The science of climate change is very difficult to teach, observed moderator Tamara Ledley (TERC), not only because of political pressures but because the content itself is difficult to comprehend. Students have difficulty grasping the complex, interactive systems involved, and teachers sometimes struggle as well, she noted. Susan Buhr (University of Colorado at Boulder) and Roberta Johnson (National Earth Science Teachers Association) discussed aspects of teachers’ knowledge, preparation, and practice.
TEACHERS’ EXPERIENCES AND ATTITUDES
The controversy that has been a persistent factor in public opinion and policy related to climate change has also affected classroom teachers, observed Buhr. To illustrate her point, she drew on research on teacher practices and teacher learning: a descriptive study (Wise, 2010); a 2009 national-scale needs assessment (Lynds, 2009); an evaluation of a professional development workshop (Lynds, 2010); and survey results from a national study of teachers at the middle school through undergraduate levels (Hirabyashi, 2011) (see Figure 4-1).
The samples and methods used in these studies varied, but together they present a picture of teachers’ experiences and approaches, Buhr explained. With regard to preparation, Lynds (2009) found that almost all the teachers in the national sample had engaged in self-directed learning of some sort to expand their understanding of climate change, using such
FIGURE 4-1 Four studies on teacher practices and teacher learning that were drawn on during the presentation. Samples vary by geographic scope, sample size, level of instruction, and degree of engagement in climate instruction, but themes and findings are consistent throughout.
SOURCE: Buhr (2011).
resources as websites, books, articles, television documentaries, and movies. Many also participated in short-duration learning experiences, such as workshops and conferences, but fewer have had sustained preparation in college or graduate school classes, and very few have had professional development in their own district focused on climate change.
The other three studies offered insights about teachers’ content knowledge, suggesting that most feel comfortable teaching about earth systems but less so with climate topics (such as the greenhouse effect); emerging topics (such as considering the question of what will happen in a particular place as a result of climate change); and considering scientific evidence (how scientists know what they know). As a result, Buhr explained, many teachers are vulnerable to counterclaims from sources devoted to disproving that climate change is occurring or is caused by human activity, such as the documentary films, The Great Global Warm-
ing Swindle1 or Unstoppable Solar Cycles.2 Eighty-five percent of Colorado teachers in the study by Wise (2010), for example, reported that they support teaching both sides of the issue. Twenty-five percent of those who present both sides do so as an accommodation of students with different views, or as an opportunity to explore a controversy, but 50 percent left their reasoning unclear; 25 percent believe both sides are valid. Some of that 25 percent were confused or disturbed by “climate gate” (the public release of stolen e-mail correspondence among climate researchers that some viewed as casting doubt on certain data),3 and others were actively committed to a “denialist” view, Buhr explained.
Teachers also reported on factors that obstruct their teaching about climate change, Buhr noted, the top three being (1) a real or perceived lack of alignment between climate change content and standards they are asked to follow, (2) their own lack of content knowledge, and (3) the beliefs of parents and students (Lynds, 2009; Wise, 2010; Hirabyashi, 2011). Teachers also noted interference by local school board members, as well as students and parents whose beliefs resulted in resistance to teaching about climate change or climate science. Teachers report using a range of strategies in response, including treating controversy as a teachable moment; working to integrate instruction about the climate throughout the curriculum; using inquiry-based pedagogy; inviting outside speakers, such as climate scientists, to expand the instruction; and integrating the search for solutions to specific climate problems into the curriculum. Buhr noted that the first four strategies are similar to those used by teachers who address controversies over evolution in the classroom.
Many teachers agree that climate change concepts should be taught not only in earth and environmental science classes but also in biology and social studies (Hirabyashi, 2011). However, in practice, teachers with biology degrees tend to state they are not well prepared to teach about the topic, Buhr noted. She pointed out that far more students take a biology class in high school than a geology or earth sciences class, stressing that biology classes are a key opportunity to reach more students. Teachers also devote relatively little time to climate change—in a survey of 213 educators from middle school through the undergraduate level, the majority of middle and high school teachers reported spending less
1Originally aired in the United Kingdom on Channel 4, March 8, 2007, the documentary film was directed by Martin Durkin.
2Further information available at http://heartland.org/policy-documents/unstoppable-solar-cycles-rethinking-global-warming [June 2012].
3Several investigations, including those conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s inspector general at the request of Senator James Inhofe, Pennsylvania State University, the InterAcademy Council, the National Research Council, and the British House of Commons, cleared the accused scientists of any wrongdoing.
than 25 percent of instructional time (as a formal topic) on climate topics (Hirabyashi, 2011). Many, however, do report integrating climate topics with other material; for example, 50 percent say they integrate climate concepts with discussion of societal implications or solutions, and 80 percent report that they have learned to incorporate discussion of solutions throughout their treatment of climate topics, so that students will not be overwhelmed by the disturbing nature of predicted consequences.
This research also demonstrates that professional development can affect teachers’ views and that many report being surprised by the strength of the scientific evidence after a professional development experience, Buhr noted (Lynds, 2009). Teachers also are influenced by experiences in which administrators, colleagues, and others encourage them in their teaching about climate change and are less influenced by discouraging experiences (Wise, 2010). The most valuable professional development is that which is sustained; it is when experiences last for more than 80 hours, Buhr noted, that you start to see changes in practices. While teachers report having considerable opportunities for professional development about climate change, much of it is a week or less in duration (Hirabyashi, 2011).
Buhr concluded with the hope that new standards offer an opportunity for greater alignment and an increasing opportunity to build places for climate change instruction into the curricula in many subjects, as well as a chance to increase interest in and appreciation of climate change’s importance to the public.
TEACHER PRACTICES AND CHALLENGES
Johnson drew on additional sources of data to expand the picture of current teacher practice and experience with respect to climate change. The National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA), she explained, has conducted several informal surveys of K-12 earth and space science educators and she focused on two of them. (Johnson, 2011). These surveys were not administered to a randomly selected sample, she cautioned, but were offered to interested teachers through dissemination of information about the survey. Sixty-two percent of the high school teachers who responded to the survey teach about climate change in their classes; 36 percent of middle school teachers, and approximately 15 percent of elementary teachers do so as well. At the high school level, the majority of teachers who cover climate change and who chose to respond to the survey were male, while the reverse is true at the elementary and middle school levels.
The survey data (based on a nonrandom sample of teachers) showed that climate change content is typically taught as a unit, in earth science
and environmental science classes. The survey revealed that one big concern for earth and space science teachers is that these subjects are being deemphasized in many school districts. Seventeen percent reported that earth sciences were being dropped from their high school curriculum, 16 percent reported that it is being changed from a requirement to an elective, and 19 percent reported that it is being moved from high school to middle school. In many districts these courses are being disassembled, with portions of the content being integrated into other science courses. Johnson noted that budget cutbacks have affected many aspects of the curriculum but that the impact on earth and space science seems to be “disproportionate.”
The surveys also explored the teachers’ preparation in earth and space sciences and showed differences in the levels of preparation that female and male teachers have received. For example, male respondents were more likely to have taken college courses on the subject and female respondents were more likely to have received in-service professional development (see Figure 4-2). However, all respondents were more likely to have had in-service professional development on climate science and climate change than to have had college classes that covered the topic. Figure 4-3 shows what the respondents reported about the climate change topics they teach.
The NESTA surveys also asked questions about attitudes regarding climate change. In answer to an open-ended question about whether the responding teachers had encountered difficulty or pressure from students, parents, administrators, or community members about various topics, they were most likely to say that they had had such trouble with respect to their teaching about evolution (68 percent reported this). Forty-two percent reported experiencing pressure not to teach about climate change, although in terms of their own views, the vast majority of responding teachers reported that they believe global warming is happening.
Responding teachers were also asked to indicate whether they had experienced any of a long list of possible difficulties in teaching about climate change (examples include “climate change is too controversial to teach in my classroom”; “I don’t know enough of the basic science behind climate change”; “I don’t have access to a good textbook that covers climate change”; and “I don’t have enough time to teach about climate change”). More than a third reported that they have been influenced to teach “both sides” of the issue. Of those, just 4 percent say they were required to do so and about 50 percent do so because they believe both perspectives are valid. Some of the many written comments from the responding teachers on this subject are shown in Box 4-1. Nearly half of the teachers reported some degree of increase in positive attitudes about the teaching of climate change in their own school; nearly one-third
FIGURE 4-2 Percentage response by gender to the question, “Please indicate the amount of preparation you have had in earth and space science-related courses at the college/university level, including in-service professional development courses” (385 respondents).
SOURCE: Johnson (2011a).
reported no change in attitudes, and just under one-eighth reported some increase in negative attitudes.
Johnson had a few closing observations about the findings from these surveys, including a few points based on data she had not had time to present. First, in-service professional development appears to improve teachers’ capacity to “represent what the science shows,” she noted. Given evidence of differences in teachers’ understanding by gender, region, and type and degree of preparation, as well as the finding that so many teachers believe they should teach “both sides,” she stressed the potentially significant benefit of in-service professional development. Johnson
FIGURE 4-3 Percentage responses from U.S. K-12 climate change teachers to the question, “Which of the following major topics do you cover when teaching the subject? Mark all that apply.” Topic order was randomized in the survey (372 respondents).
SOURCE: Johnson (2011a).
noted that “we need data-driven, inquiry- or discovery-based educational resources that are particularly well suited at the introductory level so that teachers that have a diversity of views in their classroom will have something they can do with the students, and can also dig in and discover it themselves.”
Professional development needs to be intensive and long-term, she emphasized, but resources for teachers need to be flexible and realistic so that teachers can adapt them to the limited time they have for climate change instruction. “Students need to know,” she commented, “that healthy skepticism and critical thinking are aspects of quality science, but that a refusal to accept overwhelming physical evidence is a sign of nonscientific thinking.” Teachers need not be advocates, she concluded; “the evidence is overwhelming and the data can speak for itself.”
REMARKS BY THE DISCUSSANT
There are about 1.6 million teachers of science in the United States, noted Francis Eberle (National Science Teachers Association) in offering
Sample Teachers’ Comments About Challenges
to Teaching Climate Change
“There was one parent who said he had a Ph.D. and said that he thinks global climate change is false. If I decided to teach it, he would come into the classroom and dispute it all in front of me. Instead of doing this, the school administrator just suggested that I not teach the information. I really found it to be a shame because it’s something that is often found in the media that many students are interested in and want to learn more about. I don’t want to tell them one way or another, but they need to know the facts from both sides without bias.”
“I don’t teach both sides. I only teach the science of it, not the politics. I talk about the politics, but there is no such thing as both sides unless discussing politics. Students then are given the opportunity to make choices on their own behalf after the science is explained. I don’t think I have had any leave in disbelief in climate change, the science speaks for itself.”
“I teach real science and bring in climate change whenever I want to show junk science or how a political agenda can slant people’s honesty to produce false reports.”
SOURCE: Johnson (2011a).
some context for the discussion, and they are a varied group. Some science teachers are exemplary and have outstanding skills and knowledge, others are not, and many are in between, so it is unwise to generalize about them. It is also important to remember, he added, how the science curriculum related to earth systems has changed over the years, having a variety of names (e.g., geology, earth and space sciences, earth systems science, environmental science) and a variety of subbranches (e.g., oceanography, meteorology, ocean and climate literacy). Thus, he suggested, students’ experiences of the subject have varied far more over the past few decades than have their experiences with biology, chemistry, or physics.
Moreover, earth science courses are often electives, and their content may be determined by a teacher’s knowledge and interests rather than a scope and sequence planned by the school or the district. The Advanced Placement exam drives the curriculum for many courses, he observed, but only a fraction of students take that course, and large numbers of students will only receive earth science education in a general science class. Right now, he observed, there are 20 states that do not require an earth science course for graduation.
Eberle highlighted some significant challenges that teachers face. In his view, science is not generally a high priority in states and districts. The requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and other community priorities, he commented, have not put science first. Teacher preparation and professional development opportunities, he added, reflect this, which, in turn means that teachers may not have the opportunities to gain the knowledge of the science of climate change, and science more generally, that they need. “Systems are very complex. Understanding them, and the integration of systems—how many teachers have really learned about that?” he asked. If teachers, who are hired by communities, face opposition to the teaching of controversial material but have not had the preparation to clearly distinguish between scientific debates and political ones, he cautioned, “they are in a very awkward position.”
The Next Generation Science Standards are thus “great news,” in Eberle’s view. Similarly, the current enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education should provide an opportunity to boost climate change education as well, he observed. At the same time, he added, the demographics of the teacher workforce are shifting, and as younger teachers come into the field, there is an opportunity to boost the general understanding of science and climate change issues. “Younger people are very optimistic,” Eberle concluded. “They want to change the world. They want to do things that are exciting. They want to make a difference in their lives as they are growing up.” This is the reason many go into science, and it may be a source of much-needed optimism about the challenge of climate change education.
“Which is the harder problem?” asked moderator Ledley, “helping teachers learn the concrete knowledge or dealing with their own skepticism about the topic?” One participant thought it possible to tackle both at the same time but noted the importance of avoiding the appearance of bias. This person added that “when I make a presentation on climate change and show a polar bear sitting on a dwindling iceberg, it probably looks biased to somebody who is outright against this. The data are overwhelming and the challenge is to make it accessible so that both teachers and students can effectively access it, probe it, analyze it for trends, and come to science-based conclusions.”
Others thought that the most promising approach is to increase teachers’ content knowledge and understanding of the nature of science. Several flagged the importance of observing the line between education and advocacy. “Teachers need to come down squarely on the side of the consensus view of climate science, but what is appropriate in the classroom
is to equip students with the skills to make decisions about it, as opposed to telling them what their decision should be.”
Right now, however, the significant fraction of teachers who are using climate change as an example of junk science, or teaching “both sides, have an amplifying factor equal to the number of students they are reaching,” another noted. “We can’t give up on them,” this participant added, “and then there is that vast range of teachers who really don’t know and are doing the best they can. They don’t really have a good resource base. We can reach them with strong, data-driven resources that are nowhere near close to advocacy.”
BREAKOUT GROUP DISCUSSIONS
Participants were provided the opportunity to break into small groups to continue the discussion. Workshop participants had a choice of participating in break out groups focused on one of two topics—the role of standards in climate change education, or teacher preparation and understanding—based on their interest. Two groups of approximately 20-25 workshop participants formed to discuss the topic of teacher preparation and understanding. Each group was moderated by a steering committee member, and was also asked to identify a spokesperson to report back 1-3 main ideas during a plenary session at the end of the day. Four questions focusing on teacher understanding and preparation were presented as a starting point for the discussion:
1. What types of pedagogical knowledge are needed to teach about climate change or climate science? How can one help teachers to obtain the knowledge they need to teach climate change comprehensively?
2. How can teachers and principals overcome skepticism about climate change and climate change education from, for example, parents or administrators?
3. What are strategies for finding appropriate curricular materials?
4. How can schools and districts organize themselves so that teachers are motivated to teach climate change?
One representative from each of the breakout groups reported back, highlighting key points from their conversations, which are summarized below.
• It is important to connect local changes to changes in the larger global system—to help students understand climate change.
• Teachers need to model the practices of science—to get students
out taking measurements and making observations and connecting what they are doing with what other researchers have been doing.
• It is useful to use misconceptions as a starting point for lessons. It is especially useful to focus on misconceptions that are not particularly controversial, as a prelude to conversation about more difficult ones.
• Teachers could benefit from opportunities to conduct research with practicing scientists so they can be directly exposed to scientific methods and data collection. They also need explicit instruction in how to interpret data. Having a single reliable source for professional development programs and materials related to climate and energy, such as the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) resources, would be very useful.
• Local professional development that explicitly links the K-14 curricula and establishes partnerships with scientists and researchers will help teachers become teacher-practitioners, rather than just teachers of science.
• The most useful professional development is long term, as opposed to “quick hits,” and helps teachers develop better communication strategies.
• Stronger incentives would encourage teachers to pursue professional development related to climate change, such as explicit state endorsements for earth science and climate literacy, professional development credits, time off, and stipends for teachers who pursue continuing education.