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MSPnet Blog: “Science Teachers and catastrophe: 3 reflections”

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posted February 26, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

H.G. Wells wrote famously in his Outline of History that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”  This came to mind today, when by chance I read a paper in Nature providing fresh evidence that CO2-driven acidification of the oceans will eliminate most corals by the end of the century, and then one in Science entitled, “Climate confusion among U.S. teachers.”  If you’re blocked by a paywall, you can find lots of newspaper treatments of this story (for example at the Washington Post).  The teacher study surveyed 1500 middle and high school science teachers to find out whether they taught about climate change, how often/much, and something about what they taught. About 75% allocate at least an hour to climate change, and so, as the authors say, “the likelihood of any student missing instruction in climate change altogether is low.”  (pg. 664)

However, when the authors probe what’s being taught in the tiny amount of climate instruction, a feeling of discouragement sets in, because at least a third incline to attribute climate change to “natural causes” in part or whole;  the majority do not understand the extent to which the nature and causes of climate change have been established and accepted by science;  and the average teacher’s grasp of the science is so uncertain that, when asked what topics they’d emphasize if they could teach more, half the teachers chose topics like pesticides or the ozone layer.

The teachers in the survey don’t portray themselves as under pressure not to teach about climate change.  At least half want to know more and would like to have some PD about the subject.  But when the researchers take a leaf from “cultural cognition” studies, and    sorted teachers by their fundamental stances towards government and responsibility, it becomes apparent that (as the authors say):

Rejection of sound scientific conclusions is often rooted in value commitments rather than ignorance, and science teachers are not immune from this tendency.

In short, science teachers look a lot like the rest of the population — the majority has the sense that climate is changing, and humans have something to do with it, but their grasp on the science is tentative. and their absorption of information, and the kinds of implications they can see easily are shaped a lot by their worldview, at a level deeper than science knowledge.  It’s related to the mystery of knowing, which involves our bodies, minds, hearts, and social beings.

Three considerations arise:

  1.  This article, and a very similar one from 2011 on science teachers and evolution (see here for a NYTimes article, which will lead you to the full paper in Science), like many others decrying science teachers’  state of knowledge,  end with an emphasis on the need for better “training” or teacher PD.  It is important to ask:  How can we work to ensure that teachers have learning experiences (not “receive PD” or “training”) which supports their understanding of science as a process which, despite very real flaws, does tend to self-correct, and tends also towards a better, better-grounded account of the phenomena under investigation?  I guess I’m claiming that a whole-hearted participation in the experience of knowledge-making has the power to dissolve or weaken or undermine world-view biases that are typically strengthened by direct attack.   Of course, this means making some huge changes in what the career of a science teacher comprises — including some experience with scientific research, and time and support for continued study and collaboration with other teachers.  Such changes are important for many reasons, but indispensibleif our teachers are going to be supported to feed their own learning, and benefit from advances in their fields of interest — so that they can in turn be resources to their communities in this time of crisis and transition.
  2. BUT:  Teachers should not be charged at this late date with the responsibility of being the saviors of society, now that intelligent use of scientific insight is necessary for our well-being.  For example, we can’t allow the commentariat to  [a] assert that society is facing a major catastrophe if we don’t drastically curtail our fossil fuel use, [b] note with horror that We the People, and especially the People’s servants in Congress assembled, show little inclination to respond with the necessary energy, [c] recognize how much disinformation is out there amongst Us the People, and [d] after blaming the science teachers, prescribe a stringent course of training to Save the Day.  As a corollary of #1, we are all complicit.   After we take Exxon and their allies to court for damages, and then hold 99% of politicians accountable for conniving at short-sighted delay, we should then demand reparations from the media for their sorry role in dis-informing Us the People.   Meanwhile, let’s get the (too quiet for too long) scientists, citizen activists,  and science teachers together on the same team, and seriously support them to work, both in schools and out of them, to build public understanding and will-to-action, as best we may.  We have no time but this present!
  3. Market forces and various elements of human nature have played a distorting role in our valuation of different fields of science.  I am grateful for biomedical advances, and the insights of molecular biology, but:  the science with the most far-reaching importance for our society in my lifetime and that of my grandchildren, at least, is that of ecology, evolutionary biology, and the sciences of biodiversity.  We have squandered vast resources on interesting but less urgent matters, which we should have poured into the better understanding of our planet and its living systems — about which we are still remarkably ignorant.  I freely admit that I am biased, as an ecologist and an organism-oriented person, but for justification, I point to our present complicated fix (e.g. with regard to extinctions, climate change, antibiotic resistance, etc.).