Research School Network: Constructive hope vs super wicked problems*: the very real world of environmental science How children learned to stop worrying and love the planet


Constructive hope vs super wicked problems*: the very real world of environmental science

How children learned to stop worrying and love the planet

Recommendation 4 of the EEF’s new Improving Science in Primary Schools guidance report suggests that schools should link science to relevant, real-world contexts.

The topics in the National Curriculum provide ample opportunities to make those links, and putting this recommendation into practice doesn’t require huge imaginative leaps. School gardens and the local area can be used to promote botanical learning; cross-curricular planning with DT and PE deepen understanding of the properties and uses of materials, of forces that create and impede movement and of the fundamentals of human biology; spotlighting a range of diverse scientific and technological pioneers opens the imagination’s doors to a career in science.

“Connecting science teaching to meaningful and tangible scenarios or examples that reflect the nature of the real world can enhance science attainment and attitudes towards science”.

A curriculum for sustainability
However, at Charles Dickens Nursery and Primary, staff noticed that the key real world” science issues most often raised by children were environmental: global warming and climate change, resource scarcity, pollution, and extinction threats arising from habitat depletion. Children have acute awareness of these huge frightening super wicked problems[1], yet none is explicitly mentioned in the National Curriculum’s programmes of study for primary science. The curriculum development team therefore took the decision to supplement the existing science curriculum with a sixth half-term module in all year groups, on an aspect of environmental science:

Sustainability curriculum


Food and farming
Year 1Transport
Year 2Plastics
Year 3Air quality
Year 4Biodiversity
Year 5Water
Year 6Energy

Each module starts by building a sound base of knowledge and understanding, connected to prior learning within the existing curriculum. Onto this foundation, lessons foster children’s sense of agency by encouraging them to think about positive changes they can make in their lives, at home and at school, to actively improve their environment. It was hugely important to us that this was a living breathing subject – that the theory and practice of sustainability went hand in hand, and that children’s learning incorporated opportunities to change behaviour, both in the short term and, we hope, in a more sustained way.

Action not anxiety
UCL’s 2023 report Teaching Climate Change and Sustainability[1]
surveyed 388 teachers to find out more about sustainability in England. Its curriculum section highlighted the importance of linking knowledge to action, not least because teaching facts alone can increase young people’s feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (Ojala, 2012, 2015) which can lead to climate anxiety and apathy (Galway & Field, 2023; Ojala, 2013).”[1]

To avoid those feelings of anxiety and apathy, we need to foster hope and optimism. A way of doing this is to make clear to children the impact of the positive environmental behaviour choices that they make both individually and collectively as part of the school community. In Year 5, for example, in their module on water, children keep a usage log over the course of two weeks. Their efforts to reduce water usage are celebrated and positively reinforced through reference to the impact of these actions. By having a shower and not a bath, you have saved 40 litres of water a day.’ Year 6 consider the impact of solar energy use in their green energy module: By using the solar panels on the school roof, we have been able to give electricity back to the national grid, reducing the need for further use of fossil fuels to generate power and thereby limit global warming.’ Year 4 children learn that careful management of parts of the (tiny, inner-city) school garden can enhance biodiversity.

We hope that through this work we not only link science to real-world contexts but also build children’s belief that individual action can contribute to collective efficacy; that they can have constructive hope for a sustainable future and that science is part of the solution to the super wicked problems that they hear about every day.

We used the following prompts for our curriculum discussions, which others might find helpful:

  • How can we link the science to real world contexts in a way that fosters optimism, not helplessness?
  • How can these units also support children to work scientifically?
  • How can we deepen understanding through authentic cross-curricular links?
  • What CPD will our teachers need to deliver this content?
  • For successful implementation, if we are adding content into our curriculum, what could we take out?
  • How can we involve parents in our work?

Greer, K., Sheldrake, R., Rushton, E., Kitson, A., Hargreaves, E., Walshe, N. (2023). Teaching climate change and sustainability: A survey of teachers in England. University College London. London, UK. The report can be accessed at:

[1] Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. and Auld, G. (2012). Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sciences, 45 (2), pp. 123–152. doi: 10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0.

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