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Dry Facts, Debate, Despair: How Not to Teach Climate Change

By Ann Reid — September 23, 2019 5 min read
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Over the last few years, hardly a week has passed without the news providing compelling evidence of the current impact of a changing climate. From the 2018 Paradise fire in California through this summer’s historic Mississippi flooding, and Alaska’s record-breaking heat to the recent devastation of Hurricane Dorian, it is no longer possible to ignore that climate change is a reality that is already affecting millions of people’s daily lives and livelihoods.

And, indeed, not everyone is ignoring the news: The Global Climate Strike is just one example of several ways that young people are exercising their agency in big numbers.

Most Americans—a whopping 79 percent of them—agree that students should learn about climate change in schools. And many teachers have stepped up to the plate despite a number of impediments, including the topic’s frequent absence from textbooks, science standards, and teachers’ own science education. Lack of content training has left many teachers vulnerable to the decades-long campaign of misinformation and false claims about the reality and seriousness of climate change, with the result that many science teachers themselves hold misconceptions. For example, in the National Center for Science Education’s own 2014-15 survey, conducted with researchers at Penn State University, we found that only 40 percent of teachers correctly identified the correct range of acceptance of human-caused climate change among climate scientists (80 percent–100 percent). Figuring out how to approach a topic that so many people have strong opinions about—opinions that may be at direct odds with the scientific evidence—is a real challenge.

So what are teachers to do?

The message from popular culture can seem to urge that teachers just get with the program and tell students what to think. This is the attitude displayed by celebrity-fronted and profanity-laden videos like George Clooney’s “Dumbf***ery” public service announcement and Bill Nye’s “the planet is on f***ing fire” segment. Humor is great. Passion is great. But effective teachers know that leading with the attitude that anyone who doesn’t accept climate change is stupid is no way to help their students learn.

Even without the attitude, simply reciting the facts is likely to be ineffective because so many students will come in burdened with a variety of misconceptions and misinformation about climate change. It would be naive to assume that the teacher’s authority will automatically outweigh what students have learned from their parents or peers.

So how can teachers supplement a recitation of the facts in such a way to engage students and counteract their prior misconceptions?

Having students debate whether climate change is solid science isn’t a good strategy, because the science is, in fact, solid; there’s nothing there worth debating. As multiple studies using different methods have independently concluded, upwards of 97 percent of climate scientists agree on the basic facts about climate change.

The message from popular culture can seem to urge that teachers just get with the program and tell students what to think."

And concentrating on the dire consequences of climate change isn’t a winner either: While students will certainly pay attention to hearing about climate change’s role in current extreme weather events and the like, the risk is that they will wind up feeling despondent and powerless.

Dry facts, debate, doom and gloom—teachers striving to teach climate change effectively despite the obstacles to doing so can be forgiven for considering all of the above.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. Climate change education is no different from any other topic in science, in that teachers want students to learn how scientists arrive at their conclusions: by collecting and evaluating evidence, assessing different explanations for the evidence, and provisionally adopting the best explanation available. Often new questions arise, so the process repeats. When the experts in the field agree—often after fierce argument—that the evidence is sufficient to support a conclusion, they are said to have reached a consensus, as they have with regard to climate change. This process can be modeled in the classroom, where a teacher can guide students working in groups to evaluate different lines of evidence for climate change, discuss their conclusions, and reach a consensus.

The evidence for climate change has emerged from so many distinct lines of inquiry that essentially any credible data set will lead students to the scientific consensus. Wherever they live, they will find local examples. Are local farmers planting the same crops at the same time of year as they did 50 years ago? Are local extreme events such as storm surges, wildfires, insect infestations, or drought becoming more frequent or severe over time?

Students can ask these questions and seek out the evidence. And if they have examined that evidence for themselves, they will not have been told how to think; they will have learned to think for themselves. This approach has the additional benefit of providing a clear path for avoiding nonproductive argument and ideological debate by constantly circling back to the requirement that conclusions be defensible by reference to credible evidence.

Teaching about climate change in this way will equip today’s students not only with knowledge they will need to flourish in a warming world but also with know-how that they will be able to use throughout their lives: how to ask testable questions about the world, seek relevant and credible evidence, and discuss differences (without shouting!) to reach agreement with peers through cooperative problem-solving and inquiry.

To help teachers follow these recommendations, the NCSE worked with scientific experts and master teachers to develop a set of five climate change lessons, freely available online, which directly address the most common misconceptions that students are likely to bring into the climate change classroom. The lessons also provide students with practice identifying common tactics used by those who seek to discredit science. Teachers who are themselves uncertain about their understanding of climate change will find that working through the lessons will help surface and correct their own misconceptions.

Climate change poses an enormous challenge for the next generation of citizens. They need and deserve a science education that will equip them not only with the facts but also with the skill to dismiss spurious and cynical arguments and insist on evidence-based, rigorously grounded policy options. No pressure, teachers, but the future of the planet depends on you. You’ve got this—and we’ve got your backs.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Crisis of Climate Change

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