Using Art to Teach and Evaluate Climate Change Education for Youth

Baker, J., Loxton, J., & Sherren, K. (2013). Using Art Elicitation to Deliver and Evaluate a Grade 4 Climate Change Instructional Module. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 12, 130 - 142.

Despite the potential of climate change education programs to inspire the younger generation to change current behaviors and embrace possibilities for mitigation, the education community remains torn over addressing climate change, and related behaviors, with youth in younger grades. This study set out to address the feasibility and appropriateness of teaching about climate change at a young age—in particular, third through fifth grades. The authors used student artwork both as a teaching and an evaluation tool; they also reported on the effectiveness of these methods.

In this paper, the authors discuss three main categories of concern related to teaching climate change to students in grades five or lower. First, educators may hesitate to educate young children about politically controversial topics. Second, many schools lack a protocol to introduce climate change lessons into their current curriculum. And third, the education community lacks consensus about when it is developmentally appropriate to include climate change in formal educational settings. Many educators fear the lessons are not aligned with young children's intellectual maturity and emotional readiness, introducing fear or anxiety regarding climate change rather than introducing appropriate skills, empowerment, and ownership toward mitigation efforts.

This study used an art elicitation approach as the primary data collection tool. Student artwork is a helpful tool for assessment in environmental education as it allows students to communicate ideas that they might otherwise have difficulty expressing verbally. The artwork also provides teachers (and researchers) the opportunity to identify strengths, weaknesses, and emotions underlying student learning.

The researchers created a climate change module for third-and fourth-grade students in Nova Scotia, Canada. The module, which addressed climate change causes, impacts, and mitigation and adaptation techniques, was piloted in two Nova Scotia schools. To control for potential variations in teaching methods, the same teacher led all lessons over three two-hour periods. Thirty-eight students completed the module; 85% of the students participating were in grade 4, and 15% were in a mixed-grades classroom of grades 3 and 4. Before and after the intervention, students were prompted to paint what they thought about when they heard the words climate change. Students were also prompted to provide a short “artist statement” alongside their watercolors.

After analyzing all student artwork, the researchers created categories of visual features and thematic concepts they could discern in the artwork. They used the artist statements to cross-check the intentions and features the students meant to draw, as well as to add features that may have been difficult to depict, such as greenhouse gases. Features were specific images, such as cars, houses, smoke, and the like, and were only counted once for each painting/artist statement. Thematic concepts included “pollution,” “climate change impacts,” and “weather,” among others. Once these were discerned, the researchers plotted the features relative to conceptual themes in each piece of artwork to determine how frequently they corresponded, both before and after the intervention. As an example, one of the results of this analysis was that before the intervention, no students drew or mentioned the features rain, wind, or floods; after the intervention, several students drew these features, and these features always corresponded with the theme “extreme weather.”

The authors reported other strong signs of overall effectiveness of the module. In the pre-intervention artwork, many misconceptions of climate change were depicted. In particular, students depicted littering, general pollution, and ozone depletion as primary causes of climate change. Many of these misconceptions were amended in the post-intervention artwork; students continued to paint smoke and air pollution, but discussed greenhouse gases in their artist statements (the researchers believe greenhouse gases were difficult for students to portray in their art, often resembling smoke or particles in the sky). Overall, the entire classroom showed increased understanding of climate change causes and effects. Although only a few students depicted mitigation strategies in their art, the topic was discussed very briefly at the end of the teaching module and had made no appearance in the pre-intervention artwork.

Furthermore, the researchers stated that worry about students in this age group being overly frightened or disturbed by exposure to climate change concepts appeared to be unfounded. Most artwork created by the students in the study was of a neutral or positive tone.

The Bottom Line

<p>This study suggests that it is possible for climate change education to be conducted in a manner that is age appropriate for students in middle to upper elementary school, particularly if approached from an art-elicitation angle. The students began the module with general climate change misconceptions, which were almost all amended by the end of the intervention. Art elicitation before and after the intervention proved to be useful in analyzing students' understanding of climate change, as well as the effectiveness of the teaching module. The artwork, which consisted of watercolors, along with a short “artist statement,” allowed the researchers to better understand the intention and understanding of the students, especially with regard to concepts such as greenhouse gases. which can be difficult to draw. Soliciting student artwork may be equally useful for teachers looking to evaluate their students' understanding of a scientific concept.</p>