School & District Management

Teachers’ Misconceptions About Climate Change May Hinder Their Instruction

By Liana Loewus — February 18, 2016 2 min read

Most science teachers have an “insufficient grasp of the science” behind climate change, and that may be hurting their teaching, according to a recent study in the journal Science.

The study authors write that more than 95 percent of climate scientists attribute global warming to human causes, and yet teachers are conveying mixed messages about this to students.

Looking at a nationally representative sample of 1,500 middle and high school science teachers, the researchers found that three-quarters of educators were devoting at least an hour of classroom discussion to global warming. However, 30 percent of teachers said they emphasize that global warming “is likely due to natural causes"—in direct contrast to the scientific consensus. Twelve percent do not emphasize human impact—with half of that group avoiding the cause by offering no explanation at all.

Of those teachers who teach climate change, nearly a third report “sending explicitly contradictory messages,” pointing out both what most scientists say about human impact and telling students that many scientists believe the rise in temperature is due to natural causes.

Is Teacher Knowledge Lacking?

This confusion may be because many teacher don’t actually know the degree to which scientists agree on this matter, the study found. The researchers, who are from Penn State, Wright State University in Ohio, and the National Center for Science Education, which advocates for accurate climate change education, found that most teachers could not identify the proportion of scientists who agree that human activities are causing climate change.

“If a majority of science teachers believe that more than 20% of climate scientist disagree that human activities are the primary cause, it is understandable that many would teach ‘both sides,’ by conveying to students that there is legitimate scientific debate instead of deep consensus,” the study says.

Only about 4 percent of teachers said they experienced pressure from parents, administrators, or the community not to teach climate change.

A separate recent study found that many textbooks still in use in California schools imply that the causes of climate change are uncertain.

Image: Melting blocks of ice float near the Pastoruri glacier in Huaraz, Peru, in 2014. Peru’s glaciers have lost more than one-fifth of their mass in just three decades. —Rodrigo Abd/AP-File


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.