Climate coverage in textbooks is sparse

Textbooks are often considered authoritative sources of information necessary for education. These teaching aids include the latest scientific findings to reflect societal changes and show how knowledge has grown over time. They play a crucial role in how teachers tackle particular subjects to educate students in classroom settings.

According to a 2016 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) policy document, formal schooling is the primary approach to addressing environmental challenges. Since curriculum content has been shown to influence students’ knowledge of environmental issues, it is important to analyze how textbooks frame and discuss the pressing issue of climate change.

But as it turns out, the coverage of climate change hasn’t changed drastically in science textbooks over the past 50 years, despite how much scientists have learned about the phenomena that currently affect and will continue to affect the entire planet.

The content of climate change did not increase proportionally with the number of scientific publications

A new PLOS One study analyzed 57 introductory college-level biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019 to examine the coverage of climate change content over the past five decades. The findings show that the content did not increase proportionately with the number of publications and research on climate change.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the content about climate change was on average less than 11 sentences. During the 1990s, coverage increased to nearly 40 sentences, with about one sentence for every 200 scientific publications on climate change. This ratio later declined, resulting in one sentence for every 1,100 publications in the 2010s.

“Instructional materials build on older materials, and they often work just fine,” says Jennifer Landin, an associate professor of biological sciences at NC State University who was involved in the study. “But when there is a big shift in our knowledge, or in society’s needs, we should reflect on the educational coverage and ask ourselves if we are meeting the needs of the next generation.”

The authors present a couple of theories as to why the amount of content decreased. It is possible that publishers gradually reduced their content due to the climate change controversy. Authors’ expertise and interests also play a role as there was a decrease in the number of authors focusing on science communication compared to those who studied cell or molecular biology.

“To study how [textbooks] change over time is an interesting way to examine educational priorities and the culture of authors and publishers in a specific field, in this case college biology, says Joseph A. Henderson, associate professor of social sciences at Paul Smith’s College and co-editor. of Teaching Climate Change in the United States who were not involved in the study.

[Related: The best ways to teach and talk about climate change with kids.]

Henderson suspects that there was reduced content on climate change because “the field of biology culturally prioritizes cellular and molecular content at the expense of broader ecological and climatological issues.”

The study also revealed that the placement of climate change in textbooks moved towards the end of the book. Many instructors teach topics in the order presented by the textbook, so if climate issues are nearing the end, it’s more likely that the content won’t be covered or just skipped over quickly, says Landin.

Perhaps ecological issues are relegated to the end of these books because more complex and interdisciplinary problems require a foundation of simpler concepts in introductory chapters, says Henderson. The authors recommend addressing climate change earlier in teaching materials and courses to cover how climate change affects different areas of study.

An analysis of the content of climate change also revealed that textbook passages initially provided only a basic description of the greenhouse effect, which later transitioned to cover the effects of a warmer climate. However, content about actionable climate solutions peaked in the 1990s and declined in the last two decades. Solutions also focus on national and international actions, making it appear that individual actions or consumer practices are insignificant.

Landin and Henderson say that prioritizing solutions at broader scales, such as at the state and intergovernmental levels, is not necessarily bad because they have the greatest impact. “Individual actions matter, but they are insufficient at scale,” says Henderson. “There is a broader issue here, which is that solutions to climate change are inherently political, social, [and] cultural.” He therefore adds that teaching climate change must be interdisciplinary in design.

That said, providing students with information about factors that contribute to climate change, such as one’s transportation or diet, allows them to make choices about their individual behaviors that can affect carbon emissions, Landin says.

Although the coverage of climate change in textbooks has not kept pace with the severity of the problem, this does not mean that young adults are unaware of environmental issues.

“There are a number of social science surveys that show that young people in the United States overwhelmingly understand and care about dealing with climate change,” says Henderson. “They just get their information from other places: social media like TikTok, internet news, friend groups, etc.”

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, young Americans belonging to the Millennial and Generation Z age groups are more engaged in climate change than individuals from the Generation X and Baby Boomer groups. They tend to see more climate change content on social media platforms, talk more about the need for climate action, and actively do more by volunteering and participating in mobilisations.

Nevertheless, ensuring that students learn about climate change from recognized sources such as educational textbooks can supplement and support the knowledge they can gain elsewhere.

Henderson suggests that teachers promote climate change education by insisting that state science standards include climate change across the disciplines. In 2020, the New Jersey State Board of Education adopted new student learning standards that require climate change education to be taught across multiple content areas such as science, social studies, health and physical education, and visual and performing arts, among others.

[Related: Why some climate change adaptations just make things worse.]

The supposed rollout of the new curriculum in 2021 was delayed due to the pandemic. It was finally implemented this year, making New Jersey the first state to integrate climate change education across K-12. The state also launched the New Jersey Climate Change Education Hub to give educators access to a wealth of resources that will help effectively teach about climate change at all grade levels. Henderson also recommends climate change education resources from the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), a portal of educational resources for K-12 and students that have been reviewed by educators and researchers.

The education system has been slow to adapt. The new study shows that both textbook companies and the broader field of biology do not reflect the interests of students or the state of the science of climate change, Henderson says. He adds that the country has generally barely kept up with the severity of the problem, which would challenge political and economic structures that contribute to the problem, namely carbon-based colonial development and related forms of global capitalism.

Carbon offsetting is the strategy of reducing carbon emissions from one source to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere. Polluting companies and countries buy “carbon credits” to offset the negative effects of their emissions by starting programs such as tree planting projects. However, most carbon offset projects are purchased by the Global North, which may only allow them to continue to pollute while shifting the burden of emissions to the Global South where most carbon offset projects occur.

Overall, it is necessary to improve the coverage of climate change in textbooks so that students can understand how environmental issues shape everyday life as they know it. But at the very least, Henderson says, textbook authors and publishers should have a background in climate change.

“Creating educational materials is a very complex and difficult job; we are sure that there is no intention to under-represent environmental issues, says Landin. “We hope this study will help authors and publishers in the future. The simplest approach is to review the balance of topics and the expertise of authors of introductory biology materials.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *