Overcoming obstacles to teaching about climate change
Monday, June 24, 2019
When a group of community college students told their English Composition teacher they wanted to write their persuasive research papers on the fact that climate change doesn’t exist, she responded that climate change’s existence has been proven scientifically but they could address the question of whether humans are the cause.
The students dropped the course, the Houston-based teacher of the students shared with Joshua Johnson, host of 1A, a radio program produced by WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C.
Poll shows teachers believe in climate change education more than they teach it
The program, entitled "Teaching Climate Change: Push and Pull," aired on April 23 immediately following the release of a new NPR/Ipsos poll showing that teaching climate change in schools is supported by over 80% of teachers in the U.S.
Teachers backing climate change education may not surprise you — what’s alarming is the gap between support for it and its prevalence in K-12 schools around the country.
"Although most states have classroom standards that at least mention human-caused climate change, most teachers aren't actually talking about climate change in their classrooms," reports NPR education team member Anya Kamenetz in an article that covers the poll in detail.
The nationally representative poll of 505 teachers showed 86% in favor of climate change education — yet only 42% actually teach it. To answer the obvious question, "why?" 65% claim that it’s not related to their subject; 20% that their students are too young; 17% report not knowing enough about it or having the materials to teach it.
Addressing feared pushback from parents
Yet there may be another underlying reason. Responses to another question in the poll revealed that nearly one-third of the teachers are worried about parent reaction — this includes those who are teaching climate change and those who aren’t.
Despite consensus within the scientific community and definitive data collected by NASA, global warming is a sensitive topic because a significant segment of the population still doubts its existence. Even among the teachers polled, 8% don’t teach climate change because, like the aforementioned community college students, they don’t believe it exists.
Educators and administrators concerned about ruffling feathers may be heartened to learn that in a related poll conducted by NPR/Ipsos more than 80% of parents with children under 18 supported teaching climate change in school. This included both Democrats and Republicans.
Teachers are likely to meet more resistance with certain demographic groups as the community college teacher in Houston discovered with her students who’d all graduated from the same Christian high school.
Jim Sutter, a high school AP Environmental Science teacher in Ohio interviewed on the A1 program, expected some challenges based on his school’s geographic location. He teaches in an area where coal was the crux of the economy for years, so some of his students get pushback from family members who worked in the coal industry and insist that climate change is a natural phenomenon for which humans have no responsibility.
In response Sutter, a former environmental geologist, expands his teaching beyond pure science and incorporates historical and anthropologic data along with scientific information. Observing ice core and tree ring data, students see for themselves how rates of natural climate change compare with the increased speed of change now occurring.
Likewise, in an NEA Today article on teaching climate change, author Mary Ellen Flannery recommends that teachers bypass the controversy by staying focused on the data. "Climate change may be a political hot potato in some communities. But the data is indisputable."
Resources to support teaching about climate change
Not everyone’s an environmental scientist like Sutter, so it’s understandable that some educators may be hesitant to tackle the daunting task of teaching about climate change. Yet as Kottie Christie-Blick, a fifth-grade teacher interviewed by Flannery, puts it, "The topic is so important, that no delay is defensible."
For teachers concerned about not knowing enough, Christie-Blick urges them to just dive in and learn as they go. Fortunately, there considerable support to help teachers get up to speed on climate change.
For starters, the NEA Climate Change for Educators site links to over a dozen education resources, while NASA features teachers’ resources, including the ClimateKids site with games, art activities and science lessons. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Planet Stewards Education Project gives teachers access to videos, webinars, games and K-12 curriculum modules.
Educators can stream into their classrooms an interactive video series for young people, entitled "Our Climate, Our Future," produced by the Alliance for Climate Education.
Additional resources shared in the NEA Today article include the National Center for Science Education, the National Science Teachers Association, and the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), featuring lessons stratified by subject and grade level.
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