Koen Timmers is building a global movement of young people and teachers to enable climate change curricula reform in schools around the world. Through a non-alarmist, solution-oriented approach, Koen is linking local climate action with global empathy-building processes. He empowers teachers to connect students across the world to learn how climate change impacts them and what kind of solutions they can create, whilst also supporting teachers in institutionalizing climate education locally.
The New Idea
Quality climate change education is only accessible in very few schools across the world, whilst its negative effects continue to impede the lives of billions of people. Climate change education is failing to get the traction it needs from educators for many reasons. One is that teachers often lack the tools to bring the topic in an accessible manner into the classroom. Another is that it is hard to contextualize and take responsibility for one’s own environmental impact. If this is already hard on an individual level, then it is even harder to connect and feel what kind of impact climate change has on the people in a region, and even more in other countries.
Koen Timmers, a Belgian pioneer in e-learning and a well-connected teacher internationally, realized that linking increased local awareness with the opportunity to share experiences with global peers can help young audiences to make sense of the direct and indirect, the local and global, the personal and societal impact of this complex challenge. He created an educational movement that is leveraging technology to create a global, action-oriented, educational experience that unites students and teachers across the world to learn and exchange ideas about how to tackle climate change.
At the core of his approach lies a free climate change curriculum that he co-developed with the World Wildlife Fund as a scientific partner. Here, Koen invites teachers to join his Climate Action Project, incorporated under the name Take Action Global (TAG), together with thousands of students simultaneously for an annual six-week period in which they can bring their class to a virtual classroom. Over the six weeks, teachers are invited to use non-mainstream learning approaches such as collaborative learning, learning by doing, playful learning, learning from experts, and using carbon footprint tracking apps. All those approaches are the methodological part of the curriculum that has been translated into 14 languages, allowing teachers to talk about climate change in an accessible way to 6–22-year-olds. Part of the program involves visits from partner schools from different regions, which allows students to connect with fellow students on other continents to learn how climate change affects their surroundings. At the end of the six-week period, all students must present a concrete action that would positively impact the environment in their respective country/region/city. This presentation is streamed worldwide, and students can learn about the emerging local solutions. This is an eye-opening experience for students that contributes to building empathy across the world for the impact of climate change.
Koen, as an active teacher himself, collaborates with teachers as central actors for climate change education reform. The six-week program is Koen’s hook to engage teachers in becoming active ambassadors in their schools and education systems to move the topic of climate change education higher on the agenda. For this, Koen has built a group of teacher ambassadors who have been notably engaged with the Climate Action Project. By providing them with resources and contacts, Koen empowers the teachers to reach out to teacher unions and educational ministries to push for mandatory climate education or other public policy solutions. Participating teachers in Peru and the Philippines were involved in negotiations with education ministries to include the Climate Action Project’s curriculum as part of the national educational curriculum, thanks to the local ambassadors’ activities. Koen gives teachers a new role which makes them proud and gives them opportunities to become visible actors in the climate change movement next to their students.
So far, more than 3.4 million students and 21,000 teachers have participated in the learning journey, and students across the globe have gone on to continue their climate change projects. In Ireland, for example, a group of students succeeded in changing the national symbol for recycling as it had closely resembled an organic food label, which led to people throwing recyclable items in the wrong trash bin.
Data collected by UNESCO highlights that out of 100 countries surveyed, only 53% mentioned climate change education in their curriculum and if mentioned, it was given low priority. The same survey also described that only 40% of teachers were confident in teaching about the severity of climate change, and about one-third felt able to explain the effects of climate change on their region or locality. When asked about the challenges of teaching climate change, they were unfamiliar with suitable pedagogies. Smaller studies have shown the consequence of this lack of tools and knowledge among teachers. A study published in Science Magazine, surveying 1,500 middle and high school science teachers, found that nearly two-thirds of educators were not using scientific evidence to teach their students about climate change.
Even if the curriculums exist, they often teach about climate change causes and consequences without giving students the tools to act. This reinforces the impotence and lack of representation that youth feel in the solution-making, even though they are the generation that will suffer from the consequences. The existing programs and awareness campaigns available to bring information and knowledge to youth are often based on fear and a grim outlook on the future. This creates “climate anxiety”, distress related to worries about the effects of climate change, amongst youth and children as the content is neither age nor context-appropriate.
The lack of access to accurate knowledge and practical tools to fight climate change have multiple consequences for youngsters. On the individual level, there is a risk that unsustainable behaviors (e.g., eating meat and other resource-intensive foods) will be continued by the next generation and become increasingly difficult to change at a later age. At the same time, on a more global level, youth don’t become aware of the global scale of the issue and how it affects their peers across the globe in different or similar ways than them, reducing the potential of building solidarity on this issue around the world.
Koen's Climate Action Project is at the core of this work, a six-week program to teach about climate change. Koen is focusing on teachers as an entry point. His main goal is to reach and unite as many teachers as possible globally to ensure that students learn in an authentic, engaging way and provide accurate facts, helping them disseminate findings, solutions, and actions toward climate change. Teachers sign up for free, receive the necessary guidelines and the curriculum (available in 14 languages), and become part of a global platform that allows them to connect to teachers from across the world. Once registered, they are assigned to a facilitator (teachers who have participated several times and guide new teachers during the process). This facilitator is a peer and provides feedback to the new teacher when preparing for the six-week program. At the end of the six-week program, the students design and implement solutions.
Some of the implemented solutions include:
- In Malawi, the course led students to plant trees to capture carbon, which gave them some media attention leading a company to create an app in which the students could track the number of trees planted. This allowed them to get governmental support and inspire students in Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and South Africa to also start planting trees.
- Kenyan students made fences out of plastic bottles to highlight the circular use of materials. Nigerian students developed small biogas plants and American students even created mobile solar suitcases.
- German students won a grant from the German government to put solar panels in their school.
- In Canada, students explored 3D printing technology to rebuild coral reef elements to slow down coral bleaching in the world's oceans.
- In Portugal, 35 teachers wrote a letter to the director of the UN to ask for more support on the topic of climate change education in the country.
- Students in Peru organized a climate march mobilizing 400 people.
- Swedish students went to Stockholm to visit the Prime Minister and explain the importance of the Climate Action Project for the future of Sweden.
- Irish students got the Ministry of Environment to change the recycling label after making the Minister aware that the recycling label and the green dot (the label that highlights that a product is organic) looked very similar, leading to people throwing waste in the wrong bins.
- Students in Sierra Leone raised awareness within their community about the destructive effects of climate change in the face of a flood following heavy rains. After the flood hit their town, two of their classmates unfortunately passed away, and students could not finalize the project.
Each week, videos documenting discussions and solutions are published on the Climate Action Project’s platform. This way, students can learn from their peers globally and discover that climate change may appear very differently in other parts of the world. At the same time, teachers are provided with different methods to convey the content that incentivizes collaboration and knowledge building, real-world problem solving, communication in different contexts, use of creativity, and empathy. During the six-week projects, schools are matched with partners in other parts of the world with whom they can exchange their learnings. Hence, students can connect from their classroom with peers around the globe and discuss their findings and solutions to climate change and its impact.
Every country has its own Climate Action Project Ambassador who coordinates and reaches out to governments and media. These are teachers who have been participating in the Climate Action Project for years and have been volunteering to spread the project in their countries, showing high dedication and willingness to disseminate the project, empower students and develop themselves as leaders in the education sector. More experienced teachers, who have participated in the program at least two times, can become “Facilitators” and provide peer-to-peer support and coaching to teachers who participate in the program for the first time.
Over the years, Koen has formed a loyal community of teachers who are very engaged in climate change and who use the Climate Action Project to achieve higher impact in their respective schools, regions, or even countries. Teachers are encouraged to share the curriculum and project with their peers and become natural multipliers. At the same time, Koen also leverages the connections with teachers to talk to teacher unions or ministries of education to institutionalize the climate change curriculum in the country's regular school curriculum.
Koen puts a lot of thinking into creating different incentives to get teachers to join the program and to spread the project. For this reason, he promotes extrinsic motivations to join the project, which allows him to reach teachers who might not deeply care about climate change mainly but care about their career development. Like other online trainings, each teacher receives a certificate at the end of the course. If a teacher becomes engaged in various other activities and repeats participation in the program, they can earn badges, which match the requirements of obligatory professional development activities that teachers need to follow. Koen aims to certify the different roles in the program:
- Certified Climate Change Educator for teachers who participate in the training;
- Certified School Climate Coordinator for teachers who become facilitators and/or ambassadors;
- Certified Climate Action Schools, for schools who have changed their actions during their participation.
Additionally, Koen and his team support teachers, especially ambassadors, to get in touch with the media and create visibility for the project and the topic of climate education. Through these teachers, schools and students get visibility on a local or national level. In other cases, Koen shares opportunities with teachers to present the project at conferences or write blog entries or papers about the project to get recognized.
Koen’s way of measuring the impact of his project is threefold. First, he is quantitatively measuring the outreach of his project and people’s involvement. More than 21,000 teachers have registered on his platform to participate in the climate action project. Through self-reporting by teachers, the curriculum has currently reached more than 3.4 million students across the world. Second, he is qualitatively evaluating knowledge transfer and maintenance through the videos teachers and students produce to show their progress, exchanges, and solutions. It is a peer measurement system that creates stories of positivity as students and teachers share solutions to fight climate change whilst at the same time also creating a proof that Koen’s curriculum is being followed around the globe. Lastly, in addition to the creation of videos showing individual stories on how students came up with solutions, Koen has also recently developed an application that will support better measuring the individual impact of the program on individual students’ behavior. The Earth Project App is designed to measure the carbon footprint of the students before, during and after the climate action project to make it very easily understandable which impact habit change can have on the planet.
The Climate Action Project has been endorsed by 14 governments, has been featured in newspaper articles and TV shows in more than 50 countries, has planted more than 2.1 million trees through a tree planting campaign and has achieved to translate the curriculum into 14 languages, in collaboration with teachers. Currently, Koen is also working intensively with ambassador teachers and the ministries of education in Peru and the Philippines to install his curriculum in the respective national curricular. Koen is acting as a supporting actor whilst the teachers and their local networks are leading the conversations with the respective governments.
Koen is now focusing on a longer-term program through which schools can follow a curriculum for a full year to cover different subjects relating to climate change in the Climate Action School Program. Some of those have already been developed and tested by Koen, like a project on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in which 500 schools participated, and another specific project on plastic use reduction. He is currently running a pilot with 20 schools in the United States willing to pay for the program. By validating this program, he will be able to bring a more holistic, action-driven educational program to schools across the globe.
The topic of education has accompanied Koen throughout his life. Koen grew up in a family of teachers; his mother and aunt were both teachers. As he was very good at math, Koen decided, against the family tradition, to study engineering. However, deep down, he knew he wanted to be a teacher, which he ultimately started studying. Combining both his technical knowledge and his passion for pedagogy, Koen created his own e-learning organization, Zelfstudie.com, in 2006, with a community of 20,000 paying members at its peak time. During the same period, Koen was a successful Karate practitioner being nominated for the national team for many international competitions.
Koen’s interest in leveraging technology to diffuse knowledge continued and led him to do a master’s degree in technology-enhanced learning. Through this master program, Koen became involved in the community around the Microsoft Education Network, an initiative launched to give recognition to teachers who use innovative tools to provide education. It was here that Koen realized how this international community of teachers could be leveraged to have an impact. In a panel discussion during a conference, he met a refugee from the Kakuma refugee camp who had shared with him how bad the quality of education in the camp was. Koen had the idea to provide online classes to the refugees and organized technical equipment that he shipped to the camp. Sharing this idea with the Microsoft network, many teachers offered their support, and Koen was able to build an online teaching curriculum in which teachers from across the world provided lessons to the refugees. The Kakuma project, which aims at providing quality education for refugees, was born in 2015.
Thanks to this first improvised mobilization of the network, Koen realized the power of the teacher network he had created and realized that he could leverage it to have more global impact. What followed was a series of projects that Koen launched to leverage this global community. He launched the Human Differences project, which included 51 schools from 37 countries, the Wai Water Project involving ten schools from 9 countries, and the Innovation Project involving 515 schools from 85 countries between 2015 and 2017. Having tested his model several times, Koen decided in September 2017 that climate change education was the topic where he could have the most impact and started building the Climate Action Project. This new initiative and all the other projects he had launched led him to be a finalist for the Global Teacher prize in 2017 (Top 20) and 2018 (Top 10). Koen bootstrapped the Climate Action Project in the first years of its launch, working as a teacher on the side before securing substantial funding in 2021. He is now leading the project with Dr. Jennifer Williams, a US-based teacher, who has become the executive director of Take Action Global, three contractors and multiple volunteers.
Whilst working on a global level for many years, Koen lives with his family in Hasselt, Belgium, where he acts as a visiting lecturer for the local teacher college.