Why teachers send mixed messages on climate science

Many educators are unsure about climate science and the strength of scientific consensus

Most middle- and high-school teachers are devoting time to climate change in class. But many also point to ‘contradictions’ where they may not truly exist. 

Jirka Matousek/Flickr/(CC BY 2.0)

Climate change is happening. And science teachers are on it. The good news? More middle-science and high-school science teachers are addressing climate change than ever before. The bad news? Some are sending mixed messages about the science, a new study concludes.

Many teach that recent increases in temperature may trace largely to people burning fossil fuels. But they also may argue that those increases might be due to natural causes. The problem? Scientific consensus is clear that human actions are the major driver of current changes in global climate. So why would teachers muddy the message? It may be because they don’t fully understand climate science, or just how much scientists agree on the human role in recent changes, the new research suggests.

Eric Plutzer is a political scientist at Penn State University in State College. He decided to find out what share of U.S. science teachers cover climate change and how they handle the oft-politicized topic. His team surveyed 1,500 public middle- and high-school science teachers, asking how many tackled climate change during class time. They also asked how much time each devoted to it and what messages they emphasized.

They turned up signs of a recent, “really strong increase in the teaching of climate change,” notes Sarah Wise. She’s a science educator at the University of Colorado in Boulder who was not involved in the new study. Seventy percent of middle school science teachers and 87 percent of high school biology teachers discussed climate change in their classes, the new study found. Six years ago, Wise did surveyed climate-change education in Colorado. Back then, only 67 percent of Earth science teachers and 33 percent of life science teachers taught climate change, she found. The new results, she says, show “there’s been progress — huge progress — since 2010.”

Teachers now devote an average of only one or two hours to instruction about climate change. This may not seem like much. But climate change is not generally a part of state content standards for science education, Plutzer notes. It’s also not on many of the major, state-wide tests for middle- and high-school students. “So when [teachers] do introduce it, they are doing it on their own and in competition with topics the students could be tested on,” he explains. This means teachers are interested in the topic and think it’s important enough to include in their lessons, even when they aren’t required to do so.

Yet only half of those teachers are emphasizing greenhouse gases from human activity as a primary cause of global warming, notes Plutzer. Another 31 percent sent mixed messages as to the source of warming. And 10 percent stressed natural causes over others.

Only 4.4 percent of the teachers reported pressure not to teach climate change. So the mixed messages that so many send aren’t solely in response to push back from parents or schools complaining about teaching the politically charged subject. Instead, the study suggests that many teachers simply don’t understand the science or how much scientists agree about the causes and repercussions of Earth’s changing climate.

“Some teachers have internalized that it’s still debated,” Plutzer says. He also says that if the teachers are unsure about the science, they may “tread lightly and try to be balanced” by presenting multiple points of view — even when those views might not be justified by the data. Most science teachers were never trained on how to teach climate change.  So they may not feel comfortable evaluating the science or recognize the mounting consensus among experts.

For instance, teachers may have read that last year’s record heat got a boost from an ongoing El Niño. Yet they may not have realized that even without that boost, 2015 still would have been the warmest year on record.

The vast majority of climate scientists agree that the burning of fossil fuels has played a pivotal role in the recent changes in global temperatures and long-term weather patterns. It’s no longer a debate. Scientists accept that human actions are changing the climate visibly and dramatically.

Yet Plutzer and his group found that many science teachers aren’t really aware of this. Only 30 percent of middle school teachers and 45 percent of high school teachers knew that 95 percent of climate scientists attribute recent global warming to human activity. If teachers think there’s a divergent range of views within the research community, Plutzer says, this might lead them to try to reflect a range of views in an effort to provide “balance.”

Plutzer and his colleagues published their findings February 11 in Science.

Let’s not bash the teachers for trying

Science teachers “are doing their best with limited means,” says Wise. “They have limited background on a complex subject.” She notes that if you asked a geneticist about climate change, he or she “might give misinformation, too!”

It also doesn’t help that some teachers may anticipate push back from parents or students. “You don’t want the political issue to detract from understanding the science,” she argues.

Because political feelings around climate change can be so intense, there might be good reason to admit that other opinions exist, even as teachers support the scientific consensus. In her 2010 study, Wise found that “86 percent of the teachers said they should talk about both sides.”

“Encourage students to talk and share their experiences,” she recommends. “Listen and clarify what students are saying so they understand each other. Always to teach the scientific consensus very clearly and identify what is known, what is unknown, and what is misinformation. Rinse and repeat.” Learning about why some people may disagree with or misunderstand climate data is important to facing a world that’s filled with almost as many opinions as there are people. 

Science teachers in the study reported that they wanted more education on climate change and advice on how to teach it effectively. But Wise says that’s not all that’s needed.

Science teachers also need support from other teachers, their schools and the community. “We need to focus on a holistic approach,” she says. “When people hear the phrase ‘global warming,’ it’s a loaded term.” Issues like climate change raise a lot of emotions for teachers and students alike, she notes, and “that’s not something science teachers are used to navigating.”

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Editor’s Note: This post was updated at 5:26PM on 3/1/16 to include additional quotes form Sarah Wise that clarify her views. 

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

climate  The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

El Niño   Extended periods when the surface water around the equator in the eastern and central Pacific warms.  Scientists declare the arrival of an El Niño when that water warms by at least 0.4 degree Celsius (0.72 degree Fahrenheit) above average for five or more months in a row. El Niños can bring heavy rainfall and flooding to the West Coast of South America. Meanwhile, Australia and Southeast Asia may face a drought and high risk of wildfires. In North America, scientists have linked the arrival of El Niños to unusual weather events — including ice storms, droughts and mudslides.

Bethany is the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.