for teachers and academics in the South-West/Wales to collaboratively develop a methodology for teachers to collect data on climate change within their schools?

This project aimed to develop a novel approach for engaging teachers-as-researchers in their own schools, assuring their views and experience is represented in debates around future educational policy and practice (at local and national levels). The researchers believed teachers’ voice in such debates is critical for ensuring children are prepared for the challenges of the 21st century, but such representation is in jeopardy. For example, there has been a drastic decline in teachers’ readiness to respond to surveys, and most no longer participate in the government’s own workload survey (Knibbs & Stobart, 2018). This impedes their collective and informed action.

Through professional relationships and knowledge of their own institutions, teachers are uniquely situated to collect their own data illuminating areas of education they are committed to – but are very constrained by time. By working collectively with each other and in partnership with academics, this project sought to co-develop objectives, procedures and instruments that maximise the usability, efficiency and appropriateness of data collection for teachers as researchers embedded in schools.

This project was prompted by a pressing need to understand current UK practice in relation to climate change education (CCE), necessary for “accelerating the wide scale behaviour changes consistent with adapting to and limiting global warming” (IPCC, 2018). Despite its low profile in the National Curriculum, over 70% of teachers in England already engage with students on this issue (Howard-Jones et al). However, teachers know little about the nature and efficacy of each other’s efforts in this area.

In November 2020, the GW4 Climate Change Education Research Network (CCERN) brought together over 200 teachers, school leaders and researchers from diverse disciplines across the universities of Bristol, Bath, Cardiff and Exeter, including experts in education, climate change, psychology and neuroscience. As a first step towards enriching and informing CCE in the UK, CCERN members identified that evidence must be gathered about current CCE practices and policies within schools. This project proposed, through interdisciplinary collaboration, to co-develop a research methodology enabling time-constrained professionals to generate such data for informing local and national policy and practice.

What did the project involve? 

A key aspect of this project was that identification of the data being collected, its collection, and its dissemination was led by the teachers themselves. A critical factor here was identifying what works “in the field”, from teachers’ perspectives. The role of university researchers was to ensure the co-developed process of data collection was informed by current literature, followed ethical procedures and generated data in a form that can be pooled for meaningful summative analysis.

The project’s goal was to inform the development of a toolkit to support the educators in capturing useful data from within their institutions about sustainability and climate change education (with a view to such an approach being useful for other organisations and contexts). Working alongside the design team of teachers, school leaders and academics that has emerged through CCERN the project developed a framework for the content of a research toolkit; in this context, the project sought to open spaces in which to reimagine our relationships with data collection and realisation, through engaging with partner(s) in design / creative technologies. Through a series of conversations at key points of trialling the toolkit design, this project explored alternative perspectives and approaches that supported the pragmatics of gathering data and open possibilities for seeing these data in new ways.

To attain this, the project implemented the following workplan:

Preparation (March 2021):

  • Consultation of wider CCERN network to identify key information to be gathered on CCE.
  • Literature review identifying instruments suitable for adapting and informing development.

Development (March to April/May):

  • Iterative cycles of development, trialling and revision of toolkit.

Implementation (April/May to July):

  • CCERN Teacher Conference (April) used as platform to disseminate toolkit and support to teachers within and beyond the network in data collection.
  • Analysis of data.
  • CCERN Teacher Conference (July) Teachers and academic researchers reflect on outcomes and next actions (locally within teachers’ own classrooms/schools, and nationally in terms of influencing policy).

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Julian Brown (Education, University of Bristol) is a researcher with a background in secondary mathematics education, working in teacher education and innovating the mathematics curriculum.
  • Shaun Hatton (St Brendan’s Sixth Form College) is a maths teacher was acting as a core community researcher.
  • Kat Steentjes (Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, University of Cardiff) is responsible for design and delivery of multi-wave, multi-country surveys on public perceptions of climate change with a special focus on material consumption, diet, mobility and thermal comfort.
  • Lee Knight (Beechen Cliff School) is a design and technology teacher and was acting as a core community researcher.
  • Elisabeth Barratt-Hacking (Education, University of Bath) researches environmental perspectives on education with children as co-researchers and story-tellers; recently developed the posthuman concept ‘childhoodnature’ in recognition of children’s indivisibility from nature.
  • Fiona Carnie (Bristol Education Partnership for Bristol Learning City) has extensive experience in school leadership roles, higher education and voluntary sectors. She was leading the Bristol Education Partnership for Bristol Learning City at the time of this project and was acting as a core community researcher.
  • Lorraine Whitmarsh (Psychology, University of Bath) is a psychologist who is expert on environmental public perceptions, communication, engagement and has led large scale research on behavioural change in relation to climate.
  • Dave Rees (Ashton Park School) is a teacher and was acting as a core community researcher.
  • Emily Barr (Bristol Grammar School) is a teacher and was acting as a core community researcher.
  • Paul Howard-Jones (Education, University of Bristol) is a psychologist/neuroscientist/educator focused on classroom learning, experienced in leading interdisciplinary research, and at the time of this project was lead co-ordinator for CCERN.
  • Rafael Mitchel (Education, University of Bristol) is a researcher in Comparative and International Education and serves on the leadership team of the international research network Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures.
  • Justin Dillon (University of Exeter) is an expert scholar and commentator on environmental education in schools with considerable experience in the mentoring and support of junior colleagues.
  • Claire Hoolahan (University of Manchester) is a social scientist working in the field of sustainable production and consumption, research interest in school meals.
  • Christina Demski (Cardiff University) is a researcher in psychology and a core member of the Understanding Risk group which carries out interdisciplinary social science research with regards to environmental and technological risk.
  • Sam Church is an illustrator mainly of children’s picture books and educational material.  They are also a scribe/graphic facilitator, and lead art based workshops for all ages at the Royal West of England Academy, Holburne Museum and Green Man Festival.

What were the results?

The findings of this study were published in detail in the paper ‘The views of teachers in England on an action-oriented climate change curriculum’ written by Paul Howard-Jones et al and published in Environmental Education Research volume 27, issue 11.

This project was foundational for developing a practitioner-oriented research methodology that can inform further projects of concern to teachers (including those beyond Climate Change Education, such as anti-racist education).

A key outcome of this project was the development of a specific proof-of-concept instantiation of the researcher’s prototype methodology in the form of a toolkit (consent forms, survey instruments and technological tools) for collecting data on CCE in schools. The toolkit was informed by past work in this area, such as the Eco-schools framework for students to audit their schools and the former Labour Government’s (now redacted) school self-evaluation tool (DfES, 2006). However, where these instruments were designed to assess schools against external accountability requirements (e.g. OFSTED), this toolkit sought to support teachers to address practitioner-identified research agendas. As such, the toolkit is intended to be used to inform decision-making at different levels of the education system, while providing groundwork to justify and direct targeted investment in more in-depth research.

The researchers aimed to develop an ESRC application for additional funding to support further elaboration and application of our approach.