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Should Schools Be Accountable for Educating Students About Climate Change?

Our responsibility for teaching students about climate change

All over the country this year, students are missing school because of the weather. Houston, Texas, schools closed for Hurricane Harvey. Other schools in California are closed now because of their proximity to wildfires.

Most students in either middle or high school take science classes that address our physical environment. The question many schools are now facing is: Should teachers include climate change in these lessons?

The politics in the area mostly determine the answer, but if you eliminate the political standing of those schools, you’re left with a pretty clear answer. The responsibility of schools and individual teachers is to teach students facts to the best of their abilities. Right now, the climate is visibly changing. The reasons why are secondary to that measurable and straightforward fact.

Politics vs. Reality

Politics and political language have a way of altering how people view the world. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on: Both sides are prone to cherry-picking data, hitting exaggerated talking points and taking complicated matters out of context. It’s how politicians talk. They work to get soundbites and talking points, and take sides on issues that have nothing to do with politics. Climate change is one of those issues.

In a perfect world, political opinion would have no place in our schools, but unfortunately, it does. Some states are passing laws that allow schools to remove mention of climate change from the curriculum, and even from the textbooks — just in case some overachieving kids actually read theirs. This development is troubling, because it shows just how much politics can influence science.

Teachers across the country are trying to fight back, but they are often part of unions whose salaries and jobs depend on group negotiations. Legislators, school boards and even parents all have different agendas.

As hard as it might be to believe, refusal to accept climate change hasn’t always been a political issue. In 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama ran against Sen. John McCain, McCain’s climate objectives were significantly more aggressive in addressing climate change than Obama’s.

Changing students’ minds

While teachers are dealing with pushback from parents, politicians, and schools, they are still working to educate their students. Climate change is real, and keeping students unprepared for that fact is not doing them any favors or preventing them from buying into a political rhetoric. Instead, it’s just going to make it harder for them to deal with the realities they’ll have to face.

Concerned teachers are doing everything in their power to help students become knowledgeable about and interested in climate change. Some of them are fighting back against the local legislation and school boards, demanding they are allowed to teach science in science classes.

More than just fighting the red tape, it’s teachers’ job to help students become more knowledgeable. Students learn best when they’re actively engaged with the materials, and when it comes to climate change, there’s a lot of new ideas to work with. For students who don’t “believe in” climate change, one of the most effective steps might be to show them how the world is changing.

One way to do that can be to take a look at the ocean with the help of underwater drones. Some of these are even made using 3D printers, a concept most people are interested in, including students! Engaging students in climate change via technology that interests them can be a huge step forward in educating them on climate change.

Areas with colder climates and snow in the winter may be able to get students outside in mid- to late February to collect samples from spring flowers, followed by a lecture on why they shouldn’t be blooming so early. Teachers in coastal areas can discuss how rising sea levels may threaten some of their favorite spots, or why the fires are spreading so rapidly in California, Australia and even Indonesia, a place that has seen some devastating wildfires in recent years.

Facts over fiction

It’s easy for politicians or climate change deniers to take a single piece of evidence as “proof” that climate change isn’t real. The problem is, when we look at one piece of seemingly contradictory evidence in contrast with the larger picture, it often further cements the data around climate change.

For that, it’s important to give students a look at the real-world numbers and data that have convinced scientists. Sometimes you need to show them something dramatic and moving, like the largest iceberg calving ever caught on film, but they need to be able to back it up with numbers.

Even if teachers live in a state that requires them to present an opposing viewpoint to climate change, they can do so without fear of confusing their students. Instead, it could be used as practice in critical thinking skills, which are an essential part of scientific research, and which also prove highly useful in the real world.

The challenge here is, you have to teach your students to be able to look at the raw data and interpret it for themselves. You will find doing so is beyond the scope of a single segment in a science class, but even a bit of exposure to the practice can be profoundly beneficial. On topics like climate change, it’s especially important because it will affect not only your students’ lives, but those of their children and grandchildren.

So, back to the original question: Should teachers be accountable for teaching students about climate change? The answer is yes. Teachers should teach facts, not politics. The classroom is one place where people should be able to have legitimate discussions about climate change, relying on data instead of preconceived notions to make their case. The numbers on climate change are undeniable, and teaching students how to navigate their ever-changing world and develop critical thinking skills is of paramount importance.


Emily is a conservation and sustainability journalist and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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