Creativity, critical thinking & climate education for the green transition

Wide angle view of child girl draws planet earth with wax colors on school notebook for Earth day

By Cassie Hague and Mathias Bouckaert

Analyst and former Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Young people are at the forefront of calling for and taking action on climate crisis.
– Education systems can support young people to enable them to develop the scientific and environmental knowledge and creativity and critical thinking skills needed to create and evaluate responses to climate change.
– Empowering young people with creativity and critical thinking skills during their lessons at school is key to supporting their role in the green transition.

In 2015, 15-year old Edgar Tarimo saw severe rains and flooding destroying hundreds of mud houses in his hometown in Tanzania. At the same time, flood waters lifted tons of plastic bags and empty bottles that spread out across the streets. This sight sparked an idea: turning plastic waste into tiles and bricks to reconstruct the city. This gave rise to Green Venture Tanzania, a recycling company that employs hundreds of people to collect plastic waste and transform it into building materials and furniture for schools and public spaces.

Young people are not just unfairly affected by a climate crisis they did not create, they are also at the heart of calling for and creating climate action just like Edgar Tarimo.

The Youth and Future Generations Day at the recent COP27 conference saw the presentation of the Global Youth Statement, a comprehensive text synthesising the key demands of youth across 15 themes including climate finance, energy, food, health, loss and damage, nature and biodiversity and oceans. The authors of this statement aim to amplify the voices of young people globally who are collaborating to create change on climate.

In Cambodia, children who attend a floating school on Tonlé Sap Lake have been campaigning to create environmental awareness and clear litter in their community. In France, students from 10 business and engineering schools created the “Noise” network that gathers local associations to develop and advocate for climate actions on campuses and beyond. In the United States, Sunrise is a youth movement that campaigns to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process. The 2022 UN Ocean Conference began with an “Innovathon,” where teams of young people worked together to create and propose new solutions to keep the ocean healthy and productive.

From school strikes to the story of Edgar Tarimo and far beyond, young activists, innovators and entrepreneurs, many in the global south, are leading change and driving action on climate.

The climate challenges faced by the global community are many, and the highest burden of responsibility should fall on adults in governments and corporations taking action at scale. But these stories and many others show how powerfully young people can act as voices of change when they have access to the appropriate knowledge, skills, tools and opportunities.

We know from PISA that looking after the global environment is important to a large majority of 15-year-olds in OECD countries and economies and 57% think they can do something about the problems of the world. How can we build education systems that support more young people to translate that belief into action? Many now call for climate education to be compulsory in all schools and universities. In that context, the OECD brief, Teaching for Climate Action, called for a reimagination of climate education.

The new PISA report, Are Students Ready to Take on Environmental Challenges? shows a link between scientific knowledge and pro-environmental attitudes. The more students know about science, the more likely they are to be concerned about the environment. However, this is no guarantee of climate action. Students need support to mobilise their knowledge into action, develop a sense of purpose and agency, and maintain that over time. PISA tells us that coming from environmentally active families and schools helps this. Paying attention to how science and climate change are taught is also important.

What sort of teaching and learning is needed for climate action?

The consequences of climate crisis are global, complex and interrelated with critical impacts in diverse fields. Not only do students need nuanced understandings of the science underlying climate change and its consequences, they also need strong creativity and critical thinking skills to be able to use that knowledge to generate and evaluate ideas for mitigation, adaptation and action.

To support teachers in implementing teaching for climate action on the ground, the OECD has published example lesson plans showing how the science related to climate can be taught in a way that provides opportunities to young people to develop their creativity and critical thinking. These lesson plans can be adapted to fit a range of needs and contexts or used by teachers as inspiration to create their own teaching approaches.

Developing creativity and critical thinking for climate action in the classroom

For example, the primary level ocean acidification lesson plan takes a problem-based approach. With teacher support, students develop and apply knowledge regarding alkaline and acidic substances and the absorption of carbon dioxide into the ocean. Ultimately, students use their creativity and critical thinking to generate ideas for engineering solutions to the problem of rising acidity of the oceans and discuss their strengths and limitations and the assumptions on which they are based.

In other lesson plans, students come up with novel ways to manage the impact of farmed animals on the environment, produce different models of how the earth is warming, investigate the degradation of objects to design new approaches to waste disposal, model how wetlands would respond to floods and design possible responses to extreme weather and rain events.

Empowering young people

Whilst broad initiatives are needed around action for climate empowerment, these lesson plans aim to support the kind of teaching and learning that enables more young people to harness scientific knowledge to come up with innovative ideas and solutions in face of the urgent and complex problems they are likely to face over their lifetimes. Empowering young people with creativity and critical thinking skills is key to supporting them to be at the forefront of the green transition to inclusive low-emission economies.


The lesson plans were developed for the OECD by Emily Adah Miller, University of Georgia, and Alice Severson from Huegel Elementary in Madison, Wisconsin, United States with a team from the CREATE centre at Michigan State University, United States.

More about the OECD creativity and critical thinking project

These lesson plans are part of a broader OECD initiative to support teachers to foster and assess creativity and critical thinking. The project worked with teachers to develop conceptual rubrics setting out a common language on what is involved in these skills in particular subjects. These lesson plans represent a meeting of climate education and the OECD creativity and critical thinking rubrics. The project’s methodology is currently being implemented in higher education as part of its second strand.

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Photo credit:Shutterstock/Davide Zanin Photography