Major gaps found in climate change education for students across Canada

Three provinces include materials from climate deniers, a new study has found

Earlier this month, we heard from Alberta teenagers who said they feel like they aren’t being taught enough about climate change in school.

Now, a new study published in PLOS ONE shows that Alberta schools aren’t the only ones getting a failing grade on climate change education.

Seth Wynes, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, spent time paging through the curriculum for each province’s secondary schools and spoke with the authors of those education guides.

Wynes and his coauthor Kimberly A. Nicholas from Sweden’s Lund University rated the provinces on a scale of zero to three in five different components of climate change education:

  • “It’s climate,” the foundational principles of climate science.
  • “It’s warming,” the basic concept that the climate is warming and observations to accompany this idea.
  • “It’s us,” humans and anthropogenic emissions are the cause of the majority of global warming.
  • “Experts agree,” establishing that there is no debate that climate change is real, significant and human caused.
  • “It’s bad,” expressing the dire consequences of climate change.
  • “We can fix it,” focusing on solutions to the climate crisis.
Climate change education in Canada graph

The pie graph shows the rating for each province on each of the six components of climate change education. Graphic: Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas / PLOS ONE

Three provinces include materials from climate denial group

Significantly, all provinces except Saskatchewan were missing any focus on “experts agree.” Most also missed any focus on solutions to the climate crisis.

“If students don’t understand those facts then they’re unlikely to be motivated to help solve the problem,” Wynes said.

“For instance, if you believed that there was great debate among scientists — when there’s not — or if you believed that there weren’t any solutions — when that’s not true — then you’d be really unmotivated to contribute to solving the problem.”

The study found that Manitoba’s education program doesn’t merely neglect to include in lessons that experts have reached consensus on human-caused climate change, but goes in the opposite direction by providing documentation from the organization Friends of Science, a known climate change denial group.

The provided supplementary materials for Grade 11 chemistry say: “It should be noted that there is significantly polarized debate on the issue among scientists. Students should be justifiably cautious about accepting unsubstantiated claims about global warming.”

Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island have similar supporting documentation included in their education guides.

“This speaks to the official curriculum writing process and points to how important it is to review how climate change is being taught,” Wynes said. “Because it might very well be out of date.”

Saskatchewan and Ontario come out on top

The study concluded that Saskatchewan and Ontario have the strongest programs, while New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have the least effective. Wynes notes that British Columbia has made some changes in its curriculum since the research began there in 2015.

Another important factor is whether or not the courses that touch on climate change are mandatory or merely elective. In Alberta, Northwest Territories and Yukon climate change is only covered in non-mandatory courses. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan and Ontario had five of the six categories covered in mandatory courses.

In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia “it’s climate” was all that was covered in mandatory secondary science courses.

The people behind the programs

Wynes wanted to know if politics and lobby groups played a role in shaping the curriculum, but generally he found they did not.

Special interest groups are permitted in many cases to appeal to the authors of the curriculum, but interviews showed that the authors — typically seasoned teachers and educators — didn’t feel unduly pressured.

“They weigh those things into consideration, but no one is dictating what they do,” Wynes said.

Another interesting finding was that chance contributes in a big way to curriculum development.

“Sometimes you might get one or two of the teachers on your small team who are very passionate about climate change and then suddenly your science curriculum guide can have a substantial focus on climate change, but the opposite might also be true,” he said.

Wynes acknowledges that his study only looks at what is in the education guides for teachers. It doesn’t look at what education looks like in practice.

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