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Teaching about climate change in America’s rural schools

Teaching about climate change in America’s rural schools

Students holding signs about climate changeTeachers who encounter resistance from their students can learn from researchers.
How might educators respond to situations where science and ideology intersect? A group of educators was formed to stimulate classroom discussions about climate change and its implications with students from rural areas that are culturally and politically conservative, such as the Adirondacks in New York or eastern Kentucky.
Climate change and its causes often affect how people think about their political identities and social and cultural commitments. ResearchIt has been shown that rural communities in the United States are more likely not to believe or dismiss climate change. Researchers set out to find out how students in conservative communities understand and interact climate science relative to their locations around the globe. The next step was to find ways to reach students who might not be interested in learning about climate science.
Kevin Meuwissen, associate professor and chair of teaching and curriculum at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, and his coauthors Warner School alumnus Joseph Henderson, ‘14W (PhD), lecturer in the environment and society department at Paul Smith’s College, and David LongProfessor of middle grades and secondary education at Morehead State University, Dr. Jeremy Riel argues that climate education methods that are based on the strength and reliability of scientific evidence may not be effective. Instead, after years of teaching courses on the social and cultural implications of climate change and studying the outcomes of those courses, they urge a broader shift in addressing rural students’ identities and political and cultural economies, alongside scientific investigations of climate change and its local impacts.
This shift and the types educational projects that can mitigate resistance to climate change science among political conservators are described in their Article “What is Climate Change Education in Trump Country?,” published in Educational and Developmental Psychologist Discussed on EpisodeWXXI Connections. The research team examined the challenges of teaching climate change understanding in educational settings that are often hostile to such messages because of perceived threats to cultural and political identity.
“One of the things that led to the production of our research is a concern that science education as it was currently being practiced wasn’t paying close enough attention to some of the issues that are happening in rural communities,” says Henderson, who emphasizes a need for teachers to deal with political power dynamics in their work in order to mitigate the divisive effects of group boundaries.
Long and Henderson are both from similar geographical and cultural regions to the rural areas they teach. In college classrooms situated in rural New York and Kentucky, they model their own tensions as community members, learners, and educators, whose commitments to scientific understanding and environmental improvement bump up against the cultural values of neighbors and family members and the roles extractive industries have played in their communities’ livelihoods. They discuss their efforts in teaching climate change in conservative rural communities, using an autoethnographic method. Meuwissen then synthesizes their efforts, and suggests ways to strengthen such teaching. This is based on his research on epistemic challenges in political discussions.
In conducting a thorough comparative analysis of course materials, including syllabi, lesson plans, course assignments, student essays, and classroom discourse over four years, they found that the most effective way to teach and learn about climate change is to dive deeper into the social, political, and cultural understandings that accompany their students’ interactions with the subject matter. The team recognizes the importance of showing how the climate crisis is linked to patterns of human activity locally and globally.
In their paper, they write that climate change hasn’t simply evolved spontaneously. It is the result human decisions and geopolitical patterns of colonialism and resource extraction, economic production and political power. “For many of my students, they hadn’t thought of climate change that way. If they’ve been taught it at all, they’ve been taught that we (humans) are burning carbon,” says Henderson. “It’s much more complicated than that. To understand it, you have to get into the political and social structures and dynamics—all the ways in which this issue has existed in the world. Helping students to see themselves in that broader complexity is important.”
Henderson encourages his students to conduct “mirror and window” analyses—a metaphor, he says, that helps students see themselves (in a mirror) related to people in other communities (through a window) who are experiencing cultural interactions with climatological and environmental effects. They then look outward from there to other areas of the world.
“I want them to see that rural America is a place of extraction,” he says. “It’s a place where people get ground up in these extractive industries, and people get pulled in. Rural America is complicated—racially, socially, and economically—but that’s a thing that is often resonant with them. I then start to compare and contrast those environmental injustices with them in urban areas, making those broader-scale connections.”
Relating to their students’ backgrounds and empathizing with cultural commitments in their communities has helped Henderson and Long position themselves alongside their students in ways that make sense to them.
“What you see with that slight turn in the narrative is that you haven’t offended people, but you can also take an honest stand about a better future,” says Long. “And they see it. It’s about the narrative and how you present it and how you see them in solving the problem in the future, rather than telling them, ‘you are bad because you think this way.’”
“Us versus them” is a common framework of thought and activity within current social interactions and political institutions, but it can be harmful to the practice of education, Meuwissen says, leading to opposition more often than not.
“If educators’ efforts to help people change their minds or to interact with each other makes students feel embarrassed or condescended to—or like they’re part of an outgroup in the classroom—then those efforts will fail,” Meuwissen explains, “because students who feel ostracized will recognize what is happening to them. And they will shift to protect their identities and group allegiances as an upshot of these interactions.”
 Kevin MeuwissenMeuwissen recommends that educators engage students with reflective discussions about how their cultural beliefs and climate science ideas interact to help avoid these outcomes. “When students talk about the most significant facets of who they are, whom they trust and why, the stakes associated with protecting their worldviews and values, and how that all plays into their thoughts and interactions related to climate and the environment, there are opportunities to explore how motivated cognition plays into their learning, which doesn’t happen with talk that centers on scientific studies and evidence alone,” he says.
The research team attests to some of the limits of these approaches, including the persistence of ecofascists’ beliefs about and responses to climate change in spite of them. “There’s only so much traction that you have with folks like that,” says Long, “but you take steps. That’s the big thing; we all have to make more concerted efforts going forward.”
Henderson adds, “Are we trying to solve everything? No,” he says. “But we are trying to figure out away to live in a country together with people who think differently, to solve common problems that we all have. And most of our students are on board with that.”
According to Meuwissen there is no environmental science without an environmental politics. To understand the implications of that, one must reflect deeply and take a cross-disciplinary approach.

“There are conversations that should happen alongside climate science investigations, in an interdisciplinary way,” Meuwissen adds. “We should be asking questions like ‘how ought we live together in the world, how do we deliberate on shared problems and the implications of them, and how do we try to solve those problems?’”

About the Warner School of Education

Founded in 1958, the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education offers graduate programs in teacher preparation, K-12 school leadership, higher education, education policy, counseling, human development, online teaching and learning, program evaluation, applied behavior analysis, and health professions education. The Warner School of Education offers PhD and accelerated EdD options that allow eligible students to complete a doctorate degree in education in just three years while still working in the same field. The Warner School of Education has a long tradition of preparing researchers and practitioners to be leaders and agents of education reform in schools, universities and community agencies.


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