Educator responses to student emotions in environmental education

Ojala, M. (2021). Safe spaces or a pedagogy of discomfort? Senior high-school teachers' meta-emotion philosophies and climate change education. The Journal Of Environmental Education, 52, 40 - 52.

Climate change is a wicked problem that evokes a range of emotional responses, from support (believing we need to and can change the future) to apathy (believing there is no hope to change the future) to denial (firmly believing that climate change is not happening). Prior research has suggested that creating space for students to react emotionally while simultaneously encouraging teachers to responsibly coach those reactions should be a part of climate change education to better handle and solve environmental issues. This calls for educators to relieve the sense of hopelessness and negativity around climate change and to incorporate different values and stances on the issues so that learning and problem-solving can be more productive. However, existing research does not account for how educators think about emotions while teaching sustainability topics or how these perceptions affect an educators' actions. This study questioned high school teachers about their feelings of student emotion while teaching environmental education and how they handle students' emotional reactions to climate change.

The researcher conducted semi-structured interviews with 16 Swedish high school teachers that included climate change in their syllabus for students between the ages of 16 and 19 years old. These teachers taught geography as a part of the social science or natural science college-preparatory program. The 16 interviewees were evenly split between male and female. The level of teaching experience spanned between 8 and 27 years, and the teachers that were interviewed taught at all grade levels in the high school. The semi-structured interviews were conducted and recorded over the phone and transcribed. Although the interviews followed a guide focused on different topics, there was no set order in which questions were asked and the interviews flowed based on the interviewees' responses. Themes were derived from the transcriptions for how the interviewees perceived emotions and how they handle emotional reactions in the classroom.

The researcher found that the teachers perceived emotions in environmental education in one or more of four ways. The first was that emotions, whether positive or negative, should not be a part of the learning process because climate change science is fact and there should be no emotional reactions toward facts. The second was that negative feelings are dangerous and not conducive to the learning environment because emotions like concern and despair may lead to an uncomfortable learning atmosphere and a diminished sense of self. The third perception of emotion in learning was that there are some negative emotions that can be productive if managed in a healthy way. Worry and hopelessness are considered passive and typically damaging emotions, but anger can be used as an active engagement tool. For example, one teacher used environmental injustice roleplay scenarios to keep students aware and engaged by evoking some level of anger. The fourth and final perception was that there is a complex view in which both passive and active emotions each have pros and cons. In this respect, the active emotion of anger can be used for engagement (pro) or based on fake news (con). A passive emotion like worry can lead to a diminished sense of self (con) or can be positive because it demonstrates that the student cares about climate change (pro).

Further, the data showed four ways of coaching emotions in the classroom. The most common coaching theme among the teachers was to divert negative reactions. This was accomplished through strategies including focusing on facts or the interconnectedness of all things; ignoring negative emotions; refusing to share their own commentary on climate change issues; and/or exchanging negative student emotions for positive ones by promoting hope or responding with humor. Teachers also coached student reactions by pointing to specific actions the student could take to improve their individual, environmental responsibility and by showcasing leading examples of environmentally-friendly practices in businesses and organizations to instill trust in others. Another less common coaching method was to address negative emotions. Some teachers asked students to grapple with climate change issues through art or music, and others encouraged critical thinking by getting students to understand where their emotion stemmed from and to consider other perspectives on the topic. Lastly, the data showed that there were some instances of situation-based coaching that cannot be anticipated based on the circumstances of the student's emotional reaction. In these cases, teachers remained flexible and adjusted on-the-spot.

There were limitations in this study, and due to the small sample size, it is not generalizable. Senior high school is not mandatory in Sweden, and the courses are tailored to their intended course of study at university. Students that take geography classes indicated an interest in complex human and environmental problems and may react differently than students in other contexts. Therefore, the study results based on these teachers' perspectives and experiences may be skewed. In addition, the data from this study was collected based off educators' self-reported reactions to the emotions of their students and may not reflect how the educators would react in real world situations.

The researcher pointed to a few problematic findings and recommended alternative approaches. The common approach of diverting away from negative emotions does not show understanding of nor respect for the student. Rather than diverting negative emotions, the researcher suggested teachers should encourage students to explore their emotions when learning about climate change. It is important to validate students' feelings on such complex societal issues like climate change because it can encourage positive psycho-social wellbeing and promote active citizen engagement. Further, educators should have critical emotional awareness to respond supportively to student emotions while they learn about climate change. The researcher also asserted that educators should focus on telling students about the sustainable actions they can take at the individual level and promote emotions of hope and trust in how the technology, political, and business sectors can positively impact climate change.

The Bottom Line

<p>Environmental educators play a massive role in helping students learn about climate change and solving sustainability issues. This researcher conducted semi-structured interviews with 16 Swedish senior high school geography teachers to understand their perceptions of student emotion while teaching environmental education and how the educators handle students' emotional reactions to climate change. The study showed that teachers differed in their beliefs in whether student emotions should be included in learning about climate change. Similarly, the teachers responded in different ways when students reacted to climate change topics with emotion. The researcher suggested that teachers should encourage students to explore their emotions when learning about climate change and to validate students' feelings. Further, educators must have critical emotional awareness so they can respond responsibly to student emotions surrounding climate change.</p>

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