Exposing Students to the Powerful Story of Climate Change
Scientific knowledge and the facts produced in ostensibly objective and neutral ways have been given prominence above other ways of knowing from the period of the enlightenment through to the explosion of mass media (Giroux 2001; Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002). However, the growth of mass and social media has given more access and prominence to the social construction of knowledge (McLaren and Kincheloe 2007). While facts are derived from scientific study, opinions are derived from the stories people tell. Stories relate to facts, but also select for and attach meaning to certain facts while ignoring others completely (Gabriel 2004). The power of the narrative to shape opinion comes not from the facts, but from the meaning made out of selectively choosing those facts and connecting them to emotions, thus lending credibility to common experiences (Gabriel 2004). In this way, interpretation becomes more important than facts, and what cannot be easily explained scientifically can be easily understood with stories (Stewart 2012).
When teachers move away from teaching the facts as standalone concepts, and move toward an approach in which the facts are positioned with their consequences, they help their students to tell a more convincing story. When teaching about climate change, evidence should be connected to stories of natural disaster, loss of critical land and animal resources, and the visible effects of industrialization on the local environment of students. Climate change is not just facts about changing global weather patterns; it is a global story and a local story waiting to be told.
As an example of teaching climate change through storytelling, students can be exposed to all or parts of the award winning documentary film, Chasing Ice. Chasing Ice details the journey of James Balog to document the impact of climate change (Burkhart et al. 2017). James grew frustrated with computer models and data related to climate change, and as a photo and video journalist, he set off to document the story of climate change with the types of visual documentation that craft a powerful and convincing story. This documentary tracks his efforts as part of the Extreme Ice Survey to photograph the influence our warming climate is having on glaciers around Planet Earth. The story he presents and the visual evidence that accompanies this story are persuasive and present students with an opportunity to see what the acceleration of climate change looks like with their own eyes. With Chasing Ice as an example for how to tell the story of climate change with visual evidence rather that data models, students are being exposed not only to the global impact of climate change, but also to a way in which they can tell their own stories.
Though human-accelerated climate change is a global crisis, the effects of climate change can be witnessed in the local community of every school building. Having students explore the local effects not only provides them with physical evidence, it empowers teachers to teach about climate change through the story of its impact on the local community.
To this end, engage students in the exploration of the spaces around their school, including greenspaces nearby and their local community, for the purpose of discovering and documenting the impact climate change is having locally. Using readily available technology, such as cellphones or mobile devices, encourages students to take photographs and videos of their findings, allowing them to share evidence of climate change in the format they are most familiar with and find most convincing (Hohlfeld et al. 2017; Keengwe and Bhatgava 2014). Throughout the process, students should be encouraged to craft their story so that it builds on the idea that “climate change is everywhere.”
The chart “Finding the Effects of Climate Change in Your Local Community” is designed to guide teachers to evidence of climate change in their local communities, regardless of where they teach within the United States. Teachers can make use of the examples within the chart that fit the regional location of their community and the resources that are most readily available. By exploring a site where students will be searching, teachers can locate evidence more quickly and better facilitate student exploration.
If time permits, teachers can also further connect the local stories they have crafted to the global stories that others (such as James Balog) tell. NASA has collected the most obvious and profound of these effects into a visual archive of evidence (see Resources for links to similar collections from National Geographic and the Environmental Defense Fund). Having students explore the evidence online, and then link their local findings to the larger global impacts, can allow them to see how the Earth is being changed on a local, national, and global scale by climate change.
With the growth of mass media and social media, a cultural emphasis on the stories people tell has quickly displaced a reliance on scientific ways of knowing. The stories told in classrooms must be relevant to students in the local setting and connected to that which is clearly visible. Such an approach will allow students to independently arrive at reasoned conclusions that confirm scientifically derived knowledge presented in the classroom. Human-accelerated climate change is at once a perfect way to teach scientific knowledge through a local story and to allow students to tell a story that impacts the entire globe.
Jason T. Hilton (email@example.com) is an associate professor in the Department of Secondary Education/Foundations of Education and Patrick A. Burkhart is a professor in the Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment, both at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.
Burkhart P.A., Alley R.B., Thompson L.G., Balog J.D., Baldauf P., and Baker G.S.. 2017. Savor the cryosphere. GSA Today 27 (8): 4–10.
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Stewart J. 2012. Fiction over facts: How competing narrative forms explain policy in a new immigration destination. Sociological Forum 27 (3): 591–616.