Nurturing secondary students’ hope and agency: Educating to live in a climate-impacted world

Funding year: 
2 years
University of Auckland - Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau
School sector
Project start date: 
January 2021
Project end date: 
March 2023
Principal investigator(s): 
Dr. Sally Birdsall
Research team members: 
Associate Professor Chris Eames (University of Waikato)
Research partners: 
Graham Stoddard (Western Springs College/Ngā Puna O Waiōrea), Sarah Gaze (Cambridge High School), Niki Harre (University of Auckland), Hilary Whitehouse (James Cook University, Australia)

Intro / Project description

Today’s youth will be severely impacted by climate change and many are feeling anxious, hopeless and helpless. More than knowledge is needed to develop citizens who can take informed actions to mitigate its effects. Hope and agency have been identified as significant constructs that can overcome pessimism and helplessness, motivating youth to take action. Using a critical realist lens and taking a design-based implementation research process approach, participants will co-design a climate change education programme to nurture students’ hope and agency, creating opportunities for them to take action individually and collectively. Effective pedagogies for future programmes will be identified.


The aim of this project is to explore the relationship between nurturing hope and developing agency to mitigate for and adapt to the impacts of climate change. A hopeful climate change education programme will be co-designed by secondary students, teacher practitioners and an environmental psychology expert. The programme will draw on specific principles identified in research as best practice but as yet not incorporated into a learning programme. The context for learning will be climate-impacting structures, such as green energy and transport, policies, organisations and personal values. We plan to examine the structures that youth see as fundamental to climate change and how, through a learning programme, their capacity to take action on these structures can be developed. As a result, effective pedagogical strategies and approaches can be shared to strengthen programmes to empower youth who can contribute meaningfully at an individual and community level when dealing with the climate emergency.

Why is this research important? 

Our world is currently experiencing a pairing of catastrophes – climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. These will intersect in as yet unknown ways, but it is the next generation who will be the most affected as they navigate their effects. Since education is key to developing informed citizens, there is a moral imperative to help youth develop the knowledge and competencies necessary for their future. This project focuses on nurturing hope, as hope plays an integral role in motivating people, particularly youth, to seek solutions. As they purposefully seek solutions, students’ agency is developed along with belief in their ability to make change, nurturing their hope for a future. This development is the focus of the project.

What we plan to do 

We will use a critical realist lens to examine the interplay between climate-impacting structures and the development of students’ agency. Agency recognises youth as reflexive social actors who both shape and are shaped by their family, community and social structures. With youth as partners, we will use a Design-based Implementation Research process to co-plan this study into climate change structures. Two classes of students will participate in this learning programme, one Year 10 and one Year 12/13.

Data – will be generated by students completing a pre- and post-programme survey, recording minutes of meetings, students’ perceptions of hope, agency and structures using a perceptions barometer and focus group interviews. Teachers will contribute data from pre- and post-programme interviews and reflective diaries.

Analysis – a mix of quantitative and qualitative data will be generated. Quantitative data will be analysed to produce descriptive statistics. Qualitative data will be inductively and deductively coded using thematic analysis, identifying themes to interpret through a critical realist lens.

Contact details

Sally Birdsall

University of Auckland, Private Bag , Auckland

+64 9 623 8899 extn 48458