Teachers talk about climate change, and kids are listening

But tweens may be making up their own minds as to what’s behind those changes

teacher and students

Most students believe climate change is happening. But when it comes to the cause, they don’t always listen just to their teachers. And that’s a good thing.

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Teachers can be a powerful influence, shaping their students views on literature, history and science. But if they’re spreading misinformation about the causes of climate change, that could be a problem. However, a new study shows, many tweens’ assessments on climate appear to rely on more than what they hear in class.

Middle-school students are more likely to believe that climate change is underway if their teachers do, the new study finds. But as for what’s behind the heat, many tweens are making up their own minds in favor of the science.

Middle- and high-school teachers are devoting time to talking about climate change in their classrooms. But many give about equal weight to both human and natural causes, a March 2016 study showed. This attempting to balance “both sides” doesn’t reflect the scientific consensus, though. That consensus argues that human activity is the primary factor.

Those findings made Kathryn Stevenson concerned. She’s an environmental-education researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. When it comes to climate change, “science teachers are just as polarized as the general public,” she observes. And, she adds, “One of the biggest drivers for how they present climate change is based on their ideology.” If teachers are presenting views based on local social attitudes — not data — what might the students be taking away?

To find out, Stevenson and her colleagues collected data from 24 middle-school teachers at 20 schools along the North Carolina coast. The scientists surveyed those teachers and 369 of their students about their beliefs and knowledge of climate change.

Like teacher, like student?

Nearly all of the students — 92 percent — had teachers who believed Earth’s climate is changing. But 88 percent of those teachers believed a somewhat comparable mix of human activity and natural causes are behind our planet’s growing fever.

That’s not an accurate view, says Stevenson. Data, she says, show “human causes are responsible for the overwhelming majority” of the change.

Students with teachers who believed climate change was real — no matter the cause — were also likely to believe in it. In fact, about 81 percent of them accept that the climate is changing. But they were more likely than their teachers to see people as a primary cause. Slightly more than 30 percent of the surveyed students attributed climate effects to human activities, compared with only 12 percent of their teachers.

This might mean that students aren’t basing their thoughts about global warming on the ideology shared by educators. Instead, they could be learning about climate change and evaluating its cause based on data. Stevenson and her colleagues published their results September 7 in the journal PLoS ONE

“Kids are complex,” Stevenson says. They are “looking to their parents, their teachers and their peers. But something unique about kids is they seem to be more reliant than adults are on scientific information.” Tweens are still forming their worldviews and ideologies and political parties. And in that formation, Stevenson notes, they may rely more on data than do many of the adults around them.

Location, location, location

It’s “a very impressive data collection effort,” says Eric Plutzer. He’s a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University in State College. Still, he says, the results can’t pin down the sources behind a kid’s beliefs. Any match between the beliefs of teachers and students, he notes, “could simply be due to their both arriving in the classroom with the same predispositions.” It’s hard to separate the attitudes of either group from the communities in which they live.

Where that community is located also may play a role. Stevenson was interested in coastal North Carolina, because “we still rank third out of all states for sea level rise vulnerability,” she says. “Climate change and its impacts are a very big threat.”

Climate threats may be reinforced by North Carolina’s often hurricane- and flood-battered coast, Stevenson acknowledges. Attitudes might therefore differ quite a bit several hundred miles to the west, in the mountains. And that might make coastal students more likely to take the evidence at face value. “I think that’s something to look into,” she says. “People are more likely to be on board with climate change if it’s made more locally and personally relevant.” 

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.