Improving education about climate change begins with a clear picture of how students currently understand the issue, the quality of textbooks and curricular materials that are available for teaching about climate change, and how climate change is actually taught in classrooms and beyond. Eddie Boyes (University of Liverpool) described research on the mental models that students around the world have of global warming and climate change, Thomas Marcinkowski (Florida Institute of Technology) discussed climate literacy and pedagogy, and Frank Niepold (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) discussed the nature and quality of available teaching materials.
MENTAL MODELS OF GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Climate change is a complex topic, noted Boyes: “Black body radiation, preferential absorption by the atmosphere at certain frequencies, the science of atmosphere and weather patterns, not to mention the stochastic nature of any predictions of climate fluctuations [based on evidence of] a warmer climate overall, and the risk assessments—these are very difficult issues.” Good teachers are accustomed to making difficult ideas accessible to students by simplifying complex material and using models; and they also recognize the importance of understanding students’ preexisting ideas, beliefs, and misconceptions.
A considerable amount of research has been conducted on people’s
ideas about science, Boyes added, including a new series of studies conducted at Yale University on public support for climate and energy change policies.1 The research has shown that students have many misconceptions, Boyes observed (Shepardson et al., 2011). For example, many students confuse global warming with ozone depletion and believe that all pollutants contribute to all environmental problems. Many students also do not understand how global warming translates into climate fluctuations or why it does not simply make every place a bit warmer.
Boyes and his colleagues are currently conducting a study in 11 countries of people’s beliefs and attitudes regarding climate change and possible actions that could be taken to mitigate it.2 The researchers have sampled 12,627 students in grades 6 through 10 using a 32-item questionnaire that covers 16 issues, such as transport use, transport type, power generation, and selection of consumer durables. The questions focus on individuals’ willingness to take particular actions and perceptions about how useful these actions would be.
Looking first at people’s beliefs about the usefulness of various actions, Boyes described the overall approach and highlighted several questions as examples. Participants were asked questions, for example, such as “if people had smaller cars that used less gasoline, global warming would be reduced by ___” and given five options describing different levels of their perception of the effectiveness of the action: (1) by quite a lot, (2) by a fair amount, (3) by a small but useful amount, (4) by a very small amount (hardly noticeable), and (5) by nothing at all, really.
On many of the questions, responses varied across the countries. For example, responses to the above question on smaller cars resulted in the following: in South Korea, more than 70 percent of students chose the two most favorable answers: that smaller cars would help by “a fair amount” or “quite a lot”; in Brunei and the United Kingdom, approximately 50 percent of students chose these answers; in the United States, 64 percent of students chose these responses. Additional examples included questions that focused on such topics as how much people used their cars, alternative energy sources, and meat consumption (Boyes et al., 2011).
Questions assessing students’ willingness to take these actions mirrored the questions about perceptions of effectiveness. For example, students were asked to choose a response to the question, “even if it was not as fast or luxurious, I would try to get a car that uses less gasoline.” For this question, the five options were (1) I would definitely do it, (2) I would
2The countries are Australia, Brunei, Greece, India, Korea, Oman, Singapore, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
almost certainly do it, (3) I would probably do it, (4) perhaps I would do it, and (5) I would probably not do it.
Here also the results were mixed, Boyes explained. For example, on the question of more efficient cars, students in India were most likely to say they would “definitely” or “almost certainly” try to get a car that uses less gasoline (nearly 70 percent), while 20 percent of students in the United Kingdom chose one of these two responses. In the United States, 38 percent of students said they would “definitely” or “almost certainly” get a car that uses less gasoline and 20 percent of them said they would use their cars less. Other questions focused on students’ willingness to use public transportation, to pay for alternative energy sources, and to eat less meat (Boyes et al., 2011; Rodriguez et al., 2011).
The researchers also explored the connection between how potentially helpful respondents perceived an action to be and how willing they were to undertake that action (see Figures 2-1a and 2-1b). The five response items for the two question types were matched, Boyes noted, to make it easier to address the possible connections, and the researchers assigned codes to the five levels. Thus, the top responses (“the action would help quite a lot” and “I would definitely do it”) were assigned a value of 1.00, the next responses (“help by a fair amount” and “I would almost certainly do it”) were assigned 0.75, the middle options (“by a small but useful amount” and “I would probably do it”) were coded as 0.50, the next (“by a very small amount“ and “perhaps I would do it”) as 0.25, and the lowest responses (“by nothing at all really” and “I would probably not do it”) had a value of 0.00 (see Figure 2-1a). With these codes it was possible to create a scatterplot for the responses to both questions.
One might hope, Boyes observed, that there would be a linear relationship between perception of an action’s efficacy and willingness to take that action, and the data did show a relationship between the two. Boyes also pointed out what he described as both “a natural willingness to act, up to a point,” even for people who believe the action won’t be helpful, and “a natural reluctance to act,” even among people who believe the action might help a lot. These effects vary by question. For example, people are very willing to switch off unused appliances in their homes, but very unwilling to support nuclear power, even if they believe strongly in its usefulness to combat climate change. Workshop participants raised the question of what “willingness” really meant to respondents of the survey, noting that it could, at least in part, signify their recognition of what they ought to say or reflect the views of their parents or other influences. Boyes acknowledged the possibility that there would not be a perfect correlation between what students or others report being willing to do and what they later do, but pointed out that there are practical limits to the possibilities for assessing people’s intentions.
FIGURE 2-1a Codes of matched responses that connect the two question types: individual’s willingness to act (responses on the right) and their belief in the usefulness of the action (responses on the left).
SOURCE: Boyes et al. (2011).
What the plot highlights (see Figure 2-1b), Boyes explained, is the zone in which education is likely to be most beneficial. The plot for each question can point to the areas between natural willingness (where education is not particularly needed) and natural reluctance (where education is unlikely to make much difference), where additional knowledge can increase people’s sense of how effective an action might be and thus the likelihood of their taking that action. Such data, Boyes concluded, can be an important guide “as we try to educate rounded young people and make them critically thinking adults who can make decisions for themselves.” He closed with a perspective on education articulated by Martin Luther King in 1948 (King, 1948):
The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.
CLIMATE LITERACY AND CLIMATE PEDAGOGY
Researchers have also explored the climate literacy of K-14 students, and Marcinkowski described the results of a secondary analysis of four national-level assessments of environmental literacy that have been conducted in Israel, Korea, Turkey, and the United States (Chu, Shin, and Lee, 2005; Shin et al., 2005; McBeth et al., 2008, 2010; Negev et al., 2008; Tal et
FIGURE 2-1b Graph demonstrating the relationship between individuals’ willingness to act and their belief in the usefulness of the action. A willingness to act despite a person’s belief that the action will not be useful to address a specific goal represents “a natural willingness.” Conversely, there is a “natural reluctance” to act even when the action is perceived as highly useful.
SOURCE: Boyes et al. (2011).
al., 2008; Erdogan, 2009; Erdogan and Ok, 2011). Marcinkowski and his colleagues reviewed the results of these assessments to gain a sense of overall levels of climate literacy in each of the countries, how the countries compare in this respect, and how climate literacy varied across different ages. The analysis focused on data selected to represent climate literacy as defined by the U.S. Global Research Program/Climate Science Program, (2009, p. 3). According to that definition, a climate-literate person
• understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system;
• knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate;
• communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way; and
• can make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate change.
Climate literacy differs in some ways from more general scientific literacy, Marcinkowski noted, because behavior plays a more important part in it, in the sense that the actions and choices that result from climate literacy are “where the rubber hits the road.” Table 2-1 shows the overlapping but not identical nature of scientific, environmental, and climate literacy.
TABLE 2-1 Domains of Scientific, Environmental, and Climate Literacy
SOURCE: Adapted from Marcinkowski (2011).
TABLE 2-2 Grade Levels and Content Covered in Four Assessments
|Grade levels||6, 12||3, 7, 11||5||6, 8|
|Locus of control/efficacy||X||X|
SOURCE: Marcinkowski (2011).
The four assessments analyzed covered various grade levels and various components of the domain, as shown in Table 2-2.
To carry out the analysis, Marcinkowski and his colleagues had the three assessments that were conducted in other languages translated into English, and then they matched the items, along with items from the U.S. study, to key features of the climate literacy framework that is based on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS’) Project 2061 Benchmarks for Science Literacy.3 The items that addressed aspects of climate literacy were a small subset (109 items in four assessments) of the battery of items included in the overall study, Marcinkowski noted, but the researchers charted the results for each of the components of the
domain for which there were items by country and grade level. They reviewed these items to identify those that were the same or nearly the same across countries and grade levels, focusing on the results of those items. For example, they found that results of the Israeli, Korean, and U.S. assessments indicated that students’ disposition scores were higher or more positive than their behavior scores, regardless of grade level. The researchers also found differences across both countries and grade levels, such as with the level of students’ knowledge about different aspects of climate change, which suggest the need to take sociocultural and developmental factors into consideration when teaching about climate change (see Marcinkowski et al., 2011, for detailed analyses).
Marcinkowski and his colleagues also reviewed research in environmental education conducted between 1972 and 2005, on which he made a few observations (Marcinkowski, 2010). The researchers included both experimental work and other studies, some of which were not quantitative in nature, and searched for work focused on teaching and learning of natural history and ecology, environmental issue investigation, participation in service or action, and other approaches. While not exhaustive, this review of the research, in Marcinkowski’s view, supports the proposition that different instructional approaches or programs tend to emphasize different outcomes. It is important to consider, for example, whether the desired outcome is increased conceptual knowledge or improved decision making when assessing the best approaches to climate education. In his view, what is most important is to remember that “what we are talking about is not playing on a team—we are creating a league.” In other words, climate, ocean, environmental, and earth systems education can all play a valuable role, as can the social studies curricula. “There are a lot of players out there with strong communities and networks that have been and will continue to contribute to climate literacy. We don’t need labels that are going to disenfranchise anybody—the challenge is to actively engage these constituencies.”
TEACHING MATERIALS FOR CLIMATE CHANGE EDUCATION
A starting point for thinking about the materials used to teach about climate for Niepold is that “we don’t have a century; we don’t have half a century. We should have been moving on this three decades ago.” Teaching about climate is happening today, he observed, and there are many materials in use, so it is essential to focus simultaneously on short-term goals as well as those that will take more time to reach, such as recasting the climate-related curriculum.
The climate literacy framework provides a sound basis, Niepold noted, because it incorporates the goal that students, learners, and citizens
should be prepared to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that affect climate. This goal poses a major challenge to the education system, he added, and will require a more comprehensive focus and integrative approach than exist in most of the current climate education resources, programs, and textbooks or curricula. At present, in Niepold’s view, most resources are fragmented, and the topic of climate is not a priority in education systems. However, he stated that recent activities, such as the climate literacy framework, have begun to influence the development of resources, standards, and professional development materials and programs.
The climate literacy framework was the basis for a new means of evaluating the quality of climate education materials, he added. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN)4 is a collaboration among science and academic organizations5 that was developed to identify and review online resources for teaching about climate science, climate change, and energy awareness, primarily those used in grades 6 through 16 and in informal science education. The resources are reviewed for scientific and pedagogical quality and are annotated by the reviewers. Resources are also aligned with the National Science Education Standards, the AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy, and the Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines for Learning of the North American Association for Environmental Education.
CLEAN is designed to help educators locate excellent materials, although Niepold acknowledged, “excellence is a subjective thing.” Nevertheless, CLEAN has helped to expand the framework within which climate must be understood, in part by including energy use in its purview, he explained. Thus far, the CLEAN researchers, in partnership with NOAA’s Climate Program Office, have found what they classified as “excellent” resources that address over 15 percent of the learning goals presented in Project 2061’s Atlas for Science Literacy6; an excellent resource or activity being defined as, above all, one that is scientifically accurate.7 That is, the sources are accurate and trustworthy, the material is accurate and current, and there are proper citations and references. Excellent learning activities are also aligned with the identified climate and energy concepts, topics, and educational standards; they provide pedagogical scaffolding or teaching tips or are presented in such a way that educa-
5TERC, Inc., the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), and the Colorado School of Mines.
tors can develop their own instructional strategies; and they are easily accessible online and affordable. The CLEAN team has reviewed only materials that are available for free on the Internet, Niepold noted, adding that reviewing textbooks would be beyond the program’s current capacity. One challenge, he cautioned, is that the science is moving so quickly that material can go out of date. However, Niepold stressed, the process benefits from the multiple layers of review and the materials are updated as new ones emerge.
The developers of the CLEAN database have also used the collected information to conduct some analyses. They found, for example, that approximately 16 percent of K-12 curricula, across all subjects, related in some way to climate literacy (including but not limited to climate change), which Niepold views as quite a large number (unpublished data, based on CLEAN and NOAA analysis using the NSDL Strand Map Server tool, the AAAS Benchmarks alignment to the climate literacy concepts). Among the 1,123 benchmarks for K-12, for example, they found 191 direct and related alignments to climate literacy concepts that spanned primary to high school grades across a wide range of curricular topics.
The team had several observations about the available resources, Niepold noted. In general, the resources they reviewed can be narrowly focused and their quality uneven. Some important areas, such as adaptation to climate change, are missing or thinly covered, and for others the resources lack interactive features likely to engage learners. Excellent resources can be difficult and time-consuming to locate on the Internet. He concluded that there is a need for better coordination so that effective practices can be more widely shared across disciplines, and that there is much more potential for integrated learning. Many of the resources are organized around a climate problem, he noted, and skillful balance will be needed “between gloom and doom on the one hand and inadequate strategies on the other.”
Niepold emphasized the integrated, cross-disciplinary aspects of the study of climate and climate change. The ideas addressed in these curricula, such as consideration of the consequences of resource shortages, he noted, are complicated and represent rich topics that might be addressed in science, geography, or history class, for example. Such multilevel, multidisciplinary ideas, he added, are challenging to teach because teachers may address the subject matter in different ways that are not aligned with each other. He closed with a reminder that the guiding principle for informed climate decisions in the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s climate literacy guide is that “humans can take action to reduce climate change and its impact” and that this principle sets the stage for the other principles, which are oriented toward “making informed and responsible decisions.”
Participants provided a variety of comments and questions. Jay Labov (National Research Council) asked how children’s beliefs about climate change develop and grow and how they are influenced by parents or other caregivers. He noted the polarization of opinion on climate change and observed that people’s perspectives are often correlated with political affiliations. Boyes pointed to evidence that demonstrates clear relationships between sociocultural and political relationships and people’s feelings about climate change in various countries, noting for example, that living in a democratic society seems to affect people’s views. Niepold added that teachers and other educators do get challenged on this topic by a range of people, not just parents, and also noted that there is some evidence that young people find their information from sources other than their parents.
James Mahoney asked if there was evidence about whether students who form their own opinions apply them only to themselves or extend them to their communities—families, friends, other peer groups. He also wondered how effective education is at influencing the community. Marcinkowski responded that there are individual studies that suggest a positive influence from students “talking around the table” to their parents about what they learn in school. He also pointed to a study that followed students who were exposed to environmental issues in grade 8 and then provided no further intervening instruction. After two years without reinforcement, their level of skill and participation had decreased. On the positive side, students who wanted more experiences tended to find opportunities through organizations, such as scouts and other youth organizations that are not part of formal education.
Martin Storksdieck (National Research Council) asked Boyes if he has observed changes in students’ understanding of climate change and global warming during his research over the past 20 years, wondering whether it has become more sophisticated, or whether people still struggle with the same issues. Boyes responded that students’ understanding has matured since 2000. For example, there is less confusion about what the ozone hole is and how it relates to global warming. In addition, he noted there has been improvement in student learning over time from the lower to the higher grades, so that students do have a greater understanding of climate change in grade 12 than in grade 4.
Daniel Edelson asked whether there is a solid understanding in the social sciences of the progression from dispositions and beliefs to behavior, as students become adult decision makers. Both Marcinkowski and Boyes have found few studies that tackle those questions. They pointed to the scarcity of longitudinal studies and the difficulty of determining developmentally appropriate questions to explore the issue. Marcinkowski
also noted that measuring affective dispositions, such as young people’s attitudes, is challenging because attitudes and dispositions tend to be fluid and are likely to change from year to year as students develop and progress.
Andy Anderson closed by noting some conclusions and questions raised in the discussion. “Children live both in and outside of school” and are influenced by their families and their communities, as well as by their schools. That point leads to questions about the proper scope of the school curriculum and how to establish priorities among the knowledge, dispositions, skills, and behaviors that come under the heading of climate literacy. “What is the role that formal schooling can and should play in preparing students to be responsible citizens?” he asked. “What is reasonable to expect schools to accomplish? Where do schools have leverage, and where do they have permission from parents to go?”