The Parent Trap Redux


Stephen Wolfe via Flickr

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about C.W., a new environmental science teacher in rural Pennsylvania who was criticized by local parents when he attempted to teach climate change using materials from the book and movie, An Inconvenient Truth. It may not surprise you to learn that C.W.’s story was not unique. At the same time, on the other side of the country, another environmental science teacher, N.C., ran into a similar problem in his Colorado classroom.

N.C. started teaching environmental science at a new school, and wanted the students to watch An Inconvenient Truth with a substitute teacher when he was out for the day. When he returned from leave, there was a detailed report from the substitute teacher—things had not gone well. Apparently one of the students had flat walked out of the class during the movie, and other students refused to engage in the ensuing discussion or assignment. They had been told by their parents that if climate change came up in class, they were not to engage in any activity or complete any assignments. And their attitude was that if their parents didn’t agree with it, it did not need to be part of their schooling.

N.C. was surprised by this response, but was willing to chat with the students to come up with a temporary solution, which involved them writing a short paper to explain their perspective. This was not ideal in N.C.’s view, though, since it didn’t really address the science. So the next year he decided to switch approaches, adopting a data-first style. He compiled data collected in Colorado that discussed regional impacts of climate change, including wildfires, animal migrations, average temperatures, and snowmelt. He had groups of students look at graphs and answer questions about the data. Was it complete enough? What else would they like to see? A larger sample size; longer time periods? From there, the students looked for data that went deeper into time, which N.C. provided through paleo-data, and global data he found through scientific agencies such as NASA.

The students were still learning about climate change, but now they were driving the conversation and asking the questions, rather than being told by the teacher what to think. It turns out this technique was better for a variety of reasons. First, student-driven discovery is just good pedagogy: the students are doing what scientists actually do, asking questions and looking for data and evidence! Second, N.C. found that there was less resistance and more buy-in from the students. He reported not having the same kinds of challenges since adopting this data-driven approach. Students wanted to learn the science.

N.C. told me that he didn’t think the community had changed at all since his initial problem a few years ago—it’s a very conservative community (politically, socially, and religiously)—but taking the science away from politics helped his students see the challenges of climate change without getting it confused with the politics.

His recommendation for other teachers wanting to teach climate change in a politically conservative community? Take the data-first approach. Once students have the evidence, everything else can fall into place.