In science class, teachers say, you don’t rely on preconceived opinions, personal biases, or emotions to determine what you think. You look at the data to draw conclusions.
But these days, that’s easier said than done. Science curriculum has long trafficked in controversial topics, like human evolution and man-made causes of climate change, but educators say the amount of misinformation swirling both in and out of their classrooms has reached a peak in recent years. And some curriculum mainstays—like vaccines or infectious diseases—have become politicized since the coronavirus pandemic.
Plus, the intense public fervor over nonscientific topics like how the nation’s history of racism is taught in social studies classes and which books about race are read in English classes has left many science teachers feeling apprehensive about courting controversy. Teachers are thinking, “everyone is on such high alert right now, and everyone is so polarized and so tense that I’m concerned to introduce something else that might set someone off,” said Ann Reid, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group of scientists and teachers.
Over the past year, science teachers say they’ve been accused of “indoctrinating” students about topics like climate change. They’ve had to battle misinformation among students and parents alike. And they’ve had to gird themselves for backlash from the community over lesson plans around sensitive subjects, including the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I feel like I have to do more defensive work about what I say and do in the classroom than I ever did at the beginning of my career,” said Tara Dale, the co-author of The Science Teacher’s Toolbox, who taught middle and high school science in Arizona for 14 years before leaving the classroom last May.
The polarization can be apparent during class discussions, too. When Dale first started teaching, students came to class with an open mind, she said. But in the last four years or so, she said, students became more argumentative about divisive issues like climate change.
“They come with preconceived ideas, and they’re not open to having those ideas challenged,” she said. “It has become harder to teach them because I’m fighting the politics. … I never bring up politics, but the kids do.”
Many teachers avoid picking a side
Already, national surveys designed and analyzed by the National Center for Science Education and a research partner found that a sizable number of teachers hedge when talking about divisive issues like evolution or causes of climate change.
A 2016 survey found that 31 percent of middle and high school science teachers give their students mixed messages by emphasizing both natural and man-made causes of climate change, and more than a quarter said they have given “equal time to perspectives that raise doubt that humans are causing climate change.”
A 2019 survey found that about two-thirds of public high school biology teachers emphasize the broad scientific consensus on evolution without giving credence to creationism. That’s a significant change from a similar survey conducted in 2007, when only about half of teachers taught evolution forthrightly. Even so, about 18 percent of biology teachers still present creationism as a scientifically valid alternative to evolution, and 15 percent avoid the debate altogether by endorsing neither creationism nor evolution.
Sometimes, teachers receive pressure to teach a certain way from their administrators or school board or other members of the community, said Eric Plutzer, a professor of political science and sociology at Pennsylvania State University who conducted both the studies about how teachers teach climate change and evolution. But mostly, he said, the decision to appeal to “both sides” of a controversial debate is self-imposed.
“The overt pressure is relatively rare,” Plutzer said. “What we’ve concluded is that teachers are more likely to monitor the political and cultural environment and try to avoid triggering events that generate pressure. Most teachers are just like students—the last thing they want to happen is to be called into the principal’s office because somebody complained or publicized something.”
Yet placing any emphasis on nonscientific conclusions—like creationism or the idea that climate change is primarily fueled by natural causes—can confuse students or legitimize positions that are widely rejected by most scientists, experts say.
Some teachers are ‘terrified’ to teach about vaccines now
Vaccines may be the new political lightning rod in science class, as the country remains stubbornly divided over the COVID-19 vaccines. In 2019, before the pandemic, Plutzer surveyed a nationally representative sample of middle and high school health education teachers about how they discuss vaccines. He found that nearly three-fifths of teachers never discuss vaccines with their students, but those who do overwhelmingly emphasize the scientific consensus around vaccines.
“We were very pleased to see that vaccination is not as politically polarized as some of these other subjects,” he said. “I don’t know if that would still be the case today.”
Linda Rost, a science teacher in Baker, Mont., and a finalist for the 2020 National Teacher of the Year, said vaccines have become “way more controversial” than evolution or climate change is now. She teaches how the mRNA vaccine works, focusing on the mechanism of how cells make a protein that triggers an immune response. (The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines are the only approved mRNA vaccines.)
Only about 30 percent of people in her small, rural county are fully vaccinated, and while Rost hasn’t received any pushback on those lessons yet, “I’m very conscious I could. ... I’m terrified,” she said. Last year, a parent raised concerns about Rost using articles about COVID-19 in the classroom.
To help support teachers, the National Center for Science Education is developing curricula on a range of sensitive topics, including climate change, evolution, and the COVID-19 pandemic. But Reid, the center’s executive director, said that one teacher who initially agreed to test the curricula was told she could no longer teach about viruses.
“Most science teachers would very much like to talk about the immune system and how do vaccines work and how do clinical trials work—these are all things high school students could really get into,” Reid said. “But there are some administrators who say, ‘Let’s not go there, we know what it’s like in our town.’ … It’s a shame because the science class feels to me like it could be a nice, neutral place for these things to be talked about.”
Education Week asked several science teachers and experts their advice for teaching about sensitive topics in class. Here are five ways to do so:
1. Incorporate media literacy lessons into class. Teachers have to show students how to weed through misinformation and determine what evidence can be trusted, Reid said. One way to do so is by teaching students how to look for the five characteristics of science denial, known as FLICC: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories.
Last school year, amid rampant misinformation about the pandemic, Rost and six teachers in other states designed a unit on media and science literacy that covered concepts like determining the difference between correlation and causation, identifying biased and rhetorical language, and analyzing databases.
For example, Rost provided students with a scientific study about COVID-19—like transmission rates in children, viral shedding and mask-wearing, or air circulation in classrooms—along with a news article or write-up about the study. The students evaluated the article to see if it was credible, or if it made claims unsupported by evidence and used unwarranted causation language.
2. Let students evaluate the evidence on their own. Once students know how to evaluate scientific evidence, they can look at the data themselves to make up their own minds. For example, Rost said she explains the controversy over what’s causing climate change and asks her students to write an essay where they have to find evidence and graphs for both natural and man-made causes of climate change.
“They find it’s a lot harder to justify natural climate change,” she said. “Instead of me shoving it down their throats, they have to evaluate the evidence and decide for themselves. They get to come to their own conclusion about it.”
That has also been her approach to vaccine lessons: “I just want them to know how to access the information and know the science behind it, and [then] they can evaluate things on their own,” she said.
3. Be transparent with parents about what you’ll be teaching. Dale, the former science teacher in Arizona, said she would tell parents at the beginning of the year that she’d be teaching evolution—but she would be doing so from a scientific perspective and not a religious one. She assured parents that she would always redirect any religion questions to them.
Dale would also tell parents that climate change was in the curriculum. Some parents would argue that she shouldn’t be telling students that humans have caused climate change. In response, Dale would show them the state standards about climate change and suggest they reach out to the state board of education with any concerns.
“I’m just doing my job at the end of the day,” she said. “This is a science class, and we’re teaching the science of it.”
And developing relationships with parents will help build trust and mutual respect, said Danny Woo, a grades 6-8 science teacher at San Jose Charter Academy in California. Most of the pushback he receives comes from 6th grade parents who don’t know him yet, he said.
“People’s guards are up on so many issues,” he said. “They just want to know that their kids aren’t being forced to believe a certain [thing].”
4. Be respectful if students share opposing views. Dismissing students who disagree about some of these issues may cause them to shut down, said Chris Carman, a high school environmental science teacher in Kent, Ohio. He’s had a few students who’ve told him they think global warming is a hoax, and he simply responds with, “I wish it weren’t real, but here’s the information we have.”
Sometimes, students may be concerned they’re being told what to think. Last year, Dale had a student who, during a lesson on man-made climate change, stood up and told his classmates, “This is where they start brainwashing us. You need to start thinking for yourself.”
Dale let him finish. Then, she said, “I appreciate the fact that you said we need to think critically. You’re absolutely right.” She told him that she would show him the data and that the class would evaluate the methodology to decide whether they could trust it.
“I want him to trust me, and if I diminish what he says or I diminish who he is, … then he’s lost trust in me, and there’s no way he’s going to listen to what I have to teach him,” she said.
5. Get up to speed on the science. In surveys, many teachers report that they haven’t had a lot of content training in sensitive topics, especially climate change, Reid said. The 2016 survey of middle and high school science teachers found that fewer than half had any formal coursework—even just a class lecture—on climate change. And of those who did not study climate change during college, only 18 percent received any professional development on the topic.
“It might be hard to teach something if you’re not totally sure” about the science, Reid said.
After all, teachers say, being transparent and honest with students about the issues can engender trust. “Stick to the facts” when teaching about divisive issues, Carman said. “Don’t say anything that you’re not certain about. … Answer questions honestly with information that you have.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as 5 Ways to Teach Climate Change, COVID-19 in Polarized Times