Justin Dillon discusses PGCE science teacher education at Bristol University.

How do you prepare teachers to teach about climate change? It’s not just about subject knowledge, as some of our political leaders seem to think, although if you don’t know the difference between weather and climate your students might not see you as much use to them in getting to grips with possibly the biggest challenge facing the planet. With such a complex socio-scientific topic as climate change, a trainee teacher’s subject knowledge may need regular updating and they need to source information, assess its validity and applicability and then turn it into information that students can understand and learn using a range of pedagogies (see, for example, The Guardian, 2014).

Climate change as a special case

The good news is that climate change and global warming are increasingly familiar terms to young people. Educating them about the underlying science and the challenges facing society is, however, complicated – not just because of the scale and complexity of the issues but also because some people have tried to suggest that there is no scientific consensus that global warming since the industrial revolution is caused by human activity. Trainee teachers will find their pupils may already have established ideas about climate change which they have picked up from the media or from their families.

Student teachers discuss approaches to teaching about a changing climate

Public opinion about the issues seems to depend on various factors including nationality. So, for example, when a representative sample of US adults were asked in 2014 why they thought the Earth was getting warmer, 50% of respondents thought that it was because of ‘human activity’, 23% said because of ‘natural activity’ and 25% said there was ‘no solid evidence’. The same study carried out five years earlier had found similar levels of responses for ‘human activity’ (49%) but different responses for ‘natural activity’ (36%) and ‘no solid evidence’ (11%) (Pew Research Center, 2015). It would appear that a growing proportion of the US public doubts the scientific evidence.

Barriers to teaching about climate change

In the UK a number of factors have been identified which can be considered as barriers to engagement with the issues. Prior to setting up its recent ‘Climate’ exhibition, the London Science Museum commissioned a number of focus groups which found four key barriers, regardless of participants’ opinions, about whether climate change was happening, whether it had a human origin or whether it presented a threat to society:

Boredom: climate change is constantly in the media and, for children, it is a topic they encounter in multiple subjects throughout their school career.

Irritation: the public do not want to be told what to do and how to live their lives, particularly when it involves foregoing activities they enjoy, such as travelling abroad.

Powerlessness: the public feel that individual actions are futile and have no sense of collective impact; they feel there has been little change and have a low awareness of international efforts, for example, the 2009 Copenhagen conference.

Fear: the public do not know how bad the impacts will be, the effect it will have on themselves or if it is even too late to act.

(TWResearch 2008 and 2009)

While climate change appears to be seen as increasingly important by politicians and industry leaders, the public may see the issue as being relatively low in priority. This state of affairs is likely to continue as long as disinformation campaigns continue and the media insists on giving voice to a handful of sceptics (Roser-Renouf and Maibach, 2010). The situation provides a challenging context within which trainee teachers have to operate.

Teachers’ views of climate change and global warming

As members of the public themselves, teachers are likely to hold views which may not agree with the scientific consensus. The Science Museum’s focus groups with secondary school science and geography teachers revealed that some of the science teachers were not convinced that climate change was caused by humans (TWResearch 2010). These findings resonate with Dove’s (1995) survey of student teachers’ understanding of the greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion, and acid rain. Dove was puzzled as to why the prospective teachers understood the science behind the ozone layer but did not understand the greenhouse effect and global warming. She hypothesized that while the link between CFCs and the depletion of the ozone layer was well-established, global warming was somewhat contentious – something which is still the case today – at least in some people’s eyes.

Teachers participating in the Science Museum’s focus groups reported that the uncertainty of climate change science conflicted with their perception of their role as teaching the ‘truth’ (TWResearch 2010). The implication for trainee science teachers is that, more than ever, they need to learn about the nature of science including the tentative nature of some scientific knowledge. They also need to be able to appreciate that science works through disagreement about interpretations of phenomena in the natural world, and that scientists’ values may affect how they interpret data.

The convergence of science and environmental education

The importance of teaching about values in socio-scientific issues points to a need for a convergence of science and environmental education if students are to receive an education that enables them to face today’s ‘wicked’ problems (Dillon & Scott, 2002; Wals et al., 2014). David Uzzell (1999), however, has criticised some approaches to environmental education that he described as top-down. Uzzell pointed out that such approaches did not appear to change students’ attitudes to the environment and had even less impact on their behaviours. New approaches, involving local communities in taking action have been advocated (Moser and Dilling, 2004, Wals et al., 2014). Others have argued that effective climate change education needs to emphasise the personal connection between the student, fuel use and climate change using methods such as environmental footprint calculations (Cordero et al., 2008). These arguments need to be considered by trainee teachers.

Teaching strategies

Bringing together the science of climate change, the values dimension and the goal to change people’s behaviours individually or collectively requires a number of pedagogical approaches to be appreciated by trainee science teachers. Thus science teacher educators might promote teaching strategies which emerged in response to the Science Museum focus groups:

Focus on humans: People seem to be interested in the human stories, particularly those relating to:

  • the UK: these are emotive and can make the issue personally relevant;
  • social justice: the sense of injustice is motivating;
  • countries already experiencing the effects: that the effects are happening to people now helps make the issue seem less remote and more immediate.

Personal relevance: Many people fail to relate to the global issue. They want to know how it will impact on them and in what time-frame or they can dismiss the issue as not relevant to them.

Providing examples of adaptation and innovative solutions: Examples of action that could/have been taken can provide a message of hope in an otherwise gloomy picture. People have low awareness of these broader solutions beyond re-using carrier bags and replacing incandescent light bulbs.

Providing examples of solutions from other countries: Visitors are intrigued by what other countries have done and how, as it provides hope.  (TWResearch 2008)

Final thoughts

Whilst it is too much to expect that pre-service teacher education will be able to address all these issues in the requisite depth, given everything else that has to be covered these days, it is clearly necessary that a start is made. Given that there is also a need for science teachers already in post to have such awareness and skills, it could be that a good way forward would be for universities to work at the same time with both science teachers in training and those already in schools on these vital issues.


Andersson, B., & Wallin, A. (2000). Students’ understanding of the greenhouse effect, the societal consequences of reducing CO2 emissions and the problem of ozone layer depletion, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37, 1096–111.

Cordero, E.C., Todd, A.M. and Abellera, D. (2008). Climate change education and the ecological footprint, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 89, 865–72.

Cross, R.T., & Price, R.F. (1999). The social responsibility of science and the public understanding of science, International Journal of Science Education, 21(7), 775–85.

Dillon, J. and Scott, W. (2002). Editorial: Perspectives on environmental education-related research in science education, International Journal of Science Education, 24(11), 1111-1117.

Dove, J. (1996). Student teacher understanding of the greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion, and acid rain, Environmental Education Research, 2(1), 89–100.

Guardian (2014). How to teach … climate science. Available at: www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/mar/03/how-to-teach-climate-change. Accessed on October 18, 2015.

Moser, S., and Dilling, L. (2004). Making climate hot: Communicating the urgency and challenge of global climate change, Environment, 46, 32–46.

Roser-Renouf, C. and Maibach, E. (2010). Communicating climate change. In S. Priest (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication, Sage Publications.

TWResearch (2008) A Climate Change Gallery at the Science Museum. (unpublished)

TWResearch (2009) Developing the Climate Change Exhibition. (unpublished)

TWResearch (2010) A Climate Change Toolkit for Teachers. (unpublished)

Uzzell, D. L. (1999). Education for environmental action in the community: New roles and relationships. Cambridge Journal of Education, 29(3), 397–413.

Wals, A.E.J, Brody, M., Dillon, J, & Stevenson, R.B. (2014). Convergence between science and environmental education. Science, 344, 583-4.


Dr Justin Dillon is Professor of Education at the University of Bristol.  Contact: jd14064@bristol.ac.uk

This article was first published in NAEE’s Summer 2016 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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