As California Gov. Jerry Brown joins world leaders in Paris next week after several months of campaigning to curb climate change around the world, many middle schools in his state are using science textbooks that are inaccurate on the subject, asserted a new report from Stanford University this week.
In a review of 6th-grade earth science textbooks published nearly a decade ago, researchers found that four textbooks described climate change in uncertain terms, including “whether humans were causing it and what the effects will be,” said K.C. Busch, a doctoral candidate in science education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who co-wrote the report.
The study comes amid the overwhelming consensus of scientists who agree that there is convincing evidence that humans are causing the planet to warm. The report also comes as schools across California are in the early stages of implementing new science standards, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, in the next three to five years.
To say that there is scientific debate about the causes of global warming is not an accurate statement given what scientists now know, Busch said, with research showing that less than 3 percent of scientists who are experts on climate analysis disagree about the causes of climate change.
As the new science standards come into practice, “publishers will be writing new textbooks that include climate change,” the report said. “This reworking of science textbooks provides a rare opportunity to reflect on how we can create texts that enhance science teaching and learning.”
Busch and Diego Román, a co-author of the report who is an assistant professor of education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, added in their report that “there must be a definitive effort to improve the text about climate change so it reflects scientifically accurate portrayals of uncertainty and includes specific agents.”
In their research of the state’s middle-school textbooks, Busch and Román analyzed nearly 3,000 words and nearly 300 clauses that were related to climate change.
Here are some examples of passages regarding climate change that are in middle-school science textbooks currently used in California:
- A passage in “Focus on Earth Science,” published by Prentice Hall, says: “Not all scientists agree about the causes of global warming. Some scientists think that the 0.7 Celsius degree rise in global temperatures over the past 120 years may be due in part to natural variations in climate.”
- Another passage, from the textbook “Earth Science,” says: “Until recently, climatic changes were connected only to natural causes. However, studies indicate that human activities may have an influence on climate change.”
- “Focus on Earth Science” also had this: “Global warming could have some positive effects. Farmers in some areas that are now cool could plant two crops a year instead of one. Places that are too cold for farming today could become farmland. However, many effects of global warming are likely to be less positive.”
“A savvy teacher would read that and know it’s not based on scientific understanding,” with words such as ‘could,’ ‘may,’ or ‘likely,’” Busch told EdSource. “The text needs to have accurate science,” she added. “That’s the lowest bar.”
But the passage also provides an opportunity for science teachers to engage their students in discussions based on the coming science standards, which emphasize critical thinking skills and reasoning to answer questions.
Busch, who was a high school science teacher in Texas for 12 years before she pursued a graduate degree, said the growing awareness of climate change and what to do about it is a gold mine for science teachers.
If she were using the 6th-grade texts in California, she said, she would ask students to use the textbook’s hedging descriptions as opportunities for questions, such as, “Why is the textbook presenting climate change in this way?”
“It would be a great lesson,” she said.
EdSource contacted Gov. Brown’s office for comment about the climate change information in the textbooks. Gareth Lacy, the governor’s deputy press secretary, said it’s not likely that the governor’s office will weigh in on that issue.