Skip to main content

On Climate Change, Confused Teachers Make for Misinformed Students

Junior high and high school science instructors often impart incorrect or contradictory information.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: lizhaslam/Flickr)

(Photo: lizhaslam/Flickr)

Do you regularly ask your kids "What did you learn in school today?" How often have they answered, "That the climate is gradually warming due to human activity, and that's really dangerous!"

Never, you say? Not a big surprise.

A nationally representative survey of high school and junior high science teachers finds the average instructor devotes only one to two hours during a school year to the vitally important subject. It also finds that, when it comes to climate change, many teachers are misinformed, confused, or biased by political ideology.

As a result, American youngsters are learning “not as much as we had hoped, and not enough to provide students a solid grounding in the science,” said Penn State University political scientist Eric Plutzer, the study’s lead author. Rather, many receive “explicitly contradictory messages,” he and his colleagues write in the journal Science.

“Thirty percent of teachers emphasize that recent global warming is likely due to natural causes, and 12 percent do not emphasize human causes.”

The study, conducted by Penn State and the National Center for Science Education, featured data from 1,500 public middle school and high school science teachers from all 50 states. (The high school instructors taught biology, Earth science, chemistry, and physics.) Instructors indicated their level of knowledge about climate change, and the way they present the subject to their classes.

Seventy percent of middle school science teachers, and 87 percent of high school biology instructors reported they do address the subject, however briefly. “The likelihood of any student missing instruction in climate change altogether is low,” the researchers conclude.

But the quality of that teaching is a different matter. “Thirty percent of teachers emphasize that recent global warming is likely due to natural causes,” they write, “and 12 percent do not emphasize human causes.”

In addition, 31 percent of those who teach climate change “report sending explicitly contradictory messages, emphasizing both the scientific consensus that recent global warming is due to human activity, and that many scientists believe recent increase in temperature are due to natural causes.”

In other words, they are teaching both sides of the debate, when only one of those sides is supported by science.

This largely reflects the teachers’ ignorance on the subject. The researchers found about 15 percent wrongly believe climate change is “mostly driven by natural causes,” while another 15 percent think “human and natural causes are equally important.”

“When asked what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, only 30 percent of middle school and 45 percent of high school teachers selected the correct option of ‘81 to 100 percent,’” the researchers add.

Not surprisingly, a teacher’s personal political beliefs play a role in climate skepticism. “A question measuring political ideology was a more powerful predictor of teachers’ classroom approach than any measure of education or content knowledge,” they write, “with those leaning toward ‘It’s not the government’s business to protect people from themselves’ most willing to teach ‘both sides.’”

The report does contain some good news. Only a tiny minority of teachers—4.4 percent—reported receiving overt pressure from administrators, parents, or community leaders to avoid the subject. And two-thirds of teachers—including half of those who falsely believe global warming is due to natural causes—“said they would be very interested in continuing education entirely focuses on climate change.”

So a great many science teachers would like to learn more, and do a better job. This could be accomplished through the creation of “high-quality, vetted, and up-to-date online instructional resources,” the researchers write. Plutzer added in an email message that a “revision of curricula in colleges that train the majority of science teachers” is also imperative.

“Teachers didn’t create the polarized culture war around climate change,” says the National Center for Science Education’s Josh Rosenau. “But they’re the key to ending this battle.”

That may be overstating their impact, but clearly the current equation—ignorant instructors equal misinformed students—must be changed.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.