The time is now: education’s contribution to a climate-resilient future

Issue: Volume 101, Number 7

Posted: 8 June 2022
Reference #: 1HAUEB

The Government is committed to Aotearoa New Zealand becoming a world leader in climate change action – and education has an important role to play. This story is the starting point of a series spotlighting ways that education is contributing to a sustainable future. We aim to share stories that highlight student-led initiatives, innovative teaching and learning programmes, and pathways to employment and training.

These Ōtautahi students have all become passionate about the environment in their beautiful backyard.

These Ōtautahi students have all become passionate about the environment in their beautiful backyard.

“Parents and adults listen, but they don’t take very much action to do anything about it, because they think, ‘it’s your future, not ours’. The work we did made us feel like we had a voice.”

Those were the words of Zoe(external link), one of the Year 7 and 8 students who delivered speeches to Christchurch City Council about their concerns about the effects of climate change on their local community. The interaction was the result of council engaging educator Sian Carvell to work with 13 Ōtautahi schools in low-lying or coastal areas that would be impacted by sea-level rise.

Empowering young people like Zoe and her peers to have a voice is an important part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s goal of working towards a low-emissions, climate-resilient future.

And it’s a big goal. The Government is committed to New Zealand becoming a world leader in climate change action. It is aiming for a sustainable and climate-resilient economy; a just and inclusive society; and to provide leadership, both here and abroad.

Working towards a climate resilient future

The first emissions reduction plan for 2022-25(external link) outlines a clear pathway to a low-emissions, climate-resilient future and the actions Aotearoa New Zealand needs to take to achieve it. Everyone in Aotearoa has a part to play in reducing our emissions. We will all have to re-think our daily lives in some way; from the way we move about, to how we design and build our homes, to what we consume and how those goods are produced. 

The Government is also putting together a national plan to help New Zealand minimise damage from a changing climate. The National Adaptation Plan(external link) focuses on how we can adapt to the impacts of climate change, setting a clear direction for coordinated action that will help all sectors and communities prepare for change and thrive in a very different climate with rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events.

The role of education 

Education has an important role to play in this journey – particularly through equipping all children and young people with the knowledge, skills and capabilities they need for the transition, and through creating an accessible, responsive and flexible tertiary education and training system. A focus on equity and excellence is important for ensuring that the transition to a low emissions economy is fair, equitable and inclusive.

Māori will be uniquely affected by climate change, so an equitable transition for Māori, led by Māori, is needed. As discussed in this article, Mātauranga Māori will play a role in Aotearoa New Zealand’s climate response, and future articles in this series will look at growing Māori medium and kaupapa Māori education pathways.

Ultimately, it’s going to take a collective effort to reduce emissions from the education sector. 

New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) chief researcher Rachel Bolstad says an all-encompassing approach is needed.

“We’ve got to look at every aspect of the system. So, from curriculum to property, use of resources and supply chains, teacher education, school leadership and governance, education for future work, all of those things, we’ve got to look at them and say, how is the climate crisis being addressed here and what might we need to do differently?”

Reframing climate change

Rachel says we need to start by reframing the language and narratives around climate change.

“The global literature is moving away from talking about ‘climate change education’ and towards ‘action for climate empowerment’ to show that the purpose  of learning is to empower action, and through action, learning.

“Instead of talking about climate change, I talk about ‘education for the transition to a low-emissions future’ or ‘education for a climate-changing future’ because that points towards what we’re doing to create change.”

Schools as community leaders

Rachel says buy-in from school leadership and Boards is important, as is recognition of the importance of relationships with Mana Whenua and school communities. 

“It’s when schools start to view it as being connected to everything instead of ‘just one more thing’,” says Rachel.

“Schools that have gone really deep into thinking about wellbeing, for example, should see that the wellbeing of the environment is integral with people’s wellbeing.”

Rachel adds that for schools that have gone deep into thinking about their location and their connections to Mana Whenua and the histories of their place, it’s not a separate thing to think about the future and the environment that they’re in, and their relationships.

“Even things like the approach to restorative justice [is part of it], the idea of climate justice weaves into that. Sometimes those things aren’t self-evident, but it doesn’t take much to connect the dots.”

Working in partnership

“Communities recognise that there’s a way for young people to thrive and flourish rather than be anxious and unable to affect change,” says Rachel.

“Schools can connect with Mana Whenua, not with demands or expectations, but to understand what they are doing or want to do in terms of environmental projects and climate adaptation, and ask, ‘how can we support the aspirations of Mana Whenua?’” 

Of course, it’s not just about schools but about the learner pathway through to work and further study, with a coherent and systematic approach needed to support transitions.

The Murihiku Regeneration project(external link) is a good example of a community working in partnership and rethinking how education can better support people’s needs and  aspirations.

Operated within the Ngāi Tahu context, with Te Tiriti partnership at its core, the project has a strong focus on supporting community, education and training, and workforce capability development. It is designed to build a regenerative economy that will support future generations.

The mahi encompasses a range of workstreams that support the Ngāi Tahu Climate Implementation Plan, released in June 2021.


Empowering young people is an important part of our response.

Empowering young people is an important part of our response.

Empowering young people

Supporting and empowering young people is also an important part of the task ahead.

In this Education Gazette article(external link), Year 8 student Theo of South New Brighton School expresses his desire to see action and scalability. “We can’t help by sitting around and talking – we need to do something. If our class can plant 100 trees, think what could be achieved if all the classes in the world did it,” he says.

Students like Theo, and Zoe in the aforementioned example, and students involved in the Student Strikes 4 Climate movement, are feeling increasingly empowered to speak up.

Rachel believes we often underestimate young people. “We don’t dip into the potential of young people as much as we should. A big part of climate action is to support and mobilize young people because they actually bring more creativity, more innovation and more holistic thinking than adults do. Giving young people the space and honestly listening to what they have to say, is a really good start. And then co-designing with them, actually setting out with an intention to collaborate with young people to shape these things.”

Curriculum a key anchor  

Curriculum plays an important role in shaping lifelong learning around transitioning to a sustainable future.

“Curriculum, while not the whole answer, is a really key anchor as it drives and shapes the nature of learning opportunities,” says Rachel.

“Schools can be thinking about the different kinds of further learning and vocational pathways that lie ahead for their students – and shaping curriculum that normalises interdisciplinary and systems thinking, and bicultural approaches that allow learners and educators to recognise different worldviews and how those shape our relationships to the environment.”

Subject specialist educators Chris Montgomerie and Rebecca McCormack, agree. They both work for the New Zealand Association for Environmental Education (NZAEE), Chris as executive officer and Rebecca as content curator.

Chris says the multidisciplinary nature of climate change education lends itself to curriculum integration and she is looking forward to seeing this articulated in the refresh of The New Zealand Curriculum  (NZC).

“It ties in really well with the Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum, because it all starts with where are we? What's this place? What's its history? So that's a really great place to start in terms of environmental education as well,” says Chris.

Rebecca adds that it aligns well with local curriculum design. “So, how do we pitch it? How do we use language? How do we provide local resources? Because we're actually role modelling, connecting with our local place.”

Creating learning opportunities

The curriculum resource Pūtātara(external link) models local, cross-curriculum learning opportunities well. Pūtātara encourages schools and teachers to create learning opportunities that expand learners’ understanding of complex issues and take action for change, aligning with local curriculum design and global citizenship, and environmental education.

Fergusson Intermediate in Upper Hutt put Pūtātara effectively into practice with its inquiry focused on the driving question: how can we contribute positively to the regeneration of our collective mauri?

In the discovery phase of the inquiry, kaitiakitanga was broken down into four environmental areas (whenua, moana, ngahere and awa) and students selected their group based on which area interested them. Using a wide range of resources and tools, the students identified local issues, then took action on their area of interest.

Emails to a biosecurity officer and the local council led to the class exploring options around pest control, a planting day at their local park and scientific testing of the biodiversity of their awa. The student reflections were compelling.

“I think we need to connect with more people so that people can actually take physical action with our projects,” wrote one about what they would like to do next time.

Curriculum refresh

Te Poutāhū (the curriculum arm within Te Mahau) is leading work to evolve our curriculum and assessment system so that all ākonga experience rich and responsive learning from early learning through to secondary school. As part of this, we are thinking about how the national curriculum and our supports can better support kaiako and teachers to equip our children and young people to be part of an equitable transition and positively contribute to our transition to a low-emissions society regardless of their life and career journeys.

The refresh of The New Zealand Curriculum will build on the Pūtātara focus on integrating learning about climate change, and working with iwi, hapū and communities to connect learning to local knowledges. The curriculum refresh includes an emphasis on growing young people as kaitiaki and embedding an understanding of the collective nature of our wellbeing. It aims to encourage curiosity, critical thinking and citizenship, so young people develop the skills, knowledge and capabilities to work together to solve problems and take action.

Environment health as personal health is one of the overarching principles of Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (TMoA) that guide the development of marau ā-kura. The redesign of TMoA(external link) will continue to focus on te taiao as a core principle and integral in marau ā-kura, which support ākonga Māori in their own world and will continue to support a sustainable environment through connecting ākonga purposefully with the environment.

In senior secondary schools, changes within the NCEA Change programme(external link) include the introduction of a new Environments and Societies subject, as well as themes of environmental sustainability and environmental concepts as part of a number of other subjects.

Ākonga at Ōhinetahi Governors Bay.

Ākonga at Ōhinetahi Governors Bay.

Lifelong learning 

Looking beyond secondary, the tertiary education sector also makes a significant contribution to climate change research, supporting Aotearoa New Zealand’s response to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The Reform of Vocational Education(external link) aims to create a strong, unified, sustainable vocational education system that is fit for the future. This includes delivering the skills needed by industry and communities for work today and in the future through work-integrated learning, and empowering people to thrive in the transition to a low emissions society.

The goal is a system that can deliver lifelong learning. It’s about ensuring graduates have the right programmes or micro credentials available to help them continue to grow their skills and to support their changes in career.

Mātauranga Māori 

Pauline Waiti, director of Ahu Whakamua, is pleased to see mātauranga Māori incorporated into learning around climate change and sustainability.

As part of her involvement in environmental education, Pauline is working with Te Poutāhū on how education resources can strengthen their approach and response from a kaupapa, tikanga and mātauranga Māori perspective.

In one example, she decided the most important aspect to focus on was: could ākonga Māori see themselves in the resource?

Pauline says ākonga need to consider that there is a whakapapa relationship that is part of te ao Māori in order to explore the notion of a deep connection to nature as they learn about and respond to climate change.

“Understanding and embracing this viewpoint helps learners to draw inspiration and hope about the natural world, emphasising that as living things, we are in this together,” she says.

“Ākonga might be thinking to themselves when they are engaging in a Climate Change programme: does this fit in with what I know of how my tūpuna thought about te taiao, te ao tūroa? If it does fit, how does that make me feel? If it does not fit, is it a big difference? Is it a difference that I am OK with? Is it a difference that my tūpuna might be OK with? How would I explain it to my tūpuna if they were here? How do I feel if I adjust my world view?”

Pauline also seeks to provide guidance for kaiako/teachers to include ākonga Māori in the conversation. She says exploring other Indigenous knowledge bases is an opportunity to broaden understanding of interconnectedness of life on earth and help to inform responses.

One of the major stepping stones to Pauline’s work around climate change education was her involvement in redefining Pūtaiao, one of ngā wāhanga ako (learning areas) in Te Marautanga o Aotearoa.

Mātauranga Pūtaiao is mātauranga Māori-informed understanding of te taiao, te ao turoa (the environment, the natural world), recorded in a range of literacies including pūrākau, waiata, haka, whakairo and raranga.

Pauline views this as positive for ākonga Māori as it validates mātauranga Māori as a body of knowledge that sits alongside Western science.

“Bodies of knowledge grow, change and deepen over time,” says Pauline.

 “The kōrero based on the knowledge of our tūpuna support a localised curriculum with ākonga learning about the whakapapa of the hapū, iwi where they are living.”

Supporting teachers and kaiako 

This was certainly the case for Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Orini ki Ngāti Awa.

“As a newly relocated kura to Coastlands (Papaka-ngahorohoro) on the coastline of Whakatāne, we literally had a blank canvas to work with in trying to rejuvenate the traditional ecosystems that used to exist there,” explains Tumuaki Taiarahia Melbourne(external link).

Grasping a professional learning and development opportunity through the BLAKE Inspire for Teachers Programme, Taiarahia was able to pursue a pathway toward understanding how to achieve their goals.

“Confidence in moving forward with environmental issues was the biggest outcome for me within my practice, and in providing encouragement and guidance as a tumuaki/principal for my kaiako and whānau. Thankfully, we have many green fingers and other environmental champions within our whānau that continue to make our progress engaging and exciting,” he says.

Continuing to provide PLD opportunities is important to help support the development of teachers and school leaders, helping them to effectively integrate environmental education learning across the curriculum, and strengthen the focus on wellbeing in their local curriculum and marau ā-kura.

Resources to help kaiako bring Te Whāriki alive for their mokopuna will be developed by Te Poutāhū to help prompt children’s engagement and enjoyment of climate change learning in the early years. The Contribution | Mana tangata strand of Te Whāriki recognises the importance of “creating opportunities for children to contribute their own strengths and interests” and that “working together for the common good develops a spirit of sharing, togetherness and reciprocity which is valued by Pasifika and many cultures”. Our Pacific region faces enormous issues, and we owe it to the inheritors of that issue to have the knowledge and skills to participate and contribute to the climate adaptation and mitigation response.

Sector capability

The NZAEE(external link) shares this focus on building capability across the sector and our communities, says Chris Montgomerie.

She is pleased that the NZAEE has received Networks of Expertise funding to develop a website to host resources, provide a forum for engagement, and a place to share good practice – essentially a one-stop shop.

“It's about celebrating success, raising awareness, strengthening networks, fostering collaboration, and building capability,” says Chris.

“We are providing support for the wider sector online and locally so that all schools can feel supported or find hooks for environmental learning. Many of NZAEE’s member organisations, like Enviroschools and Garden to Table then provide a deeper dive with dedicated facilitator support for schools.”

“For a lot of teachers and individuals who are working in environmental education in different parts of the country, it can feel quite isolating, because this sort of work often sees a lone person waving the green flag at a school,” adds Rebecca.

Rachel agrees. “There are pockets of fantastic stuff happening out there at the grassroots and flaxroots level in schools and communities. But it’s very evident that so much of this currently rests on a few really dedicated and concerned people, whether it's teachers, students or school leaders.”

The schools that are doing wonderful things need support and recognition, while others need support and inspiration to find their power to act, she says.

Many New Zealand schools are located in low-lying coastal areas.

Many New Zealand schools are located in low-lying coastal areas.

“It’s no longer a case of ‘should we?’,” says Rachel. “We already have schools that are experiencing crises because of climate induced flooding, coastal flooding. Communities are impacted by drought and other weather conditions.”

Rethinking school infrastructure

Many New Zealand schools are near the coast, harbours and rivers, which means they could be at risk of increased flooding, erosion and tsunamis associated with climate change.

Te Puna Hanganga, Matihiko (the Ministry’s infrastructure and digital arm) has completed preliminary screening of schools at risk of coastal hazards, and is working with local authorities to help schools be prepared as part of a Coastal Flood Risk Programme.   

The Ministry is also focused on practical ways to support schools to make changes so they are environmentally sustainable and energy efficient. State schools make up a big part of the government’s property portfolio and will play an important role in the government’s transition to public sector carbon neutrality by 2025.

Among the initiatives is the work underway with the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) to replace coal boilers in state schools with safe, low-carbon heating systems. Additional funding was announced recently to phase out all remaining school coal boilers by 2025.

The Sustainability Contestable Fund has supported 94 schools to replace coal boilers, install LED lighting, solar panels, and pursue rainwater storage and recycling projects, composting and recycling programmes, geothermal projects, and heating upgrades.

Over the next three years, Ngā Iti Kahurangi programme, driven by Te Puna Hanganga, Matihiko, will be installing insulation and replacing old, inefficient lights with energy-efficient LEDs in around 600 small or remote schools. The programme will analyse pre- and post-improvement energy consumption to demonstrate the impact of these upgrades. 

Te Puna Hanganga, Matihiko has also run energy efficiency trials in 56 schools across the country to build its understanding of how schools use energy. It has incorporated its learnings into Te Mahere Taiao – the Ministry’s Environmental Action Plan for School Property, which maps out how it aims to reduce carbon and environmental impacts at each stage of the school property lifecycle.

The rollout of Te Mahere Taiao will introduce embodied and operational carbon targets for Ministry-led new builds from around July 2022.

By 1 April 2023, all new school buildings with a value greater than $9 million will be required to carry a minimum Green Star rating of five. Designing Schools Aotearoa New Zealand requirements have been updated to help meet sustainability standards when designing and building schools.

Many of these initiatives will position the Ministry to comply with the Carbon Neutral Government Programme (CNGP) targets. The CNGP requires the Ministry to report on carbon emissions across the state school sector from 2022/23 onwards, and take active steps to reduce emissions in schools. The Ministry is working across government to create central emissions reporting systems that remove the burden from school boards.

The Ministry is also measuring the emissions performance of the school transport fleet and encouraging transport service providers to demonstrate good sustainability practices in fleet and depot management.

The recent school bus tender incentivised transport providers to use younger vehicles to reduce vehicle emissions and rewarded good waste management practices.

Looking ahead

There is considerable work underway right across the education sector from early learning to tertiary – work that this series will look to explore going forward. There is much to share and discuss. From the initiatives that are already underway, to the work-in-progress solutions, to the fledgling ideas, to things that have yet to be considered – it’s going to take a united and wide-ranging effort to achieve a sustainable and climate-resilient Aotearoa.

As Rachel says, “We need stories of the change. It’s about what we’re building and the better future and that we actually have the power to do it. We just need the courage and the commitment and the ambition and the mutual support.”

Resource support

A range of resources to support education for sustainability(external link) through the New Zealand Curriculum are available now on TKI.

There are also resources on TKI for Kura Taiao(external link) and on Kauwhata Reo(external link).

The refresh of the NZC and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa will be accompanied by updated and new teaching and learning resources aligned to the updated national curriculum to support kaiako and teachers to connect learning purposefully to climate change contexts and encourage students to engage in positive, solutions-focused climate learning and action.

This will include guidance on incorporating emission reduction activities into local curriculum and marau ā-kura.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:10 pm, 8 June 2022

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