Photo of two people having a conversation

Creating Meaningful Dialogue

The infrastructure of energy is tightly tied, of course, to our economic and political systems, and to the quality of our lives. How we prioritize jobs, rights to land and resources, degree of political control, importance of environmental protection, weighting of local versus global and national versus international concerns, among many other considerations, determines how we might react to recognizing human-induced climate change as a valid issue, and whether we should adopt policies to counter it. Our feelings about these issues are deeply rooted in our worldviews. Given this, how can we begin to productively relate to, and to teach, students with diverse and different views?

Developing Empathy

One way potentially to develop empathy for folks we disagree with is to identify areas of our own lives in which we might make assumptions or arguments about activities or beliefs in which we’re immersed. For example, one area that most people reading this Teacher-Friendly Guide will have in common is teaching within the traditional educational system: schools organized into classes of about 20 students, sitting in a series of 50 minute classes of various subjects, about 40 weeks a year, for 13 years or so. If asked if the system works, most of us would defend it, even if we know it has flaws. It is the way we were taught, the way many of us were taught to teach, and, in most cases, the structure available to us for teaching (no matter what we might dream would be ideal). With time, we develop strategies within the system we use and recognize constraints that would make it difficult to achieve our most idealistic (or research-based) aspirations, and we grow weary of new “reforms” that we know will be hard to implement within the constraints of the existing system.

Given these constraints, it becomes difficult to enact a next generation of educational systems that results not merely in improvements to schools and classrooms, but rather in the replacement of these structures with something fundamentally different and better. How do we work effectively toward a new system that we can scarcely imagine? In this sense, might we sometimes be like climate change deniers, resistant to pushing for change because we are immersed in social groups whose goals have long been to excel within the current system, and inconvenienced and perhaps offended by pushes for change from outside. (It’s not a perfect analogy – for example, most climate change deniers are not climate scientists, while teachers are actively immersed in doing science education.)

Video: "How do you teach empathy? | Jonathan Juravich" (YouTube)

Asking Deep Open-Ended Questions

Part of changing the culture of discussion may be asking questions that are rich and open-ended and seeking new solutions with common ground, instead of questions focused on “right” or “wrong,” “do” or “don’t.” For example, arguments about permitting high volume hydraulic fracturing – a.k.a. “fracking” – are often framed around about whether to frack or not. Of course, that’s a worthy question, but it fails to take into account that all large scale energy generation is bad for the environment. Therefore, worthier questions include, “By what combination of energies, in different times and places, can we get the energy we need with the least environment impact” and, even more importantly, “How can we use a lot less energy?” For more on this, see  “Chapter 9: Teaching about the Marcellus Shale” in Duggan-Haas, R.M. Ross, & W. D. Allmon. The Science beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale (PRI, 2013). See also the Prezi by Don Haas, There’s No Such Thing as a Free Megawatt: Hydrofracking as a Gateway Drug to Energy Literacy.

Likewise, when we discuss the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the question typically asked seems to be either, “Will the NGSS succeed or fail?” or, “How can we make the NGSS work?” where “work” is poorly defined. Again, these are worthy questions, but not nearly as important as, “How can we change schools (and science education) so that individuals are prepared to meet their civic responsibilities?” With respect to climate change, rather than ask, “Is climate change happening?” or “How do we cut carbon emissions in our current activities,” we might ask instead “How do we change the way we build communities in order to decrease the energy we need and take into account the climate change that is expected to occur?”

Resistance to Change is not Equivalent to Lack of Education

Research by Dan Kahan (Kahan et al., 2012) suggests that deeper knowledge often facilitates stronger polarization regarding these issues rather than broader acceptance. Kahan has written that those with the highest degrees of science literacy were not necessarily the most concerned about climate change, but that these individuals on average were more culturally polarized. Thus one reason so many people in the public do not accept climate change is not lack of knowledge, but rather, according to Kahan, the presence of a “conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.” Thus it’s important to recognize that, while access to abundant and accurate evidence is necessary for an understanding of climate change, for many individuals this evidence is not by itself sufficient for them to accept human-induced climate change.

This is because individuals make choices on what they accept using a variety of criteria, most especially the views of the peers with whom they associate and their own pre-existing world views. Thus it’s important to know each other and our students as multidimensional people with social pressures, not merely as dispassionate analysts of data. All of us are susceptible to a wide variety of cognitive biases associated with these external pressures and other factors, including how our brains work, that impact our perspectives and what we accept as true.