Amazing opportunities to teach sound climate science

As I mentioned in my last post, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are being adopted by many States. This changeover presents a unique opportunity to introduce climate skepticism into the Middle School classroom. What follows is a brief overview of the situation and how to begin to deal with it.

To begin with, science education in every State is governed by what are called science standards. These documents specify in general terms the topics that should be taught at each grade level. For example a standard might say that in 4th grade there will be instruction on how batteries work. There will then be curriculum documents which go into more detail, for example saying what aspects of batteries will be taught and when in the sequence of topics. In some cases the textbook (and other teaching materials being used) define these things. There will also be State-wide tests, which greatly influence what is taught.

Finally there will be individual class lesson plans developed or adopted by each teacher. These cover each day’s instruction, such as having the student’s actually try to hook up a dry cell battery to make a light work. This is a long, drawn out process so standards are typically only changed every decade or so and the changes may be small.

With the Next Generation Science Standards the changes are quite large, especially in the case of climate change. The laborious implementation process is now going on, so there is a big opportunity to influence it. Curricula, textbooks, supplemental materials, lesson plans, and tests are all under development. At this point 18 States have adopted the NGSS, including over 35% of America’s public school students, so the scope of the opportunity is great. Here is an Interactive Map showing the States that have adopted NGSS. Links take you to each State’s NGSS website.

Middle school is the new battleground

By far the biggest change is that climate science is now to be first taught in middle school, not in high school, which has been the universal standard until now. So the whole process is starting from scratch. Existing high school content cannot be used because middle school students do not have the same level of understanding. (Middle school in this case means grades 6, 7 and 8.) In addition, few middle school teachers will have taught the topic, so they need to be educated as well.

What is rather amazing is that the NGSS standard for middle school climate science actually fits skepticism very well. Here is the exact language:

Students who demonstrate understanding can: Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.”

(MS-ESS3-5.)

Skepticism is all about asking just these sorts of questions. The whole issue with skepticism is to consider what various factors might explain global warming, and especially to question the dogmatic alarmist view that assumes humans are the only factor. So mastering this standard is certainly something that skeptics can assist with.

Unfortunately the NGSS standard also includes a “Clarification Statement” that includes this questionable language:

Emphasis is on the major role that human activities play in causing the rise in global temperatures.”

That human activities play a major role in global warming is not known to be true and may well be false, so this is a false requirement. This is something that skeptics also need to hammer home.

It is very interesting that the standard defines understanding as being able to ask good questions. This is extremely unusual in K-12 science standards, where understanding has almost always been a matter of mastering a given body of knowledge. Of course it makes perfect sense in the case of global warming and climate change, because this is an area of fierce scientific debate. The thing is that it will be an unusual form of teaching (and testing). Middle school science teachers are not used to teaching debates and skeptics can really help here.

It will be especially important to see how the major textbook publishers are handling this standard. If the textbooks are alarmist then we need to prepare and distribute skeptical counter materials wherever these books are adopted. This may be at the School District level in some states.

See my Heartland article “Join the fight for skepticism in schools” for more information and ideas.

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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.