Developing scientific literacy about climate change in world leaders and students is a challenge

Are there still sides to the argument?

How do teachers’ beliefs affect climate change teaching?

Climate change is a real threat; however, schools may be failing to provide their students with the right tools to observe and understand the effects of climate change. So, why are teachers finding it difficult to teach climate change? Journalist Fiona Stutz looks at a survey of teachers to ascertain whether their preconceived notions and personal beliefs of the controversial subject may be what is holding climate change education back for our students.

As today’s students will be tasked with managing tomorrow’s climate change, the need for teachers to educate their students about the effects of climate change is crucial.

In the F-10 Australian Curriculum: Science, a priority is put on ‘sustainability’ and providing contexts for investigating and understanding chemical, biological, physical and Earth and space systems. Cause and effect are explored, and students develop observation and analysis skills to examine these relationships in the world around them. Students are able to better understand the importance of using science to predict possible effects of human and other activity, and to develop management plans or alternative technologies that minimise these effects.

While the idea of exploring climate change may be evident in the curriculum, a teacher’s knowledge, personal and professional beliefs may instead be holding the debate on climate change back for students.

A report, Queensland Teachers’ Understandings of Education for Climate Change incorporated a survey conducted by James Cook PhD student Jennifer Nicholls of more than 300 primary and secondary school teachers. The teachers were asked to identify their personal and professional beliefs about climate change and climate change education.


Teachers’ beliefs about their ability to teach the subject matter, opinions

about the content matter and political beliefs influence decisions about the inclusion of topics within their classrooms, the report surmised. “A lack of understanding or knowledge surrounding a subject matter to be taught can lead to a topic being avoided by teachers or to be covered poorly or incorrectly. Even with the expressed intent of taking the position of neutrality and balance, the influence of the teacher’s own beliefs can be greater than intended.”

The survey employed eight sub questions specifically addressing respondents’ knowledge relating to the science of climate change as one measure of ascertaining respondents’ conceptual understandings and knowledge of the issue.

The results showed some uncertainty relating to the science of climate change, however, the respondents to this survey appeared more knowledgeable in certain areas than the general public.

But it found that 6% of teachers incorrectly believed that climate change was mainly caused by a hole in the ozone layer.

However, the majority, or 79%, strongly agreed to the question ‘I am certain the Earth’s climate is changing’, with the majority also agreeing this was due to ‘partly natural processes, partly human activities’. The majority also believed climate change was a serious problem.

Those who took part in the survey were also asked to express, in their own words, what climate change education involves.

Not telling students what to believe but allowing them to review or be given all ‘sides’ of the argument so they were able to ‘make up their own mind’ about climate change was also considered important by teachers.

For or against arguments

The idea of ‘balance’ and presenting students with ‘both sides of the climate change argument’ or a balanced perspective was most frequently identified by teachers as important in climate change education.

Teachers identified that there existed a ‘for and against’ argument or more than one side to climate change that students should be made aware of.

Not telling students what to believe but allowing them to review or be given all ‘sides’ of the argument so they were able to ‘make up their own mind’ about climate change was also considered important by teachers, the report surmised.

However, a small number of teachers noted that students may not have the decision making skills required to ‘make up their own minds’ and pointed to the need to develop student decision making skills.

With all the signs pointing to teachers personally agreeing that climate change was real, many did not appear to have a complex or nuanced understanding of what climate change education can be for their students.

The survey report made several recommendations on how to ensure teachers have access to best practice education for students, such as professional development, so as to better understand climate change science themselves.

A narrow view of what climate change education is may lead to limiting the quality of education relating to climate change and futures. Professional development and quality reading materials and resources may help widen teacher understanding and confidence in this area, the report suggests.

St Peter Claver College maths and science teacher, Clare Gilliland, said it was important to teach students about climate change; however, it should be relevant to the students and provide them with information that will assist them in making decisions about their future.

Decision making

“Climate change has become increasingly relevant to our students, as decision makers grapple with how best to address this issue. Thus students should be provided with the opportunity to understand so that they can question and encourage decision makers to make decisions in their best interests.”

Clare said it was also important for students to take what they learnt in the classroom back home.

“By teaching about climate change in the classroom, we have a fantastic opportunity to support our students in engaging with conversations at home that can only broaden the community’s understanding of climate change and promote better scientific literacy in students and the wider community.”

At her school, discussions on climate change occur in Years 7, 8 and 10, with Clare teaching the Year 10 unit on climate change for the first time in 2016.

“In Year 10 Science we have an explicit unit around climate change. In Year 8 Science when we look at energy, we have opportunities to discuss renewable and non renewable sources of energy which inevitably lead to climate change conversations. In Year 7 Science, we examine the water cycle, again with conversations that inevitably lead to climate change conversations.”

She said students were always eager to be involved, ask questions and find out more about the controversial topic.

“Students will ask, because they want to know more and I happily set aside time in our learning to address their questions. It tends to be more general in the younger years, but as students’ understanding develops, we look at a greater depth of knowledge.”

She said she would like to undertake professional development in the future to help her find resources that were age appropriate, engaging and targeted to her school age students.

“I can teach science, but I need the tools to help ensure all my students are engaged and learning,” she said.