Climate change education: Are your teachers prepared?
With millions of students leaving their schools to demand action on climate change, as they did around the world in September 2019, district administrators are increasingly faced with the challenge of including climate change in curriculum and instruction.
In 2005, only 15 sets of state science standards called for students to learn about the human causes of climate change. Today, the reality of anthropogenic climate change is explicitly recognized in the state science standards of 36 states (plus the District of Columbia), including the Next Generation Science Standards.
But it is one thing for a state to recognize the need for students to learn about anthropogenic climate change, and quite another thing for teachers to ensure that the need is met. And to help them, district administrators need to be aware of what kind of support they require.
What is the teacher experience?
Science teachers are not prepared to teach climate science effectively, according to a national survey of 1,500 public middle and high school science teachers conducted by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and researchers at Pennsylvania State University during the 2014–15 academic year.
In particular, more than half of the teachers in the survey reported not having received any formal instruction on climate change as pre-service teachers. More than seven out of 10 reported never having received any continuing education focusing on climate change as in-service teachers.
It is one thing for a state to recognize the need for students to learn about anthropogenic climate change, and quite another thing for teachers to ensure that the need is met.
Small wonder, then, that only a slim majority—54%—of teachers reported presenting the scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change as such, while 41% reported emphasizing the scientifically unwarranted idea that natural causes are responsible for global warming.
More pre-service, in-service education is needed
District administrators should therefore make it clear to their local colleges and universities that pre-service science teachers need to be prepared to teach climate science. And even though funds are perennially tight, they should prioritize professional development on climate science for their in-service teachers.
Ideally, such preparation will equip teachers not only with content knowledge but also pedagogical know-how to teach climate change effectively against the backdrop of social controversy. NCSE, for its part, is currently sponsoring PD workshops using a pioneering set of model lesson plans on climate change.
Social controversy over climate change education is certainly a possibility. In the NCSE/Penn State survey, only a few teachers—less than one in 20—reported encountering overt pressure not to teach climate change. But as climate change education becomes more prevalent and pervasive, it is likely that such pressure will increase.
How to address the critics
Teachers who are better prepared to teach climate change will be better prepared to resist such pressure, of course: Knowledge breeds confidence. But district administrators should also be prepared to support their teachers in the event that there is a community backlash against climate change education.
Central to any such backlash will be the misconception that anthropogenic climate change is scientifically controversial. In fact, upward of 97% of climate scientists agree that human activity is causing global warming, as independent studies using different methods have consistently found.
As a result, the National Science Teaching Association acknowledged, in a 2018 position statement, that “decades of research and overwhelming scientific consensus indicate with increasing certainty that Earth’s climate is changing, largely due to human-induced increases in the concentration of heat-absorbing gases.”
It is thus appropriate to tell critics of climate change education that, in teaching about anthropogenic climate change, science teachers are in line with the consensus of the scientific community and the recommendations of their professional organization as well as with the state science standards.
Encouragingly, there is widespread support—77%, according to a recent survey—among the American public for teaching about climate change in public schools. District administrators can rise to the challenge by ensuring that their science teachers are ready, willing and able to do so when climate strikers return to their classrooms.
Glenn Branch and Lin Andrews are deputy director and director of teacher support, respectively, of the National Center for Science Education. They may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.