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How do teachers' beliefs on climate change influence their students?

Sep 8, 2016

The vast majority of climate scientists agree climate change is happening and it’s mainly caused by people.

A new study looks at how middle school students' beliefs about climate change are shaped by their teachers’ own beliefs.

Kathryn Stevenson is the lead author and an assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University. She and her colleagues studied kids and teachers in North Carolina.

Ninety-two percent of the students had a teacher who believed climate change is happening.

"Having a teacher that believes in climate change was almost as impactful as what students know themselves," she says. "So having a teacher that believes climate is happening was influential of students’ beliefs that climate change is both happening and human caused."

But she found just 12% of students had teachers who believe climate change is mainly caused by people.

"We found a very small percentage of students had teachers that actually think that climate change is predominately caused by humans even though 97% of climate scientists will tell you that’s the case," she says.

Stevenson says her study was inspired by a national survey of middle and high school science teachers published in the journal Science earlier this year, that found a lack of understanding of the science of climate change.

This NPR piece explains:

Roughly 3 in 4 say they talk about global warming in class, though typically only for an hour or two. But the study's lead author, Eric Plutzer of Penn State, says barely a majority are getting the science right.

"A little more than half are sending clear messages that human consumption of fossil fuels is the major cause of recent warming," Plutzer says.

What are the rest saying?

Well, roughly 30 percent tell students that humans are only partly to blame for climate change, along with natural causes. The problem with that, Plutzer says, is that it sends mixed messages, suggesting that the causes of climate change are still up for debate — when there is no debate among the vast majority of climate scientists.

"They found that teachers are essentially as polarized as the general population of adults, and most of those beliefs are driven by ideology," says Stevenson. "We were wondering, oh, gosh, is that polarization just getting transferred to the next generation?"

So, Stevenson and her team surveyed kids and their teachers.

"With kids, it has less to do with these political ideologies and much more to do with their actual understanding of climate science."

"Among adults what we’re finding over and over, is that people's perceptions of climate change really have very little to do with how much they understand the science. It has more to do with their political ideologies or what news sources they turn to," she says. "But with kids, it has less to do with these political ideologies and much more to do with their actual understanding of climate science. So yet again, in this study, we found that kids’ understanding of the actual science of climate change seems to be the most important factor with forming how they think about climate change."

As she writes in the study:

We found that teacher beliefs that global warming is happening and student climate change knowledge were the strongest predictors of student belief that global warming is happening and human caused. Conversely, teacher beliefs about human causes of global warming had no relationship with student beliefs, suggesting that science teachers’ low recognition of the causes of global warming is not necessarily problematic in terms of student outcomes. These findings may be explained by previous research suggesting adolescents interpret scientific information relatively independently of ideological constraints. Though teacher polarization may be problematic in its own right, it appears that as long as climate change information is presented in classrooms, students deduce anthropogenic causes.