By Koen Timmers
As a student, I frequently learned via boring textbooks about certain subjects, and I remember very little about those topics since I didn’t make any emotional connection and thus wasn’t engaged. As an educator, I decided to do things differently and welcomed students across six continents to focus on climate change and exchange thoughts.
Collaboration is key
Formal education is often restricted to knowledge acquisition and there is very little interaction between students from different classrooms. Instead, I think teachers should shift to other learning approaches, like learning by doing, flipped learning, and collaborative learning. Being a pedagogical engineer, it becomes the teacher’s duty to apply the best learning approach to a specific situation. And no … collaborative learning is more than simply putting students in a group!
I have been launching several global educational projects. Each time, I choose one or more UN Sustainable Development Goals as the project’s subject. These 17 global SDGs aim to make the world a better place by 2030 by focusing on gender equality, clean water, quality education and … climate action.
Through the Climate Action project, I managed to connect 250 teachers across six continents. Educators were asked not to give away their knowledge, but instead limit their task to guiding students.
The project was student-centered, and so the students had to explore, brainstorm, discuss, present and share their findings about four weekly topics. They also had to create videos which were published at our website, www.climate-action.info.
This way, the students learned in several levels: at first by collaborating in their own classroom while focusing on local issues, and second by taking a look at the videos from peers around the world. This way they got first-hand information about the conditions in each others’ countries. Problem-based learning focusing on real-world problems is key!
“What’s better than learning about global issues directly from people living in those countries.”
The project covered nearly every age (6-18) and several subjects, including geography, math, science, and art.
The right angle to the project
By sharing information, classrooms across the globe found connections.
Last month, Ireland had to close schools for the very first time due to a hurricane. This situation offered Kate and her students another angle to talk about climate action. Miriam had the same experience in Sierra Leone—one of the poorest countries in the world—where many students lost their homes due to floods. Same scenario in South Africa: flooding offered food for thought in Prinavin’s class and so students discovered the importance of climate action.
Collaborative learning stimulates creativity and results in knowledge building. The outcomes were amazing.
Joe’s (U.S.) students set up a Minecraft server on which students around the world started building an energy-friendly world. Malaysian students managed to visualize deforestation in 3D via Minecraft. Romanian students developed their own video game. Canadian students made quizzes which they sent to their peers in other schools. Kristine’s grade-6 printed the coral reefs in 3D to help save coral reefs.
Teachers were initially forced to step outside their comfort zones, but discovered how their students went further than they ever could possibly imagine. The teachers were offered a platform, so they were able to exchange and discover new approaches, best practices, and anecdotes.
The project was presented to policymakers and covered by media in 16 countries. German students did a flash mob in Münster and sang a song with famous singer Detlev Jöcker. Emma took her students to two ministers and showed them the “Equality Machine” they created, and their adventures were covered by Swedish national television. A Portuguese television channel visited Manuela’s school and an Indian television station visited Paramjeet’s school, where students were creating a mural—the project became immortal.
The aim of the Climate Action project was to go further than studying climate change. During the third week of the project, the trees were planted by Guatemalan, Filipino, and Vietnamese students. The students from Peru did a march, and Nigerian students even developed a small biogas plant which helps reduce carbon emissions. Kenyan students developed fencing materials from plastic bottles.
There were no limits to students’ engagement. Students spent time during weekends and were able to express themselves. They danced, sang songs, drew images. Manuela’s class in Romania even created a climate action cake! In Mike’s class, a second-grader brought the Wall Street Journal because he was looking for information on his own. His class invited farmers and scientists to get better insights. A student who struggles with traditional lessons in textbooks has surprised us all with her deepening understanding and contributions. Shy students are having a larger sense of belonging.
During the last week of the project, we increased interaction between students by connecting them via Skype. Both teachers and students traveled hundreds of thousands virtual miles to share their findings about climate change.
Skype lessons by experts
We also arranged Skype lessons delivered by experts. Céline Cousteau inspired both teachers and students in more than 35 countries. She taught us how Brazilian indigenous people live and that action begins with one single initiative. Her grandfather was the famous explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. As Michael Dunlea claimed: “I seriously think this was the best day of my teaching career. What an incredible experience.”
Dr. Jennifer L. Languell—star of Discovery Channel’s “Project Earth”, Tony Parkin, and Richard E. Hyman also shared inspiring stories via webcasts.
The work that Valerie’s students completed during this project has empowered them to find credible information, seek solutions to world problems, and take action. They even learned from experts on social media.
Supported by …
During the past month, I received emails from the Dalai Lama’s office, Jane Goodall, the two directors of Greenpeace, UNESCO, National Geographic Explorer Jess Cramp, human rights activist Kumi Naidoo, scientists, policymakers, and other public figures claiming they support the Climate Action project. Belgium’s weatherman and our deputy prime minister sent a personalized video message.
A higher form of learning
Students learn at different levels. They spontaneously start using tools like Minecraft, shoot videos on greenscreens and use Lego to express themselves without being instructed to. They brainstorm, construct, are creative, discuss, express themselves, share, offer feedback, reflect, etc.
Teachers noticed that in this digital era students may know more about certain topics than they do—and that’s perfectly fine.
The students were elated. They noticed their opinion mattered while they got ownership of their learning process. They had authentic learning which couldn’t have been close to learning from textbooks and will hopefully remember this project in 10 or even 20 years.
Koen Timmers is an educator, author, and keynote speaker based in Belgium. Koen was a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, and uses a specific educational approach that he calls CARE! (Collaboration, Guidance, Real problem-solving, Empathy, and ‘the ! factor’ – being responsive to the student). Learn more about the Climate Action project here!