What can prehistoric preschool teach us about climate change education in the present?

Blog by Professor Paul Howard-Jones, School of Education, University of Bristol

Several years ago in Turkey, an archaeologist invited me to descend into a pit where one of the first urban settlements was being unearthed. There was a hearth, holes for holding pots and the remains of plaster on the walls, still bearing traces of decoration.

The layers of development exposed by this excavation revealed a continuous period of innovation since around 6000BC. Over its lifetime – around 1,200 years – the site hosted the first “urbanites”, who had left their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind and begun a journey of creativity and invention. Among their ideas were novel building techniques, cooking methods, and ways to create and use pottery.

For example, a perennial problem for these residents was the local clay. This material expanded every time it rained and shrank every time it dried, causing walls to become unstable and topple over. Locals, therefore, devised ways to support collapsing clay walls: first by using tree trunks as posts, then by experimenting with larger bricks and sandier clays, before finally developing buttresses. Innovation was continuously prompted by problems with existing technology, which was often “tweaked” to produce something slightly better.

Although this technological progress was revolutionary, our ancestors’ brains had not significantly evolved. Instead, this was a cultural revolution based on information being communicated across populations and generations.

This site was occupied from around 6000BC. Çatalhöyük/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

With the help of writing, this accumulating knowledge allowed humans to create and shape technology that met immediate, concrete and changing needs, eventually leading us to industrialisation – and to the existential threat of climate change. Such needs still largely drive innovation today: just think how quickly test kits and remote working technology proliferated at the start of the pandemic.

Crisis mode

Now, however, we face an even greater threat. Rather than just focusing on day-to-day needs, surviving the ecological crisis will depend on “zooming out” to see the bigger picture. In what can be considered a cultural “swerve”, our society must move away from consumerist values and towards environmentally-oriented lifestyles.

When we decide how to get from A to B, rather than just considering speed, comfort and cost, we must now consider our carbon footprint. When we choose our food, rather than just reaching for what’s tasty, we must think about the chemicals and land used to produce it and their impact on biodiversity, and how the packaging may or may not biodegrade.

The inclusion of such abstract ideas in our everyday decisions may not arrive overnight. Their most serious consequences are easy to ignore because they lie hidden in the future, even if avoiding them requires change now in almost every area of our lives. Our society’s current focus on consumerism and individuality also fits poorly with concern for the environment, leaving us further unprepared for this type of thinking. Even during the pandemic – a fairly obvious and immediate threat compared with climate change – legislation and public health information had imperfect and temporary effects on communal behaviour. Creating enduring, widespread cultural change will require more than laws.

Prehistoric brain training

I recently worked with anthropologist Dr Fiona Coward to explore, from the perspective of psychology and neuroscience, how our ancestors started their own cultural swerve towards urbanisation. We found a possible answer in an unexpected quarter – the nursery.

Although it may have been unwitting, agrarian life exposed children to far more technology than growing up in a hunter-gatherer group. Partly due to changing childcare regimes, children in early settlements would have watched, listened and sometimes imitated adults as they worked with materials to solve everyday problems.

For these children, the collapse and repair of a wall at home would have been a major technological event unfurling in front of their eyes. Indeed, children’s fingerprints and teeth marks in clay objects confirm their presence during manufacturing. Our growing understanding of the developing brain suggests this could have created a firmer cognitive footing for innovating as adults, helping to kickstart cultural transformation.

If we are to create the deep change we need to fight climate change, we should be mindful of children’s early experience. Environmental education can hardly start too soon. For example, by around five years old, we have begun to learn cultural differences in how we direct our eye gaze. In other words, those around us orient how we (literally) look at the world – including whether we see just a flower or also the forest on which it depends. This orienting of our gaze helps define where we end up on the collectivist- individualist scale, with collective thinking predicting more climate change action as an adult. Recent research suggests this orienting of eye gaze may begin as early as 24 months, with Asian infants displaying a more holistic style of visual attention than infants in the West.

The early emergence of such differences has implications for climate change education, since visual attention predicts cultural mindset (individualistic vs. collectivistic) and problem-solving style (rule-based vs. context-based)(Arieli & Sagiv, 2018).

In turn, that predicts how much of an individualistic or collective thinker we will become: with collective thinking predicting increased climate change action as an adult.

Laying the foundations for cultural change

So although it’s great that, in the UK, a new natural history qualification is being planned for teenage students, the science tells us that earlier is usually better. Outdoor activities followed by drama, art, playtime and conversations with adults around climate – all these can help lay the foundations for deep cultural change. A multitude of agencies now also provide some fantastic resources focussed on climate for early years practitioners to incorporate into their lessons, including the charity Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd). However, the impact of these lessons may depend on how children are encouraged by their teachers to look at and think about what they experience – and to see the flower as part of the forest.

Introducing children to the natural world early is key.

The strata of change at the archaeological site I visited eventually petered out, suggesting the abandonment of a society that had survived for more than a millennium. Its end was due, according to some historians, to an abrupt deterioration in local climate. It’s a sobering reminder that every civilisation before our own has eventually fallen, often when faced with conditions that exceeded its capacity to culturally adapt. Just as infant learning helped initiate technological progress in our ancient past, the role of early education in addressing climate change should not be underestimated, as we attempt another cognitive leap to save our skin.

Further information

New Policy Report: ‘Climate Change education: A “world-leading strategy” would benefit from being research-informed’. Read Professor Paul Howard-Jones and Professor Justin Dillon’s policy report:  http://bristol.ac.uk/policybristol/policy-briefings/climate-change-education/

🗓️Join their webinar Wed 5th October 2022 3:30-5pm to hear more.  To sign up for the webinar: tinyurl.com/6ty4rxn9