How to plant a legacy: Asha Alexander on putting climate change on the curriculum

Asha Alexander, Principal/CEO at GEMS Legacy School is a true pioneer for sustainability education and climate literacy. Having led her school to be recognised as the first in the world to have a climate literate teacher in every class, she has recently been recognised as a One UN Climate Change Learning (UN CC:Learn) Partnership champion, and her inspirational story has been published on the UNCC website.

Furthermore, last month Asha was selected to speak at the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development where she was the only school principal invited to speak.

Here, Asha shares with the GEMS school community how she along with her team at GLS, are collaborating with schools and activists all over the world to develop a sustainability curriculum that will inspire young people to tackle one of the greatest challenges to humanity.

“As a primary school, we were perhaps the most unlikely of contenders to lead the charge against climate change. However, one morning I came across a newspaper article that about Candice Wright from FPS becoming climate change certified teacher. That roused my curiosity, and I pursued the link to the UN CC:Learn platform. A week later, I had received a UN CC:Learn certification – and possessed more knowledge than I had ever imagined possible about climate change. I knew then that the time had come to change our school and every school in the world.

Within a month all 300-plus staff, 67 parent governors and a few students had attained this certification, making us the first school in the world to have a climate literate teacher in every one of our 162 classrooms.

The mapping of the curriculum with climate literacy objectives and the training of all stakeholders allowed for a whole-institution approach, inspiring other teachers from beyond the UAE to follow our lead. The leadership of the UK’s Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council visited us to carry this template back to 46 schools in their borough.

Not only did we map climate literacy to the curriculum, but we also created platforms such as GEMS Plant A Legacy (PAL). The children were enthused and we began the fall season with a pledge to plant 15,000 trees each year as part of the PAL project. Our students travelled to the desert to plant the local ghaf tree and engaged with more than 40 local organisations to plant trees on their premises. The platform has since seen more than 36,000 trees being planted by children from all around the world.

To promote critical thinking, problem-solving and action in our young people, and to support them to develop confidence in addressing the challenges to sustainable development, we joined with five other GEMS schools (FPS, GMS, RDS, WIS and WSS) to engage with 27 schools in 13 different countries, including Australia, Italy, Bangladesh and the USA, in a twinning programme that is continuing to gain momentum as it embeds Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the schools and communities.

In October 2020, we launched the world’s first School Conference of Parties Expo- SCOPE 2020, inspired by COP25, where children debated and discussed climate change and came up with solutions. Teachers employed a variety of educational methods, drawing on literature, art and debate to illustrate the processes, and student work was published as the Climate Diaries on Amazon. Youngsters from 40 schools participated in this event, which is now an annual feature on the GEMS Education calendar.

Through SCOPE we have engaged a wide range of stakeholders such as World Green Economy Organisation in the UAE, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), UN CC:Learn, the private sector, civil society, NGOs, climate activists like Licypriya Kangujam, along with the general public.

As we look to the future I am reminded of a quote from  American environmentalist Bill McKibben, who said: “The possibility of swift change lies in people coming together in movements large enough to shift the Zeitgeist.”

Perhaps the best way to measure this power to change direction is with the 3.5% rule. Erica Chenoweth’s research analysed the last 100 years and found that it only takes 3.5% of a population’s active, sustained and non-violent participation to force political change. Erica believes the 3.5% rule likely applies to smaller-scale efforts as well, and she is probably right.

The power of education is succeeding where nothing else has for decades. Building teacher capacity is the first domino in the sequence of transformative change. This power needs to be built. This power will manifest itself when 3.5% of teachers in schools around the world embed the SDGs in their curriculum by placing it at the very heart of what children learn in schools.”

If you want to join the programme for GEMS Global Ambassadors, please get in touch with Ranjani Ramnath