Research Summary

Identifying effective climate change education strategies: a systematic review of the research

Effective climate change education strategies promote safe spaces, are grounded in science, and address misconceptions

Environmental Education Research
2019

Climate change is a complex and controversial issue, and its resolution requires critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers. Unfortunately, misconceptions about climate science and the causes of climate change abound, impeding efforts to effectively address the issue. While many educators are hesitant to teach about climate change because it is such a politicized and polarizing issue, many others have integrated climate change education (CCE) into their curricula. CCE is becoming increasingly common across all types of educational contexts, as more and more educators aim to build people’s knowledge about climate change and inspire them to engage in climate-friendly actions. Yet, for even the most committed and passionate climate change educators, CCE can be a challenging undertaking because climate change beliefs are deeply connected to political values and identity. Some teachers avoid the politics of climate change by focusing their lessons exclusively on climate science. However, many others acknowledge the sociocultural and political facets of climate change and emphasize how these contextual factors intersect with the science. This study reviewed and synthesized current research on CCE to identify those strategies that are most effective in increasing knowledge, shifting attitudes, and inspiring action.

The authors conducted a systematic review of CCE studies, focusing on studies that tested and measured the effectiveness of educational interventions in formal and nonformal contexts. The authors searched 76 databases for peer-reviewed studies that focused on CCE, assessed an education intervention, and empirically measured outcomes. The authors identified 49 studies for inclusion in their analysis. Of these 49 studies, most focused on classroom-based interventions in formal education settings (primary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities). Twelve studies evaluated the effectiveness of CCE programs at outdoor centers, exhibits, festivals, trainings, and through game applications. Most studies were based in the United States, although the studies ranged four continents. The interventions were varied—they focused on different age groups, covered different time frames, and took place in different locations—so the authors searched for thematic similarities across the studies.

After reviewing the studies, the authors determined that most interventions (n=40) were designed to increase knowledge about climate change, although some studies did explore attitudinal shifts and behavior changes. The studies employed a variety of measurement tools to assess changes in knowledge, attitude, environmental identity, and behaviors. Some studies also used qualitative research methods to explore these changes in-depth, such as interviews, focus groups, artifacts (e.g. student journals, blogs, email correspondence), observation, and self-assessments.

From the analysis of the 49 studies, six major themes related to CCE program success emerged. The authors found that the most successful programs (programs that met or exceeded targeted outcomes) were those that made climate change personally relevant and meaningful to participants and that engaged learners. These programs generally employed experiential, hands-on, student-centered, and/or inquiry-based methods. This result was unsurprising, given the evidence from environmental education and science literature that indicates these strategies are crucial for learning. Yet, the authors also found that these two strategies alone were insufficient to ensure CCE program success. CCE programs also required that educators use additional strategies to help them celebrate diverse ways of thinking while simultaneously dispelling misconceptions about climate change. The remaining four themes represent these additional strategies:

Engaging in deliberative discussion allows participants to explore many different understandings and viewpoints, encourages deep reflection, and provides them with opportunities to shift their own perspectives of climate change. It requires that practitioners create a safe space for idea-sharing.
Interacting with science and scientists offers powerful learning opportunities and inspires engagement in learning. Programs using this strategy may offer participants opportunities to use geographic information system and remote sensing tools, visit labs, or collect and analyze data, all of which can help participants learn about climate change.
Addressing misconceptions is particularly important when teaching about climate change. Many people have misconceptions (e.g. confusing the ozone hole issue with climate change), and it is important to directly address them. This can occur through activities such as discussions and debates, experiments, and hands-on activities.
Engaging in school and community projects can empower participants, provide them with insights about how to teach others, and help them see that their efforts can have tremendous impact.

This study was limited in that it only analyzed academic, peer-reviewed articles, thereby excluding gray literature and other studies not published in scientific journals. However, the authors felt that the 49 studies they reviewed for their paper were representative of existing CCE interventions and programs. The authors also acknowledged that many of the studies they reviewed were written by the implementers, who were reporting on the effectiveness of their own interventions.

The authors recommend that CCE practitioners establish safe spaces for the exchange of perspectives about climate change while also grounding discussions and debates in sound science. They emphasize that CCE programs aiming exclusively to increase knowledge will likely fall short of shifting perspectives and inspiring action. Thus, they recommend that practitioners address misconceptions about climate change and present the sociocultural and scientific aspects of climate change together. Since climate change is a global issue that will have far reaching (spatial and temporal) impacts, the authors also stress the importance of scaling conversations about climate change to what participants will find manageable, meaningful, and hopeful. Finally, the authors recommend pairing the above strategies with effective EE teaching strategies (e.g., student-centered, inquiry-based, and experiential) for maximum impact.

The Bottom Line

The authors selected and analyzed 49 studies on climate change education (CCE) to identify strategies that effectively increase knowledge and inspire action. They found that the most successful programs were those that (1) were relevant and meaningful; (2) engaged learners; (3) provided space to engage in deliberative discussion; (4) encouraged interactions with science and scientists; (5) addressed misconceptions; and (6) engaged participants in school and community projects. Additionally, the authors recommend scaling conversations about climate change to what participants will find manageable, meaningful, and hopeful.