This article was written by Adam Hatch - UC Berkeley graduate, son of a teacher, brother of a teacher, and a teacher himself. Adam started a unique English school in Taipei, Taiwan, where kids learn to research and write articles in English. The articles are published on the first ever English newspaper written by kids in Taiwan, called the Taipei Teen Tribune.
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President Trump signing an order to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change has been big news recently. You may have students asking you what is going on or what to make of the reversal in American policy. While many may feel the issue of climate change is controversial, the science is reliable and a strong majority of Americans support taking steps to limit carbon emissions. Still, you might have students who disagree that climate change has been caused by humans, or who even think that it is a hoax. If you find yourself at a loss for how to engage your class about what should be a non-political issue, here are a few strategies worth trying out.
1. Your job is to teach the best information available - that information says climate change is real
As a teacher, you have a responsibility to communicate and instill the best information available. When it comes to climate change, the best information is unanimous that climate change is happening, it is caused by human activity, and governments should take immediate steps to address this urgent problem. Because the scientific consensus is so clear, your job as an educator is to present that information until better information becomes available. It is not your job to entertain equivocation between quality science and conspiracy theory simply because some media pundits and networks promote that agenda.
Teachers should also note that it is not simply governments and hippies that support doing something about climate change. Top tier universities, federal agencies, international financial organizations, and even oil companies know it is time to act. So, if you are faced with students, or even parents, who question your methods because you teach that climate change is a problem, politely inform them that you are simply stating the best information available, and that you are clearly not alone in doing so.
2. Tell your students it is fine to disagree and use the opportunity to have them research the evidence
Just because it is your job to present the best information, however, does not mean that students don’t have the right to disagree and dissent. As a matter of fact, situations like this make for wonderful teaching moments. If you have students who question the information, ask them to support their assertions with evidence. Nothing teaches research skills like furiously digging for information to support a standing opinion.
It is also a moment to remind students that your job is not to tell them what to think so much as it is to teach them how to think. So let students know they are entitled to those views, but if they are going to promote them, they need to back them up with evidence and dispassionate reasoning. This could become not only a useful pedagogical moment, but also a chance to allow skeptics to learn on their own why climate change is such a problem.
3. Turn it into a class debate
If you have the time and it is appropriate for your subject, consider setting up a class debate about climate change. This ensures that all viewpoints are heard, but it also forces students to consider the reasoning of the other side of an argument more thoroughly. Ask students who know climate change is a problem to argue from the perspective of a climate change denier. Get kids to flex their intellectual and empathetic muscles.
Furthermore, class debates are fun. They're great for getting everyone to participate, consider different issues, and for allowing students to be the teachers for a moment. You will get a double-win by making this a class activity - you are approaching an issue from a balanced perspective and allowing your class to do something exciting and unique.
4. Encourage students to talk to their parents
Like any issue that students have or any conflict that may arise in class, encourage your students to continue thinking and engaging once they return home. Parents may add to the conversation or give their kids a perspective they hadn’t considered in class. Or students who may have thought they were parroting Mom and Dad’s opinion might find there was more nuance there than they assumed. Education is a team sport, and even if parents don’t always agree with you, asking students to take questions home means learning happens even after school is out.
5. Invite a researcher to visit
You don’t have to go it alone. If you feel that it would help your class, consider inviting a researcher or climate scientist to visit and to discuss climate change with your group. While you command the respect of your students, sometimes having a second voice, and one that is a specialist in the field in question, can add real heft to the conversation and motivate reconsideration on the part of even the most stubborn climate skeptics.
If your school is near a university or community college, start asking there to inquire about professors or researchers who might be interested in visiting. Also, many companies and government agencies, like the local or national parks service, have employees with a background in climate science or related fields. Talk to other teachers and see if they have done anything similar in the past. It might take a little footwork, but finding a great presenter to discuss climate change issues with your class will be enlightening for everyone.
6. It is a perfect excuse for a field trip
If climate change and climate science is a part of your larger curriculum, you may have the opportunity to take your class out for a day to explore the issue, either through exhibitions at museums or first hand out in the community or nature. There is plenty of information about activities online, and there is probably something in your area appropriate for your age group.
These trips can be to view environmental change or degradation on the edge of town, or they could be to a university to see what scientists there are doing in their labs. Try to get creative and make the event one students will remember. Yes, it will take a little more planning than a normal lesson, but as a teacher planning is one of your best qualities, and it is an issue worth making extra effort for.
Climate change really ought not be political - 30 years ago it would have been seen as non-partisan and the Paris Agreement would likely not have been a point of contention. Still, the political atmosphere means teachers are having to justify teaching quality science to a minority of students and families. While being as informed as possible can help when the topic comes up in class, also trying out some of these strategies should make the climate change discussion fruitful and engaging as opposed to distracting and divisive.