Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is driven by human action, but middle- and high-school teachers seem to have missed that message. The majority of teachers are not aware of this consensus and teach climate change as an ongoing debate in the scientific community. Research published in this week’s Science indicates that although climate change is widely covered by schools throughout the U.S., the novelty of the field combined with surrounding political tensions can leave teachers lost as to what, exactly, they need to teach.
The good news, according to study author Eric Plutzer, a political science professor at The Pennsylvania State University, is that the majority of students will learn about climate change in class: Three out of four teachers surveyed said they covered climate change, although the lessons might be focused on fundamental topics such as the greenhouse gas effect or sea level rise. The bad news is that many teachers are not certain how to teach the causes of climate change. “One of the big issues is that climate change is a scientific issue and it’s very clear what the scientific consensus [within the community] is, but teachers exist out in the world and there’s a lot of political controversy around it,” says Minda Berbeco of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Berbeco, one of the authors of the paper, worked on the survey questions sent out as part of the study. Unfortunately, the political controversy seems to be seeping into the classroom.*
Roughly a third of teachers send mixed messages on the causes of climate change, choosing to teach that it is both due to human activity and natural causes, potentially as a way to sidestep political pressures. Twelve percent fail to emphasize human actions as a cause at all. The majority of science teachers, however, do agree human actions are the main cause of global warming but they still feel the need to teach alternative causes. “[Teachers are] exposed to the politicized debate in the mass media,” Plutzer says. “They regard the topic as controversial and become inclined to incorporate alternative views even in the science classroom.” Some educators are also exposed to pressure from the community or school administration to not teach climate change, although the percentage of teachers reporting that they felt such pressure was only 4.4 percent.
Teachers’ educations contribute to this questionable coverage as well. In middle- and high-school climate change is typically covered in biology classes with teachers who studied biology or occasionally chemistry in college. Save for very recent graduates, the coursework to become a biology teacher did not require studying climate science or climate change. This means many teachers are ill-prepared to communicate the science of climate change to their own students.
More than anything else, this teachers’ lack of understanding leads to a confused curriculum, especially as climate change is a rapidly developing field in comparison with most other middle- and high-school–level science topics. Addressing that confusion, then, would be an effective way to improve climate change education in schools. “A majority of our teachers seemed interested in pursuing professional development opportunities,” Plutzer says. Educational opportunities—including conferences held by the National Science Teachers Association or state-level associations—can help educators acquire the information and support they need to effectively and confidently impart climate change knowledge. “The trick is those [conferees] require funding to be able to attend, and teachers need their principals’ support to get professional education,” says the NCSE’s Berbeco.
The good news is that most surveyed teachers are open to learning about the science and willing to further their knowledge on the topic. Once teachers get onboard with understanding climate science, their students could have much greater clarity.
*Editor's Note (2/12/16): This sentence was edited after posting. The original did not identify Berbeco as a co-author of the study.