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Research Finds Widespread Climate Confusion in U.S. Classrooms

Teachers are discussing climate change in their classrooms but one third of all teachers believe that climate change is likely due to natural causes.

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Research Finds Widespread Climate Confusion in U.S. Classrooms

The positive news on climate education in U.S. classrooms should come first.

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According to a study released today in Science , three out of four science teachers are discussing climate change for at least an hour in their classrooms. Not bad, and as more states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)—which for the first time include standards on climate change—it is likely that the percentage will rise. But, as with any science that has been heavily scrutinized in the political sphere, the devil is in the details when it comes to classroom instruction on human-caused climate change.

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While 95% of active climate scientists attribute recent global warming to human causes, 1/2 of U.S. adults believe that human activity is the cause. Classrooms could help change that statistic.

Now here’s the bad news. After polling over 5,000 science teachers nationwide, researchers found that one-third of all teachers believe that climate change “is likely due to natural causes.” And of those teachers who actually teach the topic, over one-third reported that they teach two contradictory ideas—that the scientific consensus is climate change is human derived, and that climate change is naturally occurring.

Science Magazine

So why is this happening? Surprisingly, the researchers found that only 4.4% of teachers faced pressure from their community on how to teach the topic. Rather, it was overwhelmingly that, “The combination of limited training and uncertainty about the scientific consensus affects teachers’ acceptance of anthropogenic climate change.”

So what can we do to better support teachers in the classroom? The problem is two-fold, and lies both in teachers’ understanding of the subject and political identity. However, providing up-to-date teacher materials and information about current research on climate change—coupled with candid conversations during teacher education programs—could reduce the level of misinformation. According to the researchers:

“Our data suggest that, especially for political or cultural conservatives, simply offering teachers more traditional science education may not lead to better classroom practice. Education efforts will need to draw on science communication research and acknowledge resistance to accepting the science and addressing its root causes….This may entail acknowledging and addressing conflicts that teachers (and their students) may feel between their values and the science.”

Although addressing the conflicts between values and science will be difficult, the good news is that as far as increasing teachers’ mastery of the subject there are several trusted places to get started . Organizations like NOAA , NASA , the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) have developed free resources and professional development trainings for educators to effectively teach climate science to students.

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