How to teach kids about climate

In previous posts we have talked about the need for skeptical materials that can be used in the classroom, especially at the middle and high school grade levels. The Web is loaded with alarmist material but there is almost nothing from the skeptics. In order to advance the cause of climate realism, below are some basic ideas for what good classroom materials might look like.

No politics, no bashing.

Skeptical sources like blogs, op-eds, letters to the editor, etc., often include strident criticism of the opposition. There is no place for this in the classroom, especially not in science classes. This is not the place to analyze the reasons for alarmism or the behavior of alarmists.

Focus on one idea

Many climate change writings have a shotgun blast aspect, offering a broad array of arguments over several distinct topics. For classroom use it is very important to take a single idea and briefly explain it, allowing ample time for discussion. In particular, one should not use any terminology that has not already been taught, except for the terminology being taught. Using terms the students do not know (such as “IPCC” or “anomaly”) will immediately distract the class. These new terms will become the subject, rather than the intended idea.

Teach the debate, not just one side

Do not argue for a position. The science is far too technical for that. The learning objective is for the students to see that there is an active scientific debate surrounding the idea in question. It is like a field trip to a laboratory. The students are seeing science in action, not mastering it.

Personally I typically refer to the two major camps as “warmers” (people who argue that humans are causing dangerous global warming) and “skeptics” (people who doubt this). These are relatively neutral and short terms — warmers versus skeptics.

Aim for a specific education level

This is especially challenging. In high school there are typically four science courses — physics, chemistry, biology and Earth sciences — and each student only needs to take two. So there are a large number of combinations and you cannot assume any particular one. The best approach is to write for just one of these courses, without assuming that any of the other three have been taken. Middle school is a bit less complex, but the students will have learned a lot less at this point.

Mine the standards

In the last 20 years or so science education has become something of a regulatory regime. Most States have promulgated detailed regulations dictating what will be taught in each grade and course. These State regulations are often called “standards,” and they are enforced by extensive testing. How content is taught is still up to the teacher, but what content is taught is not. Therefore the most useful classroom materials are those that are aligned with the standards.

So if you are writing for a particular State it is best to look at that State’s standards. These can usually be found with a Google search on “X state science standards” where X is the State’s name. If you are writing generally it will be useful to look at several standards, to get an idea what is taught when. For example, California, Texas and Virginia have very detailed standards.

Of particular interest are the so-called Next Generation Science Standards. These are new and have so far been adopted by well over a dozen States. The NextGen Standards do several worrisome things with climate change science. First, they push a lot of it back into middle school, instead of high school where it has traditionally been. The students know a lot less at this level, making alarmism easier to get away with. Second, the NextGen Standards require hands-on use of a climate computer model in high school. Given that computer models of climate are the basis for most alarmism, one wonders what model the students will be using? It will be important to clearly explain the difference between modeling and actual science.

Of course it is also important to make things interesting, have fun, encourage discussion and critical thinking, etc. Writing science for kids is a real challenge. In the climate change debate we really need it, lots of it.


About the Author: David Wojick, Ph.D.

David Wojick is a journalist and policy analyst. He holds a doctorate in epistemology, specializing in the field of Mathematical Logic and Conceptual Analysis.

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  • John of Cloverdale, WA, Austra

    You rightly say climate (and climate change) can be covered partially in many disciplines. I first encountered discussions of climate change in Geography first and then Geology later. However, when I think about it, early Bible study classes covered droughts, famines and floods. Although not taught, it may have been implied by my History teacher in our study of Ancient History. Later at University, it was more more extensively covered in my Geology, Physics and Geophysics courses, where I came across Milankovitch cycles and more detailed discussion of Quarternary Ice Age cycles. I think for school children understanding that the Earth is dynamic and is always changing due to natural earthly (continental drift, volcanism, ocean cycles) and planetary forces (orbital variances/cycles and our Sun). One thing I left out was Atmospheric chemistry and physics, which I am particularly weak on.
    I don’t know how anyone can call themselves a Climate Scientist, because it covers so many fields. Good luck in your attempt for a suitable teaching framework to teach kids. You will need it.

    • David Wojick

      In the US every State has detailed Science Standards that specify which topics will be taught in each grade level. So where climate science is supposed to be taught is well defined. Mind you as I pointed out last week it is also being taught ad hoc in non-science courses.
      See my This too needs to be addressed.