The Importance of Problem-Finding in Climate Change Education
“The best way to predict your future is to create it. The best way to create
it is to find a problem and solve it.”
Jane Healy’s class at St. Francis de Sales High School decided that they wanted to study flooding in their community. Initially, the students were focused on the flooding of Lake Michigan, because they had watched their local beach disappear under the high water levels of the lake over the prior 2 years. But as they thought about how they could make a change in the time they had, they realized that solving flooding on the entire lake might be a bigger bite than 12 kids could chew in six months. As they continued to talk to their community about flooding and its impact, they realized that flooding was actually hitting much closer to home. One of the students had personally experienced flooding when her family’s basement apartment had been flooded during a summer storm – resulting in her being homeless for a few months.
Ms. Healy described the process this way, “We found out that one of our students had faced flooding in her home. It was happening to people in our community, to people we knew.” As the students researched more, the contours of a local problem became clear, and they started to see how impactful flooding was to their community. Ms. Healy explained, “As an educator I was able to then leverage that realization to say, ‘OK, what can we do to solve that problem.’”
Ms. Healy and her students experienced a realization that all of us have at some point. Climate change is a complex problem that requires multifaceted solutions. It is intertwined with everything from access to clean energy to the challenges of people living in already vulnerable communities. It impacts us all, but not all in the same way. Ms. Healy’s response to this complexity was to support her students as they became problem finders. By guiding her students as they found a problem that was relevant to them within the broad scope of climate change, she was helping them both understand the complexity of the issue and to see how it is meaningful in their lives.
While we are all familiar with education focused on problem-solving, approaches based on problem-finding are less well known. Problem-finding education differs from problem-solving education in several ways. Problem-finding is exploratory and open ended, while problem solving is more structured. Problem-finding centers on identifying the underlying issues, while problem solving is more focused on finding a solution to an identified problem. Finally, problem-finding is proactive, while problem solving is more reactive.
Teaching young people to be problem finders also engenders a proactive approach to climate change. Teaching young people to be proactive helps them develop important life skills such as taking responsibility, setting goals, managing time effectively, and solving problems, which in turn can lead to greater success, self-confidence, and resilience in both their personal and professional lives. In the context of climate change education, engendering a proactive approach empowers students to take action and make a positive impact on the environment, rather than feeling helpless or overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue. By developing proactive habits and attitudes, young people can learn to advocate for environmental policies and work towards creating a more sustainable future for themselves and future generations.
Here are ways that can help educators incorporate problem-finding into their classrooms:
- Focus on students’ lived experiences: Climate change education is more relevant when focused on local issues students experience first-hand. Teachers can introduce climate change through the lens of the students’ lived experience and the experiences of their community members. Students can then be asked to identify the problems faced by these communities and to propose possible solutions.
- Student-led research projects: One way to incorporate problem-finding is to build the opportunity for students to define their own research question into projects. For example, an educator can ask students to explore where their school sources its energy, how that energy is produced and to identify the challenges in changing energy sources.
- Participatory activities: Teachers can engage students in participatory activities that allow them to take an active role in addressing climate change. For example, students might be interested in how reliance on electricity created by coal fired power plants impacts climate change. As a result, students might choose to work with the school administration to reduce carbon emissions in their school via energy conservation.
- Student-led discussions and debates: A final way to incorporate problem-finding into climate change education is to facilitate student-led discussions and debates. Asking students to debate topics relevant to their community will help build understanding of local policies that govern climate change action. By giving students the latitude to choose the topics they want to advocate for can help students develop critical thinking and encourage them to become informed about climate change.
Climate change is a global problem that requires action at all levels of society. If we teach about climate change without giving young people the opportunity to find the problems that impact them, we do them a disservice. It is imperative that we allow young people to see the full complexity of the issue and allow them to discover issues based on what is relevant to their lives. Approaching climate change education in this manner will result in a populace prepared to participate in informed decision making.
For Jane Healy, the opportunity for her students to identify a problem that was meaningful to them and then take action to address that problem directly was empowering for them. As Ms. Healy put it, “I don’t think adults always understand how overwhelmed young people are by climate change. Going through this process taught my kids that they could do something to make their community stronger, they could make a difference. Already I see in them a desire to be involved, a commitment to making their community more resilient.”