Climate Change in the Classroom: Patterns, Motivations, and Barriers to Instruction among Colorado Science Teachers

Article excerpt


A large online survey of Colorado public school science teachers (n=628) on the topic of climate change instruction was conducted in 2007. A majority of Earth science teachers were found to include climate and climate change in their courses. However, the majority of teachers of other science subjects only informally discuss climate change, if at all. Teachers are motivated to include this topic in the curriculum when they perceive it is represented in their standards and when they receive direct encouragement from members of their school and wider communities. At the time of this study, only a small minority of teachers had experienced pressure to avoid teaching climate change. Certain misconceptions about climate change are widespread among teachers, as is the belief that "both sides" of the public controversy over human causes of climate change should be presented to students. The patterns of instruction, knowledge gaps, and a lack of learning experiences for teachers documented here suggest that all science teachers would benefit from professional development focused on climate science, best practices in climate instruction, and climate communication.


Climate Literacy and Formal Education

Thirteen U.S. government agencies recently voiced their support for the development of a 'climate literate' public by endorsing the publication Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science (U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 2009). Climate literacy involves understanding how people influence the climate, and in turn how the climate influences people. Gaining an understanding of this simple statement is difficult, however, because climate systems and human impacts upon them are inherently complex (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007; U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 2009). The complexity of climate systems cannot adequately be conveyed using mass media (Dunwoody, 2007). Furthermore, given the interactions of climate with human systems, climate science would ideally be conveyed via an interdisciplinary instructional approach (Fortner, 2001; Hansen, 2009; Rebich and Gautier, 2005). In effect, to generate a climate literate public, students are likely to require comprehensive formal instruction about climate change.

A number of countries have developed strategies to promote climate change instruction. For example, in England, instruction about climate change is a mandatory part of the geography curriculum for students aged 11-14 (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 2007) and has been supported by free curricular resources (DirectGov, 2007). Specifically, this curriculum requires students study weather and climate, the impact of human activity on climate, and sustainable development. Climate change related concepts also appear frequently in the U.S. National Geography Standards (Boehm and Bednarz, 1994), though implementation of those standards is voluntary. Mandatory curricula related to global warming or climate change are outlined for teachers in Singapore (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007), Scotland (Scottish Government, 2008), and Norway (though limited to non-vocational students) (Hansen, 2009), among others.

In United States, national and state science education standards are important drivers of educational change (Finn et al., 2006; Roseman and Koppal, 2008; Scherer, 2001). However, climate change is inconsistently addressed in these curricular guidelines. Coverage of the historical mechanisms, recent human causes, and impacts of climate change science appear in the standards of only 11 U.S. states; only 3 of these also mention mitigation strategies (Kastens and Turrin, 2008). The term 'global warming' appears in the National Science Education Standards as an exemplar for an area 'where data or understanding [is] incomplete' (National Research Council, 1996). However, climate change related benchmarks do appear in Project 2061's recent Atlas of Science Literacy, Volume 2 (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2007a, 2007b). …


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