In most countries, climate change is part of the natural sciences curricula, which commonly approaches the topic from a positivist science point of view, presenting climate change as an environmental problem related to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of human activities (Hess and Collins 2018; Schreiner et al. 2005). It has been argued that this discourse fails to address some of the elements that reinforce the status quo. Nor does it consider the possibility of individual and collective agency to dramatically change current systems, patterns of consumption, and resource use (Kirby and O’Mahony 2018; Leichenko and O’Brien 2019; Verlie and CCR 15 2018).
The students in this research engaged with climate change within arts and humanities disciplines. The projects were conceived as arts-led, transformative learning experiences that invited students to a reflexive, experiential, and open-ended learning process. Most of the students were receptive to embark on this experiment and were interested in climate change. Yet the results show that there are different depths of engagement in climate change. This may depend on a number of factors including the chosen arts-based approach—whether climate change is merely dealt with in arts disciplines, with creative-participatory practices, or learned or guided through an art process (Table 2). Drawing from the tentative framework of the depths of artful climate involvement (Table 1), the following discussion, I portray these depths of engagement through art in the context of climate change education, illustrated with data from two different climate-art-education projects. I also provide suggestions for how to apply them to a school setting. Whereas the above described characteristics and modes to engage with climate change (and Table 1) can occur in a variety of fields of practices, the following discussion applies specifically to an education context.
Learning about climate change in arts and humanities classes
More and more arts and humanities educators explore climate change as a topic within their classes (Monroe et al. 2017; A. B. Siegner 2018; A. Siegner and Stapert 2019). Usually, they rely on teachings from the natural science disciplines and the biophysical discourse, for example, by reading informative texts about climate change, watching documentaries, applying learning games or by using climate change as a theme for illustrations, paintings, or drawings (Climate Generation 2019; Cooper and Nisbet 2017; Dieleman and Huisingh 2006; Vethanayagam and Hemalatha 2010). Resulting artworks are often descriptive works, illustrative climate communication, and lack a critical or personal reflection and interaction with the theme, as in Fig. 1 a and b. The students of this research were introduced to the topic of climate change through an interactive lesson. Due to limited time provided by the school, the focus of this lesson was climate change impacts as well as possible solutions which runs the risk to paint a rather dark picture of the future. In the group dialogues and fish-bowl discussions, the focus was more on individual and collective action and on opportunities to act, yet some students maintained an unattached, technical perspective on the subject matter. This is also illustrated by their associated statements that show that these students used (stencil) art to depict the problems of climate change (Fig. 1a) and a technical, arguably simplified solution (Fig. 1b):
My work was inspired by cartoons, and represents a light bulb. My goal is to alert people of the need for energy saving.
Student F, artist statement, Art For Change project 2019
The representation of the world with a label with the expiration date of 12 years is the period of time in which we can still make difference and improve the critical situation of the planet. With adapted symbols, I wanted to mention that the causes are human. The QR code will lead the viewer to a site that explains climate change, its causes, and consequences. With this work I intend to convey that if there is no change in our actions in these 12 years, the world can face an irreversible destruction, and it is our responsibility to change our attitude towards this problem.
Student M, artist statement, Cli-Fi & Art project 2019
The students’ artworks and statements show that their perception of climate change is disconnected from themselves. Although they are aware of the problem, their statements relate to the perspective of the biophysical discourse that frames climate change as an environmental problem of greenhouse gas emissions. This more technical way of conceptualizing climate change runs the risk of disempowering students because of a limited consideration of individual and collective agency to change systems within this discourse (Leichenko and O’Brien 2019). The results suggest that when the goal of a learning experience is to create more than climate awareness (e.g., empowerment), it might not be enough to teach climate change in the arts with the same approaches that are commonly applied in the natural science disciplines and use art as a platform of providing easily accessible information or communicating the problem. Rather, more (co)creative approaches are needed, some which hail from different discourses in order to build a young generation that is capable of addressing climate change.
For example, teaching climate change in the arts and humanities courses can be done more holistically, by drawing on the integrative discourse. An integrative discourse sees climate change as interconnected with multiple processes of environmental, economic, political, and cultural change and closely linked to individual and shared norms, beliefs, values, and worldviews (Leichenko and O’Brien 2020). Integrating multiple perspectives, the integrative discourse approaches climate change as a transformative process involving the environment as well as communities and our relationship to nature and each other. By suggesting the metaphor of a living system as opposed to a mechanistic way of seeing the world, a postmodern and ecologic worldview emphasizes relationships, participation, empowerment, and self-organization (Sterling and Orr 2001; Verlie and CCR 15 2018). It recognizes also that questioning paradigms and patterns of thought can create space for new ways of exploring the complexities of climate change.
Within an integrative discourse, humans are viewed as a reflexive part of the climate system that is able to create as well as change patterns. This perception introduces the fundamental possibility to change the relationship that creates climate risk and vulnerability (Leichenko and O’Brien 2019). This discourse is also in line with growing recognition within the climate change research community that societal transformations are inevitable in order address the climate challenge (Leichenko and O’Brien 2020; O’Brien 2015; Pelling 2011; Pelling et al. 2015).
Teaching climate change in arts disciplines using an integrative discourse is an approach that is already being applied in schools in Finland. The Finnish climate guide (Sipari 2016) contains tips and tools for multidisciplinary climate education as early as in the primary level. With an emphasis on critical and cultural competence, teachers are encouraged to approach climate change in visual arts courses, music, foreign language courses, and literature (among other disciplines) (Sipari 2016), for example, through the lens of the ecological handprint that focuses on the positive impacts humans have on the planet as opposed to the ecological footprint that is more problem-centered (Kühnen et al. 2017). While this kind of approach does not require a change in teaching methodologies, it consists rather of a different content of information and more holistic lens to approach climate change in arts and humanities courses.
Learning about climate change with art
There is a growing recognition that the current dominant model of transmissive education is insufficient to meet today’s challenges (Blake et al. 2013; O’Brien et al. 2013; Sterling and Orr 2001). Many advocate for a shift from the transmissive, instructive notion of education which relies on the transfer of information to a more creative and engaging, transformative learning where meaning is constructed in a participative way (Reid et al. 2008; Rickinson et al. 2010; Sterling and Orr 2001).
Seeing with critical eyes or critical thinking is a key ingredient in such learning processes. Daniel Willingham (2008) describes critical thinking as “seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms young ideas […].” The basic assumption is that we need to “see” differently if we are to know and act differently. Art can help us to see and integrate different perspectives and complexities, which then can lead to development of critical thinking. In this research, students adopted a sustainability-related change for 30 days and approached climate change through a personal experience with change. Along the 30 days, they reflected on the various (personal and systemic) facets of change. This in addition with the group discussions and the artistic expression constituted a student-centered, learning-by-doing approach. Learning with the help of creative and experiential approaches has shown to help students to discover new insights about themselves and facilitate new relationships with resources and the topic climate change in general (Bentz and O’Brien 2019). For example, it enabled one student to discover her “own consumerist interior” (student T, written reflection, 2018) during the project. Creative forms of engaging in climate change can help students to see things from new perspectives and question their frames of reference. The following quote and artwork from a student (Fig. 1c) shows a critical reflection with the capitalist way of life, with which she interacts.
I created this image as a form of criticism of consumerism, materialism and the greed of mankind, who tries to possess and give monetary value to everything, even to their own planet.
Student R, artist statement, Art For Change project 2019
Promoting learning in which students critically examine the structures in which they are embedded is crucial for understanding the causes and impacts of climate change, and yet is underemphasized in mainstream education (Stevenson et al. 2017). Artistic and humanities disciplines at school have the capacity to promote critical thinking due to art’s power to enhance perspective-taking capacities. Instead of focusing on knowledge provision, teaching can involve experiential methods such as participatory art projects, hands-on labs, field trips, and group dialogues, which engage more than the cognitive domains of learning. The importance of active participation and learning-by-doing is highlighted by the “head, hands and heart” approach to learning, which incorporates transdisciplinary study (head), practical skill sharing and development (hands), and translation of passion and values into behavior (heart) (Sipos et al. 2008). Such approaches allow students to see that the shape of knowledge can always change and invite them share their ideas in an open manner.
According to bell hooks (2010), critical thinking is an interactive process, a way of approaching ideas with the aim to understand underlying truths. Engaging students through interactive approaches can be considered a prerequisite of good education and a principle of success in environmental education (Monroe et al. 2017). Experiential forms of learning are known for their potential to enable a process of questioning and reorienting existing values, knowledge, and concerns (Liefländer et al. 2013). As such, engaging students in deliberative discussions and forms of creative expression can contribute to the deconstruction of students’ taken-for-granted frames of reference because it is through the interaction with others that students are exposed to different perspectives and opinions (Mezirow 2000; Monroe et al. 2017). Combining group dialogues with creative and artistic expression of learnings and experiences with a changing climate, such as in this research, can enable students to see climate change differently as well as their own role in addressing it. The following quote from a group dialogue shows a sense of responsibility despite discouraging comments from friends and family about the student’s decision to eat vegetarian.
People always say things like “that doesn’t do anything” and maybe I don’t see the results. My whole family eats meat and it’s always a topic at the dinner table because I don’t eat the chicken. Sometimes I need to eat another soup or so. I don’t see the difference I am making but you just have to look at it from another perspective. You can fix things. It’s a fact, if we all just stopped eating meat, the meat industry wouldn’t exist. So I’m stopping eating meat and a lot of people do too […]. It’s changing! It does something.
Student N, group dialogue, Art For Change project, 2019
The experiential part in this research, which meant adopting a change for 30 days in combination with artistic expression, may have contributed to a deeper self-reflection and to the creation of a sense of responsibility. Freire (2013, p. 13) emphasizes that “responsibility cannot be acquired intellectually, but only through experience.” This highlights the importance of the participatory and learning-by-doing components in climate change education. Many artistic methods and practices are inherently experiential. Therefore, they have a great yet seemingly overlooked potential for engagement in and teaching about climate change. Teaching with art uses different forms of teaching. It may involve interdisciplinary projects at school where students reflect on climate change and express the acquired learnings within the different disciplines.
Learning about climate change through art
Compared with teaching in and with art, teaching climate change through art follows a more radical idea. Where teaching with art can be considered participatory and experiential learning that uses art to provide engaging and fun activities, and teaching through art implies letting go of predefined ideas of content as well as of one-way directed knowledge provision and engage in an arts-led learning process, both for students and teachers. Where teaching with art can be described as an interdisciplinary process in which “art meets science,” teaching through art follows a transdisciplinary agenda whereby different ways of knowing (scientific, artistic and others) are engaged on eye level (Kagan 2015).
In practice, this means a whole different approach to teaching climate change; one that aims to meet students where they are at in terms of interests, concerns, and meanings by co-creating the learning process with them and addressing climate change through a topic or lens that is relevant for them. The fact that climate change means different things to different people depending on age, experience, and context supports the idea of making room for exploring those meanings and the associated value systems. Accordingly, research on climate change meaning-making suggests to connect with the frames and values people hold and fill out meaning from there (Hochachka 2019). Applying this to a classroom context means for a teacher to translate climate change into something tangible for the students in order to anchor it in their meaning-making. Approaches for meaningful climate change education for young people might need to differ greatly, depending on the specific meaning-making stages of a given classroom, the social context, and value systems.
In this research, students were engaged in storytelling and collective reading of a climate-fiction story (Milkoreit et al. 2016), in which the main character is a teenager named Flea, helped to bring climate change near and create meaning, as the quote below illustrates.
After pushing myself through it and finished reading the story I was very happy with the ending (I think that’s my favorite part of the story). Not because it was a happy ending, it wasn’t. But it wasn’t a sad ending either. It was reality. I know it’s a cli-fi story but the ending got me identifying with the topic. It was when I started understanding the realness of the story. […] It was at the ending that I understood Flea like I understand myself, not very well but well enough.
Student L, written reflection, Cli-fi & Art project 2019
The learning process was guided through the storytelling, fiction reading, and the students’ personal connections with the subject matter. In connection to that, the students developed an artwork related to a personally relevant topic. A personal connection to the topic can tap into students’ emotions and senses helping them to see and think differently. The potential to connect to emotions and senses makes art a profound source for learning (Leavy 2015) and a tool for deepening and embodying experiences. Learning through the body, for example, through movement, dance, or theater work (which was not the case in this research), is another way to connect to emotions and understand theoretical concepts through the senses (Leavy 2015; Wiebe and Snowber 2011). These techniques can enhance the awareness for different ways of knowing and increase the degrees of freedom in young people’s imagination (Heras and Tàbara 2014). Student-centered arts-led processes can thus guide through a meaning-making and embodied experience, which can be a transformative process that enables to see and act differently on climate change. The freedom of artistic practices can help students to explore dimensions and future imaginaries that are not accessible through standard teaching approaches helping them to co-create new scenarios of transformative change. The fiction reading in this research created avenues for creative imaginaries of the future. The artwork 1d expresses the potentiality of scenarios that we usually do not consider. The question “what if the world turns on us,” creatively illustrated with a T upside down, opens up imaginations of an inverted world in which non-human agency gains power (Fig. 1d).
Exploring alternative, positive imaginaries of the future can be empowering for young people to co-create scenarios of change such as the artwork entitled “be the drop the world needs” (Fig. 1e). This is relevant as climate change is increasingly emerging as a depressing force affecting social lives of young people (Ojala 2012). The the artwork 1f illustrates the student’s helplessness and powerlessness by depicting a person falling into a hole (Fig. 1f).
Acknowledging this trend of psychological stress seems relevant when teaching climate change. Within this project, the group dialogues and creative expression offered students spaces for disclosure and helped them transmuting feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, anger, and apathy. As important it is to acknowledge the growing sadness, anxiety, and anger when teaching climate, it is equally important to emphasize solutions and opportunities to get engaged. Experimenting with concrete solutions for climate resilience and social transformation through role plays, theater work, or giving actual opportunities for engagement (e.g., local initiatives) can help build a sense of empowerment and hope. Providing possibilities for direct experience in democratic processes, such as through participation in community projects, are examples that enable young people to come to their own decisions based on the information they gather and discussions they share (Chawla and Cushing 2007; Hess and Collins 2018). When contextualized in a broader integrative discourse, small behavior changes or school projects can be empowering too, as they can serve as entry points for larger changes on the political and systemic realm (Bentz and O’Brien 2019). Within this research, the integration of a 30-day behavioral change in a learning-through-art approach helped students to realize that their individual choices have an impact globally as well as on others (e.g., family and friends). This realization of one’s own power to influence change can give hope and a sense of empowerment.
There is limited research about how to provide transformative experiences in climate change education through art (Pelowski and Akiba 2011; Roosen et al. 2018). The success depends very much on the experience of facilitating artists and teachers as well as on the students to embark on a different kind of learning journey without a predefined destination. The preceding examples show that within two project approaches, three levels of engagement can occur. Some students kept their engagement to a more descriptive, shallower one (e.g., Fig. 1a and b), whereas others permitted deeper, more reflexive levels of engagement where they showed themselves more vulnerable and gained new insights about themselves and about climate change (Fig. 1c, d, e, and f). It must be noted that not all school settings will allow working with open-ended, co-creational, potentially time-consuming processes and the perspective that final results may differ from initial expectations. However, the outcomes of teaching climate change through arts may greatly differ from those of engagement in or with art in the sense that they potentially create a deeper impact on the students, educating them to be empowered, critical and climate active citizens.