Making a Space for Climate Change in the Classroom

IMG_1454-XLClimate change education (or lack thereof) has been in the news recently, with headlines ranging from: “U.S. teachers are avoiding climate change topic in classrooms,” to “How teachers are getting it wrong on climate change, to “Climate Science Education in the US is Pretty Crappy, Survey Finds. Now, I will admit, the findings of the recently published study in Science and Bulletins of the Atomic Scientists highlight some significant concerns for climate change education. The study shows that a majority of teachers only devote 1-2 hours to climate change, if they teach it at all. And almost a third of teachers who do teach climate change connect it with natural causes, which is factually incorrect. Thus far, the conclusions drawn from these findings have been a call for more science teacher training, and, in some cases, media stories have put the blame on teachers themselves. Of course, these findings are sobering and indicate the need for intervention. The reality, however, is that more and better science teacher training is not sufficient to address the larger problem in our education system today.

Since 2006, Climate Generation’s Education Program has provided training to over 1,000 educators from around the country through our Summer Institute for Climate Change Education, and thousands more from around the world have downloaded our curricula resources or subscribed to our monthly education newsletter. These educators are thirsty for resources and knowledge on climate change science, impacts, solutions and education. When I have a chance to talk with them one-on-one, they discuss the challenges they face in the classroom, including students, parents and administrators who are against their teaching of climate change. They also talk about education standards to which they are held accountable, which in most states do not specifically include climate change.

The teachers I know are smart, dedicated and creative. They teach not only science, but also language arts, social studies, and math, and some teach in nature centers, museums and after-school programs. These educators find ways to integrate climate change, but the reality is they have not been given the space or in many cases “permission” to do so. A few hours is the best they can do in the current education and political climate. So while I agree with the suggested need for more and better science teacher training, there are two other things that needs to be addressed:

  1. We won’t be able to improve climate change education in our classrooms until teachers have the space and the time to implement it. This requires that every state include climate change in its science standards. In Minnesota, we are just at the beginning of our revision process and we’re looking for teachers that want to advocate for climate change in state science standards. If you are in other states and want to get involved in this effort, our partners at NCSE are a great resource.
  2. Unless we move beyond the walls of the science classroom into social studies, language arts, and informal education centers, we will never be able to fully address the scope of climate change and do climate change education well. This does suggest a need for professional development, but not just in science education. Our Summer Institutes address this gap, and we are connecting with other teachers through regional social studies conferences as well as our interdisciplinary professional development opportunities, like our Window Into Paris: COP21 program. We have partnered with NNOCCI in years past to connect informal educators with interdisciplinary climate change education resources as well.  

Making climate change education better in the United States will take a collective effort, and not just from science educators. Institutions such as ours that provide training and resources to teachers must make sure that our focus extends beyond science classrooms. This means providing more and better professional development for informal, preservice and practicing educators in all disciplines- making the connections between the economic, social, political and scientific causes and repercussions of climate change. Finally, we must ensure that not only will educators have the skills and resources to teach climate change, but that they have the space and time to do it well. This means demanding that climate change be included in the standards to which our teachers are held accountable, and connecting it across the disciplines. It is only when we address these issues that human-caused climate change will truly become core content addressed in classrooms.

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