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Climate confusion: Content and strategies, not controversy, are the biggest challenges for science teachers

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By David Devraj Kumar, Michael Hansen

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report describing the new risks the world will likely face by 2040 if governments fail to make significant progress on climate change. Yet, the likelihood of dramatically cutting greenhouse emissions in the U.S. is stymied by political divides among both politicians and the public about the urgency of the problem.

Helping science teachers effectively teach students about climate change is one of the most important topics in science education. Science teachers, however, often report feeling ill prepared in both content and pedagogical knowledge to teach environmental science and related topics, including climate change. Thus, many classrooms are led by teachers who do not feel equipped to provide meaningful learning experience in the topic—a situation that has been dubbed “climate confusion.”

This confusion is admittedly a bit ironic: Environmental topics inherently have real-world applications, which should provide an advantage in comparison to more abstract science fields. Paired with the right teaching toolkit, simple observation of the world outside the classroom is all that is needed to offer information-rich contexts for teaching children the underlying scientific concepts behind climate change, improving critical thinking skills, practicing informed decisionmaking, and developing environmental literacy. Climate change is a topic specifically named in the Next Generation Science Standards (2-13) (e.g., “ESS3D: Global Climate Change”); however, attempts to often sensationalize environmental topics like climate change by non-scientists (who often have their own ideology) tend to hamper its successful implementation in classrooms. When this happens, the opportunity for students to learn real-world science content is lost, along with any associated benefit from cognitive or affective gains.

Most teachers are now confused on how to address climate change topics within the classroom. This confusion was even evident in teachers’ beliefs about whether global warming is natural or man-made. The deficiency is partly due to the lack of content knowledge: Allison Anderson pointed out content knowledge as one of the barriers to quality teaching about climate change.

In addition, assuming that lessons taught by a teacher are driven by the curriculum, most of the existing curricula are, by implication, inadequate to help teachers separate the signal from the noise and properly address environmental topics for their students. The newfound urgency of global warming should not be an excuse, as we’ve known about inadequate teaching materials for years. Back in 2000, Jeffrey Salmon concluded, “Teachers are the key to successful environmental education, but materials often fail to give them the support they need” (p. 8) based on a nationwide analysis of environmental science curricula. His recommendations for improvement included that curriculum should focus more on content and knowledge building in environmental sciences, rather than simply developing awareness of the topic as is commonly done.

In this context, how to help teachers develop the skills to effectively teach climate change remains a pressing, outstanding question. Should we use pre-service teacher education to affect the skills of those entering the workforce or in-service teacher workshops in an attempt to help everyone already in the classroom?

The evidence to date suggests both options offer promise and would better serve students compared to the quality of instruction they now receive. In a case study of in-service teachers who participated in a climate change professional development workshop, 70 percent reported that they “solidified their understanding on the connection between carbon cycling and climate change as well as the connection between ethanol burning and climate change” (p. 245), when asked to reflect on the workshop. In another study, novice science teachers who participated in a similar climate change workshop reported that their content knowledge improved in the areas of temperature, ice melt, density, thermal expansion, changing ocean currents, and other natural processes as a result of the workshop.

Another training, implemented among preservice teachers in an undergraduate K-9 science education methods course using a water-quality computer simulation, showed gains in participants’ understanding of science concepts, such as macroinvertebrates, composition of air, dissolved oxygen, and classes of organisms that form a river ecosystem. In addition, the training enabled the participants to transfer knowledge from the simulation into developing science lesson plans. Either way, through pre-service education or in-service training, teachers need science content knowledge to properly address environmental issues in the classroom. One should also bear in mind that improvement in teacher understanding may not translate to improved student outcomes unless the classroom environment is conducive to student-centered learning experiences.

The importance of science content knowledge is key and, ideally, science teachers should be trained first to address environmental topics such as climate change without compromising the scientific base. Without an adequate foundation in science content, it may not be that easy for a teacher to understand the complexities of climate change and to teach this important topic with confidence.

When teachers are not adequately equipped to deal with important science topics such as climate change, they may tend to treat critical topics superficially, with negative consequences for students. It should be pointed out that, among science teachers, only 42 percent at the middle school and 39 percent at the high school level consider themselves “very well prepared to teach” climate and weather (p. 26). Instead of setting up teachers for failure, let’s equip them to be successful in teaching content-rich environmental education topics to school children.

But let’s not overlook pedagogical strategies for teaching science. Teachers not only need content knowledge, but should also use instructional techniques that allow for engaging student-centered, hands-on learning rather than rote memorization. These strategies appear to have the best chance of improving students’ conceptual understanding, as well as developing scientific process skills like critical thinking and problem solving (e.g., problem-based learning), which are increasingly needed in a society and workforce that are dominated by science and technology. Unfortunately, the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education reported that only 9 percent of elementary, 6 percent of middle and 3 percent of high school classes “engage the class in project-based learning activities [in] all or almost all lessons” (p. 75). Likewise, 16 percent of elementary, 10 percent of middle, and 8 percent of high school classes “do hands-on/laboratory activities [in] all or almost all lessons” (p. 75).

In light of the politically divisive nature of some science topics like climate change, many suspect that teachers find themselves in a bind between parent pressures and curriculum demands. Yet, contrary to popular belief, only 3 percent of science program representatives at elementary schools, 6 percent at middle schools and 2 percent at high schools viewed “community resistance to the teaching of ‘controversial’ issues in science” (e.g., climate change) a “serious problem for science instruction” (p. 118). Thus, overcoming climate confusion may be feasible by focusing on teachers and curriculum without requiring the Sisyphean task of educating parents about environmental science.

Qualified teachers who are equipped to make informed scientific decisions will be able to decide whether global warming is natural or man-made. And without any doubt, through engaging pedagogies, their students will be able to do the same, too! It’s time to take bold steps to reform science education curriculum in order to help teachers lead lessons on important environmental science topics, such as climate change—without compromising content or instruction. Like climate change itself, improving the current state of science education is urgent and critically necessary to help teachers overcome climate confusion, and to help lead the next generation forward as they learn to grapple with its consequences.

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