The post originally appeared in Usable Knowledge.

As the conversations surrounding the Paris climate talks have emphasized, the future is now for rescuing the earth from climate upheaval — and today’s children, inheritors of the agreement just signed, will have to be prepared to make the necessary choices to safeguard the planet.

Educators can lay the groundwork for this generational shift by not only teaching environmental science, but also fostering an awareness of how students’ everyday actions can help or harm our world. Associate Professor Tina Grotzer, a cognitive scientist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explores how understanding complex causality in nature affects human decision making. She offers insight into how teachers can help students appreciate the intricacies of environmental change.


Teaching and learning about the environment means grappling with three key concepts, which shape the way we understand our impact on the world:  

  1. Action at an attentional distance: the idea that the connection between causes and outcomes in environmental systems can be difficult to recognize because they exist on large spatial scales and in different “attentional frames.” Middle schoolers may say, for example, that they want to “save the polar bears,” but they don’t see polar bears in their daily lives. As a result, many have a difficult time remembering consistently that their actions, such as recycling and turning off the lights, can actually affect polar bears.
  2. Distributed causality: the idea that many disparate causes can collectively lead to powerful, unexpected, and possibly unnoticed outcomes. One quick drive to the grocery store may use barely any gas, but billions of people make that trip thousands of times a year, and the amount of gas those trips use adds up. 
  3. Probabilistic causality: the idea that a cause doesn’t have to lead to an effect every single time for them to be related. (For instance, not every person who smokes will get lung cancer, but statistically, it increases the likelihood he will.) Students have to learn to look beyond their personal observations, valuing and interpreting scientific data to comprehend the relationships between actions.


It can be difficult to understand the interconnectedness of the environment — but Grotzer emphasizes that with the right support, young people have the capacity to do it. “This generation probably has the best opportunity to understand causality given their experiences with things like the Internet and grass-roots global phenomena,” she says.

Here are five approaches to environmental education:

  1. Don’t shy away from complexity. 
    While it may be tempting to simplify tough concepts when talking to kids about climate change, it does them a disservice in the long run. Not letting kids grapple with the complexity can diminish the scale of these problems, and it denies kids the chance to learn how to reason about them and come up with their own complex solutions.
  2. Make up words to help you — or ask kids to make up words.
    “We don’t have good vocabulary” to explain all of these relationships, says Grotzer. “Encourage students to make up words and phrases that capture the nature of the concepts.” Children in Grotzer’s studies, for instance, explained extended patterns as “domino effects” and dynamic balance as “seesawing.”
  3. Offer kids the opportunities to “just be” in nature.
    To want to save the environment, young people have to appreciate what they’re trying to protect. But the negative talk surrounding climate change can make kids feel bad about their interactions with the outdoors. Parents and teachers can encourage kids to spend time outside noticing the patterns, biodiversity, and beauty surrounding them, which can, explains Grotzer, provide motivation “to tackle hard environmental problems or stick with daily choices that pay off in the long run.”
  4. Make it all ages.
    The ability, and responsibility, to have these discussions does not rest solely with upper-level science teachers. Preschool classes can meet outside, and teachers can encourage connections between what students see, hear, smell, and touch. Middle school, with flexible curriculums and idealistic, determined students, can be an ideal time to delve into environmental causality.
  5. Make it interdisciplinary.
    Every classroom and discipline, says Grotzer, can incorporate concepts related to environmental education. Both the ethical considerations — the notion that we have a collective responsibility for the common good — and the ideas of complex causality percolate throughout the school day, from history lessons to literature analyses to disputes on the playground. Learning to dissect these complexities and create sensible solutions can help develop the critical-thinking skills necessary to understanding the challenges of environmental stewardship.