Skip to content

Blog post

Concepts for climate change within secondary science

Sarah Clayton, PhD Student at University of York

It is widely understood that climate change is among the greatest challenges facing humanity, and that knowledge of climate change should play a key role in the curriculum. As Singh (2021) writes, ‘The failure of the education sector to take on the climate challenge is deeply problematic, since effective climate education can be a crucial component of climate mitigation.’ Despite this, climate change content within the English curriculum remains patchy and although there are references to climate change in the science curriculum, ‘those references do not make it clear that there is a crisis or an emergency, nor that society (including students) should act on it’ (Greer & Glackin, 2021).

Over the past few years, campaigns such as Teach the Teacher and Teach the Future have bolstered calls from educators, education unions and academics to embed climate change into the curriculum. Despite these claims for ‘more’, climate change education is not easily defined (Greer & Glackin, 2021). Often, climate change is incorporated under the broader context of environmental education (EE), education for sustainable development (ESD), or even ‘subsumed as an undefined topic under the undefined notion of sustainability’ (Eilam et al., 2020). This lack of clarity about what climate change education consists of, particularly within the discipline of science as it currently exists in the curriculum, is problematic. Activists can call for ‘more!’, but the question remains ‘more of what?’

‘This lack of clarity about what climate change education consists of, particularly within the discipline of science as it currently exists in the curriculum, is problematic.’

Most literature on climate change education has focused on the pedagogical approaches to teach about climate change, or on pre-service teacher misconceptions around climate change. There has been much less focus on what knowledge we think it is essential for students to know, within the secondary school setting, particularly within science. This is important to consider because the responsibility of teaching about climate change falls heavily on science given that it is a core subject.

In Efrat Eilam’s (2020) scoping table of climate change-associated content, she outlined a number of themes essential in teaching climate change. I have modified the table to include themes that have appeared in my synthesis of literature around ‘effective’ educational interventions for climate change education, where effectiveness was used in different ways, with different outcomes valued, including changes in knowledge of climate change, attitudes and pro-environmental behaviour. These modifications include a systems thinking approach to knowledge, local (to students) risks and impacts of climate change, media narratives around climate change projections, and additional columns for affective aspects and action.


Table 1: Content for a climate change curriculum

This table illustrates the breadth of knowledge that one might consider putting into a climate change curriculum. Clearly there is far more knowledge than can be addressed within science at KS4 (age 14–16). Indeed, Eilam makes a case that climate change should be its own discipline (Eilam, 2022), which raises the question of prioritisation.

Currently, we can see that themes on the left side of the table receive far more attention than those towards the right. Should they? Should science lessons focus on ‘Science Facts’ or is a broader view necessary to address the topic meaningfully? Even within the more science-based themes there is debate to be had around the most essential content. Are there concepts missing from the current curriculum that could be placed in those columns, such as tipping points and feedback loops, the role of the ocean in absorbing energy, or the warming potential of different greenhouse gases?

My research focuses on what different groups of experts (teachers, climate scientists and youth climate activists) think are the fundamental concepts that secondary science students should understand about climate change before they leave compulsory education. I am particularly focused on the level of consensus that exists around the concepts that they have identified. For this study I am using the term ‘threshold concept’, understood as concepts which, once mastered, can result in a different way of perceiving something. Examples of threshold concepts for climate change identified in literature at an undergraduate level include ideas around balance and imbalance (both in terms of the earth’s energy balance and levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), complexity (systems thinking) and planetary boundaries, as these are potentially transformative in terms of how students understand the topic (see Singh, 2021). The question is, Are these concepts relevant at a secondary level, and if they are, what would they look like? My intention is to understand what concepts the three different expert groups perceive to be transformative when it comes to climate change education, and to find out what might account for differences in perspectives between these groups.

If you would like to hear more about this study, or share your perspectives around this, please do get in touch at Twitter Handle: @ephrontistery  


Eilam, E. (2022). Climate change education: The problem with walking away from disciplines. Studies in Science Education, 58(2), 231–264.  

Eilam, E., Prasad, V., & Widdop Quinton, H. (2020). Climate change education: Mapping the nature of climate change, the content knowledge and examination of enactment in upper secondary Victorian curriculum. Sustainability, 12(2), 591.

Greer, K., & Glackin, M. (2021). ‘What counts’ as climate change education? Perspectives from policy influencers. School Science Review, 103(383), 15–22.

Singh, V. (2021). Toward a transdisciplinary, justice-centered pedagogy of climate change. In R. Iyengar & C. T. Kwauk (Eds.) Curriculum and learning for climate action (pp. 169–187). Brill.