Don Haas understands educators may hesitate before they launch into their climate change lessons with students.
Certainly, tense politics and heated conversations have played a part when the topic is raised on a national level, not unlike the debate that has raged over evolution through the years. Yet the director of teacher programs at the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) in New York believes educators may be surprised at what they encounter after they dive into their first lesson.
“Almost universally, from those who try it, they self-censor,” Haas, also a former high school science teacher, told Education Dive. “But they don’t get much pushback.”
That doesn’t meant Haas hasn’t heard about some classroom issues. But he believes with some professional support, along with tools to boost teachers' confidence, climate change can be woven into any subject and taught to any grade.
Given the remote learning environment most educators and students are now in as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, there are a wealth of resources online that classes can pull from to incorporate this timely subject in digital lessons. These can be used to not only help educators apply scientific framing, but also to help students see how climate change may be impacting their lives and communities.
Make it local
Haas and the team at PRI are so eager to support teachers on the subject, they’ve not only drafted a 284-page book, “The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change," but made it available as a free PDF online. (A physical copy is also available for $25 on the site.) The guide walks teachers through educating students about climate change, and it recently won the 2019 Friend of the Planet Award from the National Center for Science Education.
To Haas, one of the best ways to help make students feel more connected to climate change lessons is to personalize them. He suggests using data from the community and often turns educators toward the National Climate Assessment, a report published every four years that can illustrate how climate and weather are changing in different regions of the country. This allows students to see evidence of climate changes happening in their own backyard, a concrete data point that takes the opinion out of the subject and may even help them consider what can be done to reverse it.
“The bottom line is climate change is real, it’s human-caused, and we can do things to make it less bad,” he said.
Focus on data
Eric Pyle, president-elect elect of the National Science Teaching Association and a professor of geoscience education at James Madison University, also points to professional development as a great resource administrators can offer teaching staff before they deliver climate change lessons to students.
Another important element: Teachers should know, without a doubt, they have their administration’s support when teaching the topic. These two pieces can go a long way, Pyle noted, to easing teachers’ concerns.
“There are teachers, and I know some of them, who don’t like to take these things on because they don’t necessarily feel very comfortable,” said Pyle. “The teacher that is confident in their area, and in their abilities, can address the issues in a much more mindful and professional way.”
Granted, few teachers have the opportunity and ability to head off to professional development sessions today — unless they tap into resources online. Some can be found on the NSTA’s website, which is currently offering a 30-day free membership. But Pyle also has specific tips educators can use when confronted with arguments from students who imply climate change is not real.
Pyle suggests teachers try to unpack a student’s arguments rather than try to convince them they’re just wrong. He calls this approach the “cranky uncle” idea, where instead of attacking someone’s opinion, the conversation is shifted to the data.
“The hardest part is for people to contemplate that they could be wrong about something,” he said. “It’s something they believe in, and if they’re wrong, they believe it could impugn their character or identity. So the extent you can separate from the personal, and keep it on the data, that’s going to be more helpful in these stressful situations.”
Connect to experts
Lynne Marie Zummo, a doctoral candidate in the graduate school of education at Stanford University, notes even using the phrase “climate change” can create a polarizing effect in a classroom. And she said teachers should expect students will have an opinion on the topic. While some educators may think children are apolitical, she’s found that’s not the case, particularly with high school students.
“Kids have their own opinions of the world, and they’re little individuals who are very perceptive of who they are,” she told Education Dive. “And that affects their learning.”
Zummo has been doing field research in how students learn about climate change and what they bring from their past experiences to the classroom. A former high school science teacher herself, her dissertation is focused on how teachers can support students no matter the political beliefs or background.
She suggests educators lean on resources compiled by experts, such as research being done by NASA, to introduce the subject to classes.
“That’s a nice thing to do because it takes pressure off the teacher to be the messenger,” Zummo said.
Zummo is also a fan of using real-world examples, which she believes can help students see the difference between their perception of climate change and the actual data being collected across the globe. Breaking the topic down and taking the concept from something broad into specific, concrete examples can help ground lessons.
Finally, teachers should not be afraid of just dumping the phrase "climate change" entirely, particularly if they believe the words may take away from the lesson educators hope students can learn.
“I feel, in places where the subject of climate change is political and taboo, you don’t have to bring [the term] it up,” she said. “You can just have students look around them. If you’re on the North Carolina coast, for example, you can look at the sea line level, and see how it’s changed over time. Start with something meaningful to students.”