An interview with ELT professional Alan Maley on the importance of climate change education

With World Environment Day around the corner, climate change education advocate Alan Maley talks about why teachers should integrate eco-issues into their teaching

Published - June 01, 2024 03:12 pm IST

All teachers need to become inspired by and well informed about the issue.

All teachers need to become inspired by and well informed about the issue. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Over the past decade, numerous climate change disasters, including heatwaves, excessive rainfall leading to floods, and droughts have disrupted daily life globally. A significant concern particularly in developing countries like India, climate change disproportionately affects the poor. But, due to the lack of awareness among the majority of the population, Indian political parties have remained indifferent to this issue. While some parties included climate agendas in their manifestos, there is little interest in discussing them. Hence it is crucial to raise awareness among educators and students about climate issues. In this interview, ELT professional and advocate of climate change education Alan Maley emphasises the necessity of incorporating eco-issues into teacher training and language teaching in general, particularly in English Language Teaching (ELT).

ELT Professional and advocate of climate change education Alan Maley

ELT Professional and advocate of climate change education Alan Maley | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

You recently mentioned that the Humanizing Language Teaching magazine has introduced a new section called Eco Issues. What is the rationale behind such a section in a magazine for English teachers?

 This is in response to the unfolding global catastrophe. The reason for bringing it to the attention of teachers (in this case language teachers) is that they have immense influence on their students. By encouraging them to integrate eco-issues into their teaching, there is a strong possibility that they can change students’ mindsets — and eventually their behaviours and lifestyles — towards more eco-friendly action.

Many, including teachers perceive climate change as a complex issue to be primarily addressed by policymakers. How can ordinary individuals contribute to addressing this issue?

Of course, climate change is far too complex and urgent to leave it to politicians. And it is pointless to say that ordinary individuals — still less teachers — can do nothing. “No one is too small to make a difference.” As Greta Thunberg reminds us.

Climate change education (CCE) entails teaching people about the science, causes, impacts, and solutions related to the issue. Can language teachers effectively engage in CCE? Don’t you think they need expertise?

My argument is that, in order to engage in effective action, all teachers need to become inspired by and well informed about the issue. There is abundant and highly accessible material in the form of popular songs, video games, films, TED talks, cartoons, plays, novels, biographies of eco-warriors and so on. On a more serious note, there is a plethora of organisations such as Climate Justice, Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Global Justice Now and so on that offer access to information. Increasingly, there are teaching materials focussing on precisely these issues such as the British Council’s Climate Resources for School Teachers.

How can global organisations or associations of teachers of English proactively address climate change?  

One of the best examples is the GILE special interest group of the Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT), which has been in operation for over 30 years now. Its quarterly newsletter offers teachers copious information and advice. Other teachers’ associations have set up special interest groups for global issues. The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) has just announced that it will give eco-issues a more central place and working group is being set up. So, things are on the move.

How can English language teachers adequately prepare themselves to effectively discuss climate change in the classroom?

As things stand, the responsibility for informing and equipping themselves lies mainly with teachers themselves. Perhaps, in future, such matters will find their way into syllabuses. I would suggest that, to get started, teachers should find a source of information, find some existing materials and join forces with other teachers who share similar concerns.

Is including eco-focused content in textbooks and teaching it to students sufficient? Or should teachers go beyond the textbook? If so, how?

The eco-related material in textbooks tends to be sketchy and superficial and is often relegated to the end of the book, which students rarely get to. Publishers have many reasons to be careful with what they publish, though there are some signs that change is on the way. So I would certainly recommend going beyond what the textbook contains (if anything).

As an ELT professional with a focus on creativity, you’ve given talks and authored works on using creative activities in language learning. How can English teachers incorporate climate change education creatively?

It can be done in many ways. For example, by setting up simple projects that students can carry out in their own environment such as surveys of consumption of energy and water, waste disposal and so on. Or, as in my own case, by incorporating it into creative writing works, leading to graphic displays, small publications and even performances of student work.

Can you explain how climate change education can be integrated into educational institutions?

The short answer is that I cannot. Institutions vary widely in their stance regarding eco-issues. I know of some cases where many independent initiatives have been undertaken such as organising workshops and webinars for teachers, producing their own eco-related materials and so on. And others where change of any kind is resisted. Institutions in general are reluctant to introduce any kind of change that rocks the boat. But individual teachers do have a degree of autonomy, which they can use judiciously depending on their particular context.

Teachers who discuss global issues are sometimes labelled “activists”, which carries negative connotations in certain countries. What is your perspective?

 Countries and cultures differ greatly in the degree of respect accorded to ‘authority’. So, in some places, there is a degree of risk attached to being perceived as an ‘activist’. Teachers clearly have to be judicious and sensitive to local sensibilities in the degree to which they engage with these issues. However, there is no need to become an activist in the sense of a Greta Thunberg. There are quieter ways to make a difference. Increasingly, I predict, even the most resistant institutional forces will realise that action has to be taken if we are not to suffer the most unthinkable disasters — and possible annihilation.

As a creative writer and poet, what steps have you taken to raise awareness among English language teachers about climate issues?

I was the founder of the IATEFL Global Issues Special Interest Group and successfully lobbied IATEFL’s leadership to make public its support for greater eco-related teacher activities. I have also engaged with and persuaded HLT Magazine to set up the new Eco-Issues section. I take every opportunity to extend awareness of the urgency of our predicament through webinars, conference presentations and articles. In terms of creative writing, I oversaw the publication of What Have We Done, a collection of poems on eco-issues. I help coordinate an international writing group, Worlds into Words, with members from 26 countries that has a commitment to social and environmental justice as a part of its mission statement.

Do you believe that teachers can play a constructive role in humanity’s fight against climate change?

It would both a tragedy and a source of enduring shame if teachers failed to use their enormous power of influence to change the mindsets and lifestyles of those most vulnerable to the impending implosion of the eco-sphere. But I am an optimist. As A.J.P. Taylor says, “Nothing is inevitable until it happens.  

 The writer is an ELT resource person and education columnist. 

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