Three-fourths of teachers have not received any professional training or education on how to teach climate change—a fact that likely influences the extent to which they teach the subject and whether they do so in a way that’s accurate, relevant, and meaningful.
That’s according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of 538 K-12 teachers in December, which probed into how teachers cover the topic that students say is of great personal interest and relevance to them. About 60 percent of teachers across grade levels and subjects say they have addressed the topic in some capacity with students, according to the survey. But the way they talk about it varies—and risks obscuring the scope of the problem.
About half of teachers say they talk about what students can do personally to lessen the effects of climate change, and 44 percent say they talk about how climate change will affect the future of the Earth.
But less than a third of respondents talk about the science behind climate change, and only 22 percent talk about either job opportunities related to sustainability or environmental justice.
Despite the lack of training, teachers are increasingly being confronted with complex conversations that have big implications. Students say they’re interested in learning more about climate change, but many already have some misconceptions about how the science works. They’re coming across information on climate change on social media, like YouTube and TikTok, and need help determining what’s true and what’s false. And many teenagers say they’re struggling with anxiety and fear when they think about climate change and its effects, prompting the need for sensitive, nuanced discussions.
All the while, rising global temperatures are leading to widespread changes in weather patterns. The school year is becoming hotter, and more severe and frequent natural disasters are disrupting the lives and learning time of students. Even so, climate change remains a politicized topic in some communities, leaving some teachers nervous about parent pushback.
New teachers “don’t feel adequately prepared” to have some of these conversations, said Tesia Wilson, the principal of Jones Paideia Elementary Magnet School in Nashville, who also works with teacher-leaders in graduate school. “When our grandparents and parents were teachers, it wasn’t as huge of a concern as it is now. Now we’ve seen aggressive weather changes” in recent years.
And, she added, students “want to know how to help their world, protect their environment.”
Yet, for the most part, teachers have been left to their own devices to figure out how to address the issue.
Sparse training in teacher prep
Among science teachers specifically, a significant subset of the nationally representative sample, a third have never received any professional training or education on climate change. Another third said they had pursued training or research on climate change and/or how to teach it, but on their own time.
Mostly, this happened outside of their preparation to teach.
While 40 percent of science teachers said they took a class that covered the science of climate change in college, only 12 percent said their teacher-preparation program taught them how to teach about it. Another 12 percent said their school or district has provided professional development on how to teach climate change.
“There is ample research in science education that shows that teachers need the confidence with the materials that they are about to teach, and it shouldn’t come only in their licensure program, only at the very beginning,” said Eric Pyle, the retiring president of the National Science Teaching Association and a professor of geoscience education at James Madison University in Virginia. “It shouldn’t be fixed once they get their degree and teaching certificate.”
Nearly 1 in 5 teachers who don’t address climate change with students said it’s because they’re not well-versed in the science and feel out of their depth discussing it, the EdWeek Research Center survey found. About a quarter said it’s because they can’t think of any way it is related to the subject they teach.
“You can integrate climate-relevant topics and discussions in any grade level, but if you don’t know anything about it yourself, that’s going to be hard,” said Ann Reid, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
Learning how the climate discourse has shaped terms like ‘carbon footprint’
While the EdWeek Research Center survey results indicate that many teachers talk about how students can take action against climate change—which can include exercises like having students calculate their own carbon footprints to understand their impact on the environment—some experts say that shouldn’t be done in isolation.
“It risks making it seem like it’s up to the students to fix climate change based on their personal habits, which is impossible,” Reid said.
Teachers should make clear that fossil fuel companies are the main drivers of climate change, and systemic changes are needed to really make a difference, she added.
In Jia Sharma-Chaube’s Advanced Placement Environmental Science class at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, she learned about how BP, one of the world’s largest oil companies, coined and popularized the term carbon footprint.
“My entire class was just like, what the hell?” said Jia, a 15-year-old junior. “They were really all just super angry about that. It feels like, you know, you’ve obviously been lied to.”
As she’s learned more about climate change, her anger about the crisis has shifted from being directed at individual consumption to the big corporations that she now realizes are largely responsible for pollution.
“It’s not like I don’t think that individual eco-consciousness [doesn’t] matter or anything,” she said. “I just think it’s like—well, we are all supposed to carry this guilt and responsibility of like, ‘You’re the generation that’s going to fix climate change.’ But also, all these corporations have a monopoly and control on our government. It’s going to be insanely hard to get laws passed, so good luck with it.”
Meanwhile, at Angelo Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, Calif., 16-year-old Jessica Baltaxe said that most of what her teachers taught her about climate change focused on the idea of a carbon footprint and changes that individuals can make to reduce it. Although Jessica said she appreciated the exercise, she would also like to learn more.
“I like diagrams, data, and knowing the effects of things and the actual science behind it, because something about that makes it more tangible for me,” she said. “It would be nice to see that tie into current events and things that are happening right now because of climate change. We always talk about the big general things—the world temperature is getting hotter, and stuff is melting, and species are becoming extinct—but what is happening right now because of climate change?”
Students’ changing sense of efficacy and responsibility
There’s still a time and place for teaching students about what they can do, personally, to reduce their household greenhouse gas emissions. Pyle, of NSTA, says he often does the carbon footprint exercise with his college students and finds it to be a useful and eye-opening exercise.
And those exercises and discussing steps students can take to reduce it can be helpful for students who are anxious about the climate crisis, said Elizabeth Kirman, a science teacher in the Lower Dauphin school district in Pennsylvania. She also teaches a course on climate science for educators at Penn State University Harrisburg.
About five years ago, she started to notice that her high school students were more stressed about the ramifications of climate change.
“So, we just talked about little ways to take control, like upcycling,” she said. “And they were most surprised by the connection between their food choices and climate. They did not really understand that a Hot Pocket has a bigger imprint than a local salad.”
After all, 3 in 10 high school students said they feel helpless when they think about climate change and its effects, according to an EdWeek Research Center poll of 14- to 18-year-olds. That’s nearly twice the percentage of students who said they feel optimistic about climate change.
Rhonda Stibbe, a biology and botany teacher at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Ill., said she’s noticed over the course of her 30-year career in the classroom a shift in students’ sense of self-efficacy on climate change.
These days, students come into her class more aware of the changing climate than they have been in the past, she said, but they’re also a little less motivated to take action on their own than they used to be.
“I think they don’t feel like they have control, like they can really do anything,” she said. “I don’t think they think little things make a difference.”
Stibbe tells her students that they can make a difference, even in their own orbit. “We talk a lot about how you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution,” she said, adding that by the end of the unit, she can start that phrase and her students will finish it.
Kirman, the Pennsylvania teacher, suspects that teachers focus on ways students can change their own behaviors to be more environmentally friendly because it’s a safer way to discuss climate change when the topic has become so politically polarized.
What students want: hard truths
What students—or at least those in high school—say they most want to learn about is how climate change will affect the future of the Earth and society. Sixty-five percent of teens cite that priority, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey last fall.
What high school teachers and students prioritize are broadly in alignment. The three most important topics to teens are among the three most- taught topics among their teachers of all subjects.
Fifty-two percent of teens want to learn about what they can personally do to lessen the effects of climate change, and 41 percent say they want to learn the science behind it. Meanwhile, 51 percent of high school teachers say they teach about how climate change will affect the future of the Earth and society, 40 percent of teachers say they are teaching students what they can personally do to lessen the effects of climate change, and 33 percent say they discuss the science behind climate change.
Pyle, the outgoing head of NSTA, said that while teachers may not always be able to tailor what they teach to what students want to learn about climate change, educators shouldn’t throw up their hands.
Schools should also leverage extracurriculars and co-curriculars to provide learning opportunities on climate change topics of intense interest to students, he said; school administrators should lead the way.
There are opportunities to discuss the many facets of climate change across subject areas, he added.
“It really shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of science teachers to discuss the mathematical models of climate change, or social studies teachers to limit their discussions of policy to generic things,” he said. “They can be talking about policy development and the workings of government in the context of climate change.”
Coverage of how climate change is affecting students’ learning and well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Education Writers’ Association Reporting Fellowship program, at www.ewa.org/fellowship. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as Students Want Climate Change Education. Most Teachers Don’t Get Enough Training