Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Where to focus climate change education efforts?

I virtually sat in on a bit of the Climate Change Education Roundtable Committee Meeting #2 this afternoon. There was some fascinating discussion that I caught only the tale end of, then it moved into discussions of what to focus the next workshop upon.

There was a resounding endorsement of focusing that upcoming workshop on climate change education at the K-12, or K-16 level. That simultaneously cheered and depressed me.

It cheered me because it's a profoundly important audience -- an audience where the understandings (or misunderstandings) built will have the longest-lasting effect. There's also the possibility of education that trickles up. Kids really do teach their parents important things some of the time.

But I'm also concerned for the very simple reason that K-12 or K-16 education has never worked very well for getting a lot of people to understand important ideas. I want you to pay attention to this point, so I'll inset it and make it bold.
There are no examples of creating a thick description of what everyone should understand about any topic that has led to wide swaths of the population understanding the target content, in spite of countless attempts to do just that throughout human history.

Pretty bold, huh?

Not a single example.

That begs for us to do something different. Pleads for it. Cries for it. Screams for it. 

I did raise the issue and it was politely received. Then the next several speakers talked about their agreement of the need to focus on K-12 education. 

Yes, this next workshop should focus on the young, as the last one focused upon a variety of adult audiences. But, and this is a really big but, we need to attend to the fact that we've just not been successful in teaching much more than basic literacy to a majority through schooling (or any other approach, really). 

Ok, that's a bit of a simplification. Most folks do know some important things and they learned it somewhere. Hygiene, for example. And, most people understand that smoking is bad for you. But only a minority have good understandings of things like the workings of our constitutional democracy, or evolution, or trigonometry, or, well, I could go on and on about the things that almost everyone has been taught that only a slim minority of the population understands. 

Wow, does that sound elitist. 

How would you do on the 

But really, how would you do on the NAEP test? Or, if you're understandably not a fan of standardized tests, how would you demonstrate your understandings across the traditional high school content areas? To make myself sound less elitist, I'll note that I was too chicken to try any areas outside of science. Or, I mean, I haven't had time yet.

And now back to our message:

As we work on the agenda of educating young people about climate change, we need to constantly ask ourselves:
 What is it that makes this approach more likely to succeed than what we've done before?
If we can't answer that question, we need to pull back and take a different tack. 

Our in the box thinking leaves us sitting in the same old box. How are you stepping out of the box? What should we do to make K-12 climate change education effective?

The views expressed herein are those of the author, Don Duggan-Haas, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paleontological Research Institution.

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