Research Summary

What is motivating middle-school science teachers to teach climate change?

Motivations to Teach Climate Change

International Journal of Science Education

Despite the potentially controversial nature of climate change, polling suggests that as many as 70% of middle-school science teachers are already teaching about some aspect of the topic. On average, however, teachers only spend one hour per year on the topic. This study’s researchers believe that climate change, a complex, systemic issue, needs more time to be taught effectively. To that end, the research team sought data about classrooms where climate change is taught more extensively and successfully.

This study used focus-group conversations with middle school teachers who actively engaged with the topic of climate change in their classrooms to investigate how educators teach about climate change. The authors hypothesized that teachers were partially motivated to address climate change because of its recent inclusion in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The authors recruited middle-school teachers via email invitation using professional contacts, listservs, and snowball recruiting to participate in one of three online focus groups, each with between five and eight participants. The participants were from different states and schools to maximize diversity in the sample. The states where participants taught included some significantly affected by climate change; some with left, right, and mixed political leanings; and some that had, as well as others that had not, adopted NGSS. The focus group 16 participants were all middle-school science teachers with at least two years of teaching experience who reported that they annually taught about climate change.

The researchers initiated the group conversations by asking about participants’ motivations for teaching about climate change, their sources of climate change-related information, strategies they used to sustain their teaching on climate change, their experiences with and strategies for handling controversy in their classrooms, and whether they received support from their administration. The researchers recorded, transcribed, coded, and analyzed the conversations between participants, focusing primarily on teachers’ statements about their motivations for teaching about climate change.

The findings indicated two primary trends in what motivated the teachers to educate their students about climate change. First, the researchers found that the teachers identified as scientists as strongly as they identified as educators. This not only influenced their overall motivation to teach about climate change, but also led them to engage students with scientific processes through asking questions, critically evaluating information, and drawing their own conclusions. Most had formal training in earth sciences at the undergraduate or graduate level, and all reported having confidence in their own understanding of the subject matter as well as their ability to teach about it in their classrooms. Second, many of the teachers also had direct connections with research scientists and benefited from their expertise. Those connections allowed their students to participate in climate change-related research on a local scale and make scientific contributions. The teachers’ personal interest in and values toward the environment and sustainability also motivated them to teach about climate change.

Overall, the study’s findings did not confirm the researchers’ initial hypotheses. None of the teachers mentioned the adoption of the NGSS as a reason for including climate change education in their classrooms, and little reference was made to the controversial nature of teaching about climate change. Most teachers believed that, by engaging with climate change through scientific research and data-driven inquiry activities in which students draw their own conclusions, they were able to circumvent controversy. The researchers conclude that the teachers demonstrate that more collaboration among educators, as well as between educators and scientists, could enhance teachers’ comfort related to teaching about climate change.

The Bottom Line

Although climate change can be a challenging, complex topic for teachers to address in classrooms, many middle school science teachers across the United States include it in their curriculum. Teachers who incorporate climate change into their lessons often draw on their own interest in science and environmental topics and issues, collaborate with local scientists, and use data-driven inquiry activities. Such strategies help not only to engage students with the topic, but also to circumvent controversy. Adopting such strategies may help educators who are hesitant to address climate change or who are just beginning to teach about the topic, thanks to the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards. In addition, collaboration between teachers and scientists may help enhance teachers’ comfort levels in addressing climate change; concurrently, such collaboration can provide students with firsthand opportunities to make sense of climate change evidence.