Teaching about Climate Change

Teaching climate change in schools, especially in the current highly politicized culture, is a challenge. Two new studies were described recently in The New York Times and they add to the stack of information about psychology and climate change.

One of the newspaper headlines was: Science Teachers’ Grasp of Climate Change Found Lacking. The Times article said that teachers’ “insufficient grasp of the subject,” combined with political factors, “may hinder effective teaching,” which seems to be an understatement. Remarkably, across all science disciplines, and including both middle schools and high schools, science teachers spent on average only one or two hours per year on climate change.

The original study on which the article was based, Climate Confusion among U.S. Teachers, was published in Science magazine. Based on a survey of 1,500 science teachers, the authors found that more than 30 percent of science teachers “report sending explicitly contradictory messages, emphasizing both the scientific consensus that recent global warming is due to human activity and that many scientists believe recent increases in global temperature are due to natural causes.” However, we know that the latter statement is incorrect; scientists overwhelmingly believe human activity alone is causing climate change.

When science teachers in the study were asked “what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities,” less than one-third of those teaching in middle schools and fewer than half the high school science teachers selected the correct answer, namely 81-100 percent. Obviously, there is a much work to be done to improve science teachers’ understanding of, and their instruction about, climate change.

But changing teachers’ or others’ opinions about what experts believe is not as easy as one might wish. A day after the Times published the article described above, the paper ran another article called Why People Are Confused about What Experts Really Think. The article, written by a university psychology professor who conducted experiments and published the results in a scientific journal, reported that simply “hearing from experts on both sides of an issue distorts our perception of consensus—even when we have all the information we need to correct that misperception.” Respondents in the experiments could remember the extent of consensus on an issue if that was all the information they were given. But if they were also given two opinions, one from an expert on each side of the issue, they had a harder time correctly identifying the percentages of experts who agreed or disagreed. “In other words,” the author writes, “being exposed to the conflicting comments made it more difficult for participants to distinguish the issues most experts agreed on (such as carbon tax) from those for which there was substantial disagreement (such as minimum wage).” Subjects perceive a “false balance” of expert opinions when they are given examples of the two opposing views.

These studies, and others, show that schools have a long way to go before most students receive an adequate classroom education about climate change. Of course, thousands of science teachers do a good job, and in fairness, neither school administrators nor politicians nor the public have been advocating loudly enough for more and better education about climate change. An added problem is that most science teachers had little exposure to the topic when they were in school.

One piece of good news, as noted before in this blog, is that the Next Generation Science Standards (available since 2013 for states and school districts to adopt if they wish, and adopted so far by 15 states) do emphasize climate change as an important topic for study in schools. Also, many high-quality instructional materials are available to teachers.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)