Climate change will have far-reaching effects on the futures of today’s schoolchildren, and nearly 8 in 10 educators say that teaching students about the science behind climate change and its effects on the planet and society is important.
But that can be a tricky endeavor: Climate change is a complex topic that can alarm students, elicit parental and community pushback, and isn’t even required for most educators to teach. All of that is complicated by the sheer amount of misinformation around climate change on social media.
To help educators tackle this tough but important topic, Education Week asked two experts on teaching climate change in K-12 schools to weigh in on these issues for a recent discussion on Twitter Spaces. Here are five main takeaways:
1. There are barriers for educators who want to tackle teaching about climate change, but the challenges aren’t necessarily new
Teachers have a lot on their plates and figuring out how to shoehorn discussions about climate change into their subject areas—especially if it’s not required—can feel insurmountable, said Yen-Yen Chiu, the director of content creation for the nonprofit SubjectToClimate and a former teacher. Climate change can also be a tough topic to discuss with children and teens who believe they don’t have any control over the problem but will be affected by it.
She also added that climate change can be a politically charged topic, which might make teachers think twice before discussing it in their classrooms.
But just because climate change is not taught comprehensively in U.S. schools today, doesn’t mean that will always be the case, said Elizabeth Kirman, a high school science teacher in the lower Dauphin school district in Hummelstown, Pa. She also teaches a climate science course to preservice teachers at Pennsylvania State University.
“I see climate change [as] like every new science, so to speak—Big Bang theory, evolution theory, heliocentric solar system, plate tectonics, all of those were accepted by the scientific community long before it was brought into the education system,” she said. “That, to me, is the biggest barrier. Having it be a required content area is just going to take time for the education standards.”
2. Teachers of all subjects can incorporate climate change into their curriculum
Climate change isn’t just a topic for science class, the educators said. Experts have recommended that climate change be taught as an interdisciplinary subject, but many teachers remain uncertain about how to do that.
When a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey asked teachers why they haven’t addressed climate change or issues related to it with students, 26 percent said they can’t think of any way it is related to the subject they teach.
But climate change can be used to practice skills and standards in all subjects, Chiu said. For example, she wrote a math lesson that looks at the precipitation data in New Jersey over 100 years: Students take a 50-year span of data and plot the points, draw a line of best fit, and write it in slope intercept form.
“Those are all just basic math skills that are needed, and now I’m just using climate change data to bring that in,” she said. “And then, from there, exploring what conclusions [students] could make.”
In English/language arts classes, teachers can select climate change as a topic while teaching nonfiction. For example, Chiu said, students could take one related topic, research it, and then practice different types of writing—like informative or persuasive—using the same information. Students could write three separate paragraphs using only pathos in one, ethos in another, and logic in the third, and then compare how the writing is different and what impact each makes.
“Which one is more convincing in talking about this climate change issue with which people?” Chiu asked.
Climate change could even be taught in music class, she said. Chiu helped a friend draft a lesson that had students analyze the songs of different birds in a local community and learn how to write the notation of their song.
Having students learn about climate change in different contexts matters for making the topic seem more relevant in science class, Kirman said.
“If there is not that connection made between the sciences and the humanities, … it’s very difficult for [the kids] to buy in because they just don’t feel it,” she said.
3. Teachers can help make climate change feel less overwhelming or scary
Climate change is a big topic: Nearly 4 in 10 teenagers said they feel anxious when they think about climate change and its effects, and about a third say they feel afraid, an EdWeek Research Center survey found.
Chiu said making time for social-emotional practices is key. For example, she recommends moving students’ desks into a circle and going through guided questions to help identify how climate change makes them feel.
“How can we sit in [those feelings] and not have them overwhelm us?” she said. “Different people need different things from there—different kinds of processing, whether it be journal writing or art or movement.”
Kirman said she will run through an exercise on the geological timeline with her high schoolers: She shows them global average temperatures from 500,000 years ago to the present. Students are anxious when they see the rising temperatures of today but feel slightly reassured when they see how the temperatures have risen and fallen throughout the planet’s history.
She also discusses with students ways they can be more sustainable in their own lives.
“I feel strongly that, even with how big and global this issue is, students have hope, but they want actionable things that they can do,” Kirman said. “They want to know, ‘What can I do?’”
4. Students need a basic understanding of the science behind climate change
The EdWeek Research Center survey data revealed that teenagers have some misconceptions about climate change, even though they agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is being driven by human activity. For example, nearly half said that the hole in the ozone layer created by gases from spray cans and refrigerators is a significant contributor to global warming, which is not accurate.
More than a quarter of students say that solar flares and increased radiation from the sun have been a major driver of global warming since the 1800s, and nearly a fifth say that volcanoes are a major source of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change—both false statements.
Kirman said earth science is not prioritized in education, especially at the high school level, and it has led to gaps in students’ background knowledge and understanding of the details about climate change.
Yet having a solid understanding of the science means students might be more interested in pursuing careers related to sustainability and climate change, for example, Chiu said.
“If we really are going to bring change, we do have to understand the details,” Chiu said. “We have to understand the why behind these things happening in terms of a science perspective. If we can understand it, then there’s a better path moving forward.”
5. Teaching students how to identify what is and is not factually correct
Fifty-six percent of teens say they learn about climate change from social media—the third most cited source of information on climate change after teachers and parents, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey. While these platforms can serve as sources of credible information and community, they are also riddled with misinformation and disinformation.
This can pose challenges for educators as they try to debunk misconceptions their students have picked up online as well as opportunities to teach students valuable media literacy skills.
“My job as a teacher is not to tell them what to think, but what to think about,” said Kirman. “I try to teach them to look at the source of the information, like, who is putting this information out there? And to just be critical of the source.”
These are also valuable skills for science class and the world beyond school.
“That’s a life skill that relates to climate change, but also relates to researching any kind of information,” said Chiu. “Really looking at those sources and teaching ourselves and our students, ‘how do we find the right sources?’”