What particular challenges do teachers face when educating about climate change and how might those challenges best be addressed so that more teachers will feel confident engaging in the subject?
In a recent study conducted by NPR and Ipsos, when asked why they shy away from teaching about climate change, teachers identified several key areas that make the topic such an educational hot potato. Most of the challenge circled around both the controversial nature of the subject and a fear that they, as educators, do not know enough to tackle such a comprehensive topic.
Some teachers also expressed the concern that their students were too young to be learning about climate change. Being the bearer of information on the climate crisis is certainly a daunting role. Educators stepping into that position are charged with delivering facts while keeping students hopefully engaged and empowered. And when providing their students with avenues through which to make a positive difference on the climate crisis, many are concerned about crossing a line too far into advocacy, again around a controversial topic.
So how are teachers to overcome these challenges and turn lessons on the climate crisis into positive, empowering experiences without stirring up intense controversy, in the classroom and beyond?
First, we must consider the impact of avoiding controversial subjects in the classroom. When such subjects are avoided, students do not learn how to engage in meaningful conversation across ideological divides. If we are to have a hope of moving beyond political stalemate over many of the most critical challenges faced today, we must be teaching and learning the skills needed to engage in open dialogue across differences of belief and opinion. We must have opportunities to practice listening deeply, speaking bravely, and learning together. If students are not experiencing these types of conversations in the classroom, if they are instead seeing their teachers shy away from potentially controversial topics, then how are future generations to do any better than we have done when it comes to crossing ideological divides and working together for a positive future?
Second, young people are increasingly experiencing the impacts of climate change. As news of extreme weather events pours in, or as young people experience those events for themselves, they will need ways to make sense of what they are hearing and experiencing. The classroom should be a place to which young students can turn to develop understanding.
Assuredly, teachers are overwhelmed and underpaid. Ensuring that lessons involving climate change both educate and empower young people involves time, focus, planning and resources. Teacher education programs and trainings, school administrations, parents and the general school community are all charged with supporting teachers in acquiring the skills and resources needed to turn classrooms into places where young students gain knowledge about climate change while also developing into empowered and hopeful solutionaries.
What tools do educators need when teaching about climate change? Remember, many teachers identified the belief that they do not know enough about the topic as a barrier to teaching on climate change. Certainly, educators need to understand the elements of climate change that overlap with their classroom’s area of focus and be sure they are not providing incorrect information.
At the same time, is the role of teachers to supply all the answers or to help young people develop the tools to find answers for themselves? I’d prefer that my children be learning the latter. Teachers, therefore, need a network of places to direct students towards in the inquiry around climate and the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary connections, as climate change is such a broad, systemic issue. Teachers must feel supported in not needing to have all the answers, instead focusing on their ability to help students learn how to investigate and learn for themselves.
Because climate change is a controversial and emotional issue, educators need training in how to both facilitate challenging conversations around areas of potential conflict and hold space for students’ emotional reactions to learning about climate change.
Educators have reported several tools that help address the controversial nature of climate change. Discussion invites learners to reflect on and therefore understand their own and others’ viewpoints and knowledge about the subject. Interaction with scientists and direct experience of the scientific process is helpful. Spending time uncovering and directly addressing misconceptions is an important tool. Finally, role playing can helped learners develop an understanding of different viewpoints, thereby deepening their skill in addressing areas of conflict with respect.
To ensure that learning about climate change does not lead to withdrawal or depression, educators need avenues through which to empower their students to make a positive difference. The school community itself can be a great place to start designing and implementing projects. Again, support from the school administration, parents and other community members can deepen the availability and impact of these opportunities and help teachers have the time needed to develop such programs. And where teachers worry about engaging in advocacy, parents and school administrators can similarly play a significant role in helping to shift the paradigm. We must remember that educators have always been advocates for the best-interest of their students, whether around issues of health, access or curriculum. Climate change will certainly impact students on many levels and to bar teachers from empowering young people as advocates on the topic is to do both teachers and the young people of today a great disservice. It is to severely limit educators in their capacity to truly and comprehensively prepare young people to successfully engage in today’s world.
Beyond the Science
Yes, we want students to learn the science of climate change. But it seems neither fair nor prudent to confine education on the climate crisis to the science involved. The challenge of climate change extends far beyond science, including social, political and economic systems. For this reason, simply slapping solar panels on every rooftop will not solve the problem. Systemic, holistic and integrative solutions are needed.
Furthermore, teaching young people about the science of climate change and stopping there is a bit like telling someone they are ill and offering no course of action for healing. If our goal is to provide students with the tools needed to stay engaged, empowered and hopeful, then our work together as teachers and learners cannot stop with a transfer of information. In fact, that is the least-critical part of our work. We must engage with the facts with our best critical thinking and collaborate on creative, innovative and thorough solutions.
Through engaging in this process – around climate change and around other current, real-world issues – teachers and learners can model an intergenerational process of discourse and problem-solving that is desperately needed in today’s world. As Gopnik explores in her work on learning, young brains are particularly suited for exploration and innovative thinking as they are not filtering information through years of experience and previously accumulated knowledge. Older brains are particularly suited for expedient, efficient action as they can bring years of experience and knowledge to new information and new challenges.
The climate challenge, and many of the pressing issues of today’s world, need a combination of innovation and efficient, experience-based action. Schools provide an incredible opportunity to engage in this intergenerational problem-solving.
It is essential that students learning about climate change have the opportunity to engage in meaningful solutions. How else could they possibly maintain hope? And what could be more important if schools are a place where young people are prepared to positively engage with the world of their future. But schools can offer even more. They can become a laboratory and studio in which some of the most exciting and most meaningful intergenerational, solutions-focused conversations occur.