Classroom Teacher More Effective than Outside Presenter for Climate Change Education

Porter, D., Weaver, A. J., & Raptis, H. (2012). Assessing students' learning about fundamental concepts of climate change under two different conditions. Environmental Education Research, 18, 665 - 686.

Recently, there has been increasing interest in teaching young people about the causes and ramifications of climate change. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have provided professional development opportunities and learning materials for classroom teachers, while others have sent outside presenters into classrooms to teach one-off assemblies or multipart units on climate change. This paper's authors sought to explore whether it makes a difference in student learning outcomes if the same climate change education material is presented by outside presenters versus regular classroom science teachers.

Four grade six classes in British Columbia, Canada, were selected for the study. All the classes were taught a unit on climate change science, designed by the researchers, over a period of two weeks. Two of the classes received this unit from their regular science teacher during their science periods, and the other class received the unit from an environmental educator working with an NGO over two one-and-a-half-hour sessions. Both interventions included the same total time on the task, the same content, and similar instructional strategies, as a way to examine whether the learning setting alone alters student learning. As a control, an additional classroom completed surveys but received no instruction (they received the climate change unit after the research was completed).

A survey collected data on students' knowledge of three fundamental topics within climate science: weather and climate; the carbon cycle and human impacts; and global warming and the greenhouse effect. The survey was administered before the unit (pre), immediately after the unit (post), and six weeks after the end of the unit (follow-up). In addition, the classroom science teacher was given a post-instruction teacher survey to gather information on their experience with the lessons.

The results showed that the classrooms that received the climate change unit from their regular science teacher were the only ones to show a statistically significant improvement in knowledge between the pre- and the post-test surveys. In terms of the three main topics covered, the highest gains in knowledge were in regard to the carbon cycle and the human impacts topics. The teacher and students alike had the hardest time with the topic of global warming and the greenhouse effect. None of the groups showed any difference in their rate of knowledge decline in the follow-up survey, suggesting that the intervention setting had no impact on the students' knowledge retention over time.

This study supports the idea that with the necessary background information and materials, the classroom teacher is more effective than outside presenters, who may have more education on the topic of climate change but less experience teaching in the classroom or less of a rapport with that particular group of students. For NGOs engaged in climate change education, this study suggests that providing learning materials and professional development opportunities for teachers may be a more effective use of funds compared with supporting outside presenters.

One limitation of this study was the extremely limited number of presenters and teachers involved (only one of each). Although the paper's authors argue that this one teacher and one presenter are representative of all classroom teachers and outside presenters, this may or may not be the case and, therefore, a follow-up study involving more teachers and outside presenters would improve the robustness of this finding.

The Bottom Line

<p>Given the same time, content, and pedagogical strategies for teaching a unit on climate change, this study indicated that a classroom teacher is more effective than an outside presenter. Student knowledge of the subject increased significantly following the intervention taught by the regular science teacher, whereas students had no significant gains when participating in the same unit taught by an educator working for an NGO. This study suggests that climate change education may be more effective when taught by classroom teachers who are provided with learning resource materials and professional development, rather than supporting specialized outside presenters to go into classrooms to teach the same material.</p>