What is the best way to teach climate change? According to science education professors and experts, it’s most effective to teach scientific concepts while explicitly mentioning and refuting misconceptions. Misconception-based instruction has proven to be one of the best ways to reduce misunderstandings about issues like climate change. Professors have successfully used this method of teaching in their classrooms; for instance, Professor Scott Mandia of Suffolk County Community College teaches his students the science behind climate change, and for their final research papers students are expected to refute specific climate change myths (ocean acidification is not serious, for example) – some student papers were published.
By acknowledging competing opinions about climate change, we are not only giving students a well-rounded education, but we’re also teaching them an important climate communications lesson. Even if climate skepticism is factually inaccurate, acknowledging different points of view is important in shaping a constructive climate dialog and working together towards solving our climate challenge.
A recent survey of US science teachers, published inScience, revealed a damaging misperception among teachers that has grave consequences for how students are being taught about climate change.
The survey found that only 30 percent of science teachers in US middle and high schools are aware that the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming is 80 percent or higher. This stands in stark contrast to the actual 97 percent consensus level among climate scientists, found in surveys, public statements, and peer-reviewed papers.
The gaping chasm between the perceived and actual level of scientific agreement on climate change, known as the “consensus gap,” has an unfortunate result: Many teachers present their students with both the mainstream consensus view that humans are causing global warming and the opposing minority view. This approach, known as “teach the controversy,” was initially promoted by groups opposed to teaching evolution in schools. While advocates of “teach the controversy” argue that it teaches students how to evaluate scientific evidence, the underlying intent was to cast doubt on the viability of evolution as a scientific theory.
The problem with “teach the controversy” when it comes to human-caused global warming or evolution is that there is no controversy—not a scientific one, at least. Teaching that scientists have major disagreements where they do not is simply to spread misinformation. How, then, should teachers approach climate change, when there is indeed social controversy surrounding it? The research suggests that acknowledging and explaining the controversy—a method sometimes called misconception-based instruction—is the optimal approach. Done correctly, this teaching method offers our best chance to reduce the spread of climate misinformation to our next generation of voters and policy makers.