Science Teachers in the Hot Seat

Climate Change Education in a Polarized Society

By Glenn Branch

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020

After its construction in 1879, the Connecticut state Capitol building was rhapsodically described by the New York Times in terms of a climatic conflict: “In the dazzling sunshine of a New-England Summer noon it sparkles like a fairy palace of frost-work.”1 One hundred and forty years later, there was again a climatic conflict in Hartford, when, on a chilly January day, Connecticut legislators began a heated tussle over the treatment of climate change in the state’s public schools.

On January 19, 2019, Christine Palm, a new state representative who had previously worked as a high school teacher for a decade, introduced a bill to require “that the science curriculum of the prescribed courses of study for public schools include the teaching of climate change and that such teaching begin in elementary school.” If House Bill 5011 had been enacted, Connecticut would have become the first state to require the teaching of climate change by law.

A scant five days later, a rival bill was introduced to “eliminate climate change materials” from the Connecticut state science standards, describing climate change as “a controversial area of information.” The sponsor of House Bill 5955 was John E. Piscopo, a veteran representative serving as the chief whip for the House Republicans. On the same day, he also introduced a bill to rescind the standards altogether and require the state to revert to a previous set of standards.

The contest between Palm’s bill and Piscopo’s bill exemplifies the conflicts surfacing not only in state legislatures but also before state boards of education, in local school districts and individual schools, and even within the minds of science teachers, over what is taught about climate change to students in the nation’s public schools. But none of these conflicts is as simple, unified, or easy to control as the Connecticut legislators seem to have thought.

The science is clear. Over 97 percent of climate scientists accept that recent climate change is the result of human activity, as multiple studies, relying on independent lines of evidence, have independently demonstrated.2 The nation’s leading scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have assessed, reported, and endorsed the scientific consensus on climate change.3

Following the lead of the scientific community, the science education community is increasingly emphasizing the importance of climate change education. A 2018 position statement from the National Science Teaching Association acknowledges the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change and calls for climate change to be taught “as any other established field of science”—and for proposals to downplay it, such as Piscopo’s, to be resisted.4

What Do State Science Standards Say about Climate Change?

Ultimately, science teachers are guided mainly by the science standards of the state in which they teach. Science standards are triply relevant to curriculum and instruction: they dictate the content of textbooks; they provide the basis for high-stakes statewide testing; and, most importantly, they supply the framework on which local school districts construct their science curricula and on which individual science teachers base their day-to-day lesson plans.

Over the last 15 years, climate change’s presence in state science standards has increased dramatically. As of 2005, according to a study by Kim Kastens and Margaret Turrin, of the 49 sets of state science standards then in use, only 30 mentioned any aspect of anthropogenic climate change whatsoever. Only 15 discussed its causes, whether specifically, by discussing fossil fuel use and changes in land use, or nonspecifically.5

Today, however, the science standards of 36 states (plus the District of Columbia) explicitly acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change. These include the 20 states (plus the District of Columbia) to have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which include global climate change as part of a so-called Disciplinary Core Idea of the earth and space sciences.6 Connecticut, as Palm and Piscopo were aware, adopted the NGSS as its state science standards in 2015.

Of the state science standards in the remaining 14 states, five (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Virginia) mention anthropogenic climate change as a mere possibility, without acknowledging its reality; four (Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) simply fail to mention it; and—worst of all—five (Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia) mention it but misrepresent it as a matter of scientific debate.

Legislative efforts, such as Piscopo’s, to undermine the treatment of climate change in state science standards are not uncommon. Over the last four years, for example, a series of bills was introduced in the Iowa legislature to reject the NGSS and then to rescind their adoption, largely over climate change. Similarly, in 2016, 2017, and 2018, the Idaho legislature attempted to block the adoption of new state science standards, again largely over climate change, and succeeded in doing so until 2018.

Sometimes the resistance is elsewhere in state governance. In West Virginia in 2015, the state board of education took it upon itself to tamper with the treatment of climate change in a newly adopted set of state science standards, while in New Mexico in 2017, the state department of education removed references to human activity as the primary cause of climate change from a set of draft standards. New Mexico ultimately adopted the NGSS, but West Virginia’s standards on climate change remain subpar.

Overall, though, the arc of state science standards is clearly bending toward including climate change as the scientific community understands it. But is that enough? Clearly Christine Palm thought otherwise. Recognizing that Connecticut’s state science standards already included climate change, she told Grist that she nevertheless felt that climate change education “needs to start earlier”—her bill provided “that such teaching begin in elementary school”—“and it can’t be optional.”7

These ambitions were arguably realized already. While climate change is not explicitly mentioned in the NGSS at the elementary level, the foundations for a later understanding of climate change are present. And while state science standards lack the force of law, compliance is expected: the standards establish a certain set of practices through the state’s educational system that generally ensure that topics contained in the standards will, in fact, appear in the classrooms.

But there is still cause for concern. In general, the treatment of anthropogenic climate change is most explicit and most complete in the state science standards for high school classes in earth sciences and environmental sciences. But such classes are usually not required for graduation from high school—a 2015 study found only two states in which they are, Connecticut not among them—and are often not even offered, rendering these standards largely inert.8

To be sure, the connection between the science standards and the science classroom is loose. Even in states where the standards fail to explicitly acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change, there are teachers who succeed in teaching about climate change within the structure of the standards anyhow. By the same token, however, there are teachers who fail to educate—or who miseducate—their students about climate change even in states with science standards excellent on climate change.

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020

What Are Science Educators Teaching about Climate Change?

To ascertain what, in fact, science educators in public schools are teaching about climate change, and how they are teaching it, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and researchers at Pennsylvania State University conducted a rigorous national survey in 2014–2015, administering a detailed questionnaire to a random sample of 1,500 science teachers in public middle and high schools in all 50 states.9 In the results, there was good news and there was bad news.

The good news was that climate change is taught. Only a few of the science teachers—less than one in 20—reported encountering overt pressure not to teach climate change. Only a tiny few—about one in 50—reported allowing students to “opt out” of learning about climate change. The survey asked whether climate change was covered at all in the teacher’s school: climate change is apparently taught in about 90 percent of all public middle schools and about 98 percent of all public high schools.

Overall, three in four science teachers reported devoting at least one hour to teaching climate change, with the average amount of time about four hours: almost all high school earth science teachers reported doing so, for about six hours on average. Topics essential to understanding climate change, such as the greenhouse effect and the carbon cycle, were usually discussed; so were the observable consequences of climate change and possible ways of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

But there was bad news too. Particularly worrisome was the fact that four in 10 science teachers reported that they emphasize that many scientists believe that recent increases in temperature are probably due to natural causes. A minority of those teachers emphasized only that claim, with the majority reporting that they also emphasize what is in fact the scientific consensus—as if miniatures of Palm and Piscopo were perched on their shoulders, whispering contradictory advice into their ears.

Also worrisome was that the science teachers tended to use pedagogical techniques that conveyed doubt and denial to their students. Six in 10 said that they encouraged students “to come to their own conclusions about the causes of global warming”; almost as many said that they encouraged students “to debate the likely cause of global warming”; and almost three in 10 said that they gave “equal time to perspectives that raise doubt that humans are causing climate change.”

Why are so many teachers failing to present the scientific consensus on climate change straightforwardly and without compromise? Part of the reason is clearly a lack of knowledge on their part. More than half of the teachers reported having never taken a course in college that devoted even a single class session to climate change. Such teachers were less likely to emphasize the scientific consensus and more likely to present supposed alternative perspectives as scientifically credible.

A telling result from the survey involves awareness of the extent of the scientific consensus. Asked to estimate what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, only 39 percent of the teachers (45 percent of high school teachers and 30 percent of middle school teachers) selected the correct quintile, 81–100 percent. The teachers outperformed the public—in 2016, 21 percent of registered voters selected the correct quintile—but not by a huge margin.10

But the NCSE/Penn State survey also found that the personal beliefs of the teachers—especially those associated with their religious and political values—were also relevant. Those who regarded the Bible as the actual word of God to be taken literally, those who identified as Republicans, and those who favored libertarian and small-government views were all less likely to emphasize the scientific consensus on climate change and more likely to present supposed alternative perspectives.

The religious and political values of the communities in which the teachers work also proved to play a role. For example, teachers in counties that tend to vote Republican were less likely to be aware of the extent of the scientific consensus on climate change than teachers in counties that tend to vote Democratic, regardless of their own political views. And awareness of the extent of the scientific consensus was correlated both with acceptance of the consensus and willingness to present it as such in the classroom.

Of course, it is not surprising that teachers will tend to feel uncomfortable in teaching the scientific consensus on climate change insofar as they believe that the communities in which they teach reject that consensus. But their responsiveness to community sentiment suggests a possible further motive for legislation like Piscopo’s in Connecticut: a widely publicized allegation that climate change is “a controversial area of information” may in itself discourage educators from teaching the topic properly.

How Is NCSE Supporting Science Educators in Teaching Climate Change?

In the NCSE/Penn State survey, it was clear that the science teachers were comparatively unprepared to teach climate change in accordance with the scientific consensus. A majority of teachers rated their knowledge of climate change models as average or below average. Encouragingly, however, they are clearly open to learning about climate change. A majority of teachers indicated that they would be interested in taking a continuing education course entirely focused on climate change.

Climate change deniers are trying to take advantage of the situation. In 2017, a right-wing think tank called the Heartland Institute mailed unsolicited packets of climate change denial propaganda to tens of thousands of public school science teachers across the country.11 (Piscopo is allied with the Heartland Institute, reportedly working with a Heartland Institute staffer in 2017 to call for a review of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 Endangerment Finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare.12)

The Heartland Institute’s campaign was not welcomed by teachers, whose most common response was to deposit the packets in the nearest recycling bin. A few teachers took the opportunity for a teachable moment with their classes on the nature of propaganda, reveling in the jujitsu irony of using the efforts of climate change deniers against their cause. Particularly charming was the description of the material from a Massachusetts elementary student: “Stupid Book of Wrongness.”13

In contrast, the National Center for Science Education is currently disseminating a pioneering set of lesson plans specifically geared to help science teachers present the scientific consensus on climate change effectively.  In these field-tested lesson plans, students are guided in hands-on, data-driven, real-world engagement with the evidence for climate change to construct a scientific understanding of climate change for themselves.

The focus on the evidence for climate change makes the lesson plans eminently customizable, particularly with regard to location. In studying the relationship between extreme weather events and climate change, for example, students in upstate New York can focus on lake effect snow, while students in western Wyoming can focus on wildfires and students in coastal Texas can focus on flooding. Nothing brings home climate change like climate change at home.

But what makes the lesson plans pioneering is their use of misconception-based learning. As John Cook, who helped to develop the plans, explains, “In misconception-based lessons, misconceptions are first activated then immediately countered with accurate information or inoculating refutations.” He adds, “Misconception-based learning has been found to be one of the most powerful ways of teaching science,” engaging students better and producing stronger enduring gains in learning.14

Misconception-based learning is particularly important for topics where misconceptions are rampant, such as climate change. In today’s ideologically polarized society, with conflicting messages about climate science vying for attention and credibility among the public, it is important for students not only to understand the scientific consensus and the evidence on which it is based but also to understand the ways in which it is commonly misunderstood and misrepresented.

Accordingly, the lesson plans—developed by teams of master teachers aided by scientific experts—are intended to help students overcome five central misconceptions that they are likely to bring to the classroom: that scientists disagree about climate change; that scientific models of the climate are not reliable; that climate change is a natural and unstoppable process; that extreme weather is not attributable to climate change; and that there are no meaningful solutions to the climate crisis.

Throughout, students learn to debunk these misconceptions using a fact-myth-fallacy structure. First, the facts of the science—not the misconceptions—are emphasized. Only then is the misconception, clearly indicated as such, introduced. And then the fallacy used to support the misconception and distort the facts is identified, enabling the student to understand why the misconception reflects a myth. There is increasing experimental evidence for the effectiveness of such a procedure.15

NCSE is supporting master teachers in widely disseminating these lessons through professional development workshops to their colleagues. In the meantime, NCSE continues to offer one-on-one advice and support to teachers facing challenges to climate change education—as well as to evolution education, its original focus—and to help communities organize, both to support science education and to resist campaigns, such as Piscopo’s, intended to undermine it.

What happened with the dueling legislation in Connecticut? Christine Palm’s original bill died in the Joint Committee on Education, but not before a similar provision was added to a different bill that was passed by the same committee. That bill then died in the Joint Committee on Appropriations. A proposal was then introduced on the House floor to amend yet a different bill to include the provision, which elicited “vehement opposition” from none other than John Piscopo.

“There’s a very rigorous debate going on now among scientists,” Piscopo reportedly argued, displaying, whether sincerely or not, a sadly common misconception about climate change. “If you mandate that they teach one side of a scientific debate, … the teachers lose that freedom to be able to use it as a teachable moment, to teach that there is a debate. Let’s go through it in class, let’s study both sides of the issue here. If you teach one side, it becomes indoctrination. It’s not teaching anymore.”16

Ultimately, Palm’s proposal was included in a fourth bill that was passed by the House of Representatives but was not considered by the Senate before the legislative session ended. Piscopo’s bill, in contrast, died in the Joint Committee on Environment without receiving a hearing. In a generally uncritical piece in his hometown newspaper reviewing his activities in the Connecticut legislature for 2019, he declined to comment on his attempt to strip climate change from the state science standards.17

Surveys suggest that Palm, not Piscopo, is in touch with public opinion on the issue of climate change education. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in 2018, a whopping 83 percent of Connecticut residents strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that schools should teach our children about the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to global warming. The statistic for the nation—at 79 percent—lags only slightly behind the statistic for Connecticut.18

But overcoming the obstacles to climate change education in public schools is not, it seems, simply a matter of the legislature passing a bill, such as Palm’s, with only symbolic effect. A better model is located at the opposite end of the country in Washington state: in 2018, the legislature there passed a bill that provided $4 million for professional development for science teachers on the NGSS (which Washington adopted in 2013)—specifically including climate science.

Increasing opportunities for pre-service and in-service teachers to learn about climate science and ways of teaching it effectively, developing and disseminating effective instructional materials and lesson plans, and boosting the profile of earth and environmental science classes in high school—these are steps that will genuinely help to ensure that today’s students are equipped with the knowledge and know-how necessary for them to flourish in tomorrow’s warming world.


Glenn Branch is the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education and a coeditor of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools. He is the author of numerous articles on climate education and evolution education in such publications as Scientific American, The American Biology Teacher, and Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics.

NCSE’s lesson plans are freely available at www.ncse.ngo/supporting-teachers/classroom-resources.

Endnotes

1. “Hartford’s New Capitol,” New York Times, June 29, 1879.

2. W. R. L. Anderegg et al., “Expert Credibility in Climate Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107, no. 27 (2010): 12107–12109; J. Cook et al., “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature,” Environmental Research Letters 8, no. 2 (2013): 024024–024027; P. T. Doran and M. K. Zimmerman, “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Eos 90, no. 3 (2009): 22–23; N. Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science 306, no. 5702 (2004): 1686; and J. L. Powell, “Climate Scientists Virtually Unanimous: Anthropogenic Global Warming Is True,” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 35, nos. 5–6 (2015): 121–124.

3. National Academy of Sciences, Climate Change: Evidence and Causes (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014); and American Association for the Advancement of Science, What We Know: The Reality, Risks, and Response to Climate Change, 2014, http://whatweknow.aaas.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/whatweknow_website....

4. National Science Teaching Association, “The Teaching of Climate Science,” 2018, www.nsta.org/about/positions/climatescience.aspx.

5. K. Kastens and M. Turrin, “What Are Children Being Taught in School about Anthropogenic Climate Change?,” in Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators, ed. B. Ward (Narragansett, RI: Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, 2008), 48–49.

6. NGSS Lead States, Next Generation Science Standards: For States, by States (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2013).

7. Z. Sayler, “Kids to Teachers: We Need to Talk about Climate Change,” Grist, March 21, 2019.

8. Center for Geoscience and Society, Earth and Space Sciences Education in U.S. Secondary Schools: Key Indicators and Trends, no. 2.1 (Alexandria, VA: American Geosciences Institute, 2015).

9. E. Plutzer et al., “Climate Confusion among U.S. Teachers,” Science 351, no. 6274 (2016): 665–666; and E. Plutzer et al., Mixed Messages: How Climate Change Is Taught in America’s Public Schools (Oakland, CA: National Center for Science Education, 2016).

10. A. Leiserowitz et al., Politics and Global Warming, Spring 2016 (New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2016).

11. K. Worth, “Climate Change Skeptic Group Seeks to Influence 200,000 Teachers,” Frontline, March 28, 2017.

12. T. Casey, “Is ExxonMobil Finally Standing Up for Climate Science, or Just Showing Up Coal?,” TriplePundit, December 11, 2017.

13. E. Fishman, “ ‘Stupid Book of Wrongness’: The Heartland Institute’s Climate Change Denial Book Meets Informed 3rd and 4th Graders,” Rethinking Schools 32, no. 1 (2017): 5–6.

14. J. Cook, “Understanding and Countering Misinformation about Climate Change,” in Handbook of Research on Deception, Fake News, and Misinformation Online, ed. I. Chiluwa and S. Samoilenko (Hershey, PA: IGI-Global, 2019), 289.

15. J. Cook, S. Lewandowsky, and U. K. H. Ecker, “Neutralizing Misinformation through Inoculation: Exposing Misleading Argumentation Techniques Reduces Their Influence,” PLoS ONE 12, no. 5 (2017): e0175799.

16. K. Megan, “Proposal to Require That Climate Change Is Taught May Return Next Week,” Connecticut Mirror, May 24, 2019, www.ctmirror.org/2019/05/24/proposal-to-require-that-climate-change-is-t....

17. G. Pietrorazio, “State Rep. John E. Piscopo: Representative Reviews Past Year,” Town Times, June 27, 2019, 3.

18. J. Marlon et al., “Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2018,” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, www.climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us-2018/?est=....

Photos courtesy of the National Center for Science Education

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020
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