Monday, 13 June 2011

Anthropogenic Global Warming In The Classroom

It is never a good sign when the first thing I read in the morning gets me angry. According to the Grauniad late last night:
Climate change should not be included in the national curriculum, the government adviser in charge of overhauling the school syllabus in England has said.
This is the big old review of education that Pob Michael Gove has been banging on about since January. The Grauniad have interviewed Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment, who is one of the "experts" involved in the review.

Tim Oates is not a teacher. He may not even be a scientist.

Now, undoubtedly he has spent a considerable amount of time in curriculum development. But curriculum development is not teaching, nor is it science. He says:
"We have believed that we need to keep the national curriculum up to date with topical issues, but oxidation and gravity don't date [...] We are not taking it back 100 years; we are taking it back to the core stuff. The curriculum has become narrowly instrumentalist."
Oh what a worthy ideal. Although I'm not sure how more curriculum reforms fit in with his concerns at the end of last year that schools were being overwhelmed by a constantly changing curriculum.

I rather bombastically claimed on Twitter this morning that climate change was the second most important topic I taught in biology after evolution. After a day of arguing with my AS students (now starting on A2 biology) about why they bloody well should learn about climate change, my views have not changed. I teach evolution because it is the grand unifying theory of biological sciences: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". The would-be doctors and pharmacologists will need to deal with evolution on a daily basis. Evolution explains our anatomy and physiology, the diversity of the human species, the diversity of life on earth.

Climate change is important for a different reason. There is a very real rise in global temperatures. Preliminary (and non-peer-reviewed) data correlate with three other major studies. If temperatures continue to rise, then so will sea levels. My students are going to have an awful lot of data presented to them demonstrating global warming. They will probably see more data and more evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) than they will for the Calvin cycle. Yet they will be far more accepting of the latter. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project is just one of those pieces of evidence:

If I am lucky, then I will not live to see the full horrors of AGW. But my students, a decade and a half younger than I, may well do. They may have to make some very difficult decisions, the likes of which I can only imagine. Some of them flippantly suggested that all we needed to do was to "make everyone only have one child" (wouldn't mind seeing a few years down the line if they stick with that). Some of them wailed that there was no point in them turning off the lights in their house when China was still belching loads of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (a fair comment, but if all of us took that view we'd be even more screwed than we are at the moment). I'll be trying to address all of this over the next few weeks.

I tried to show them why we should study ecology. I played them Carl Sagan reading "Pale Blue Dot". I thought some of them might understand the need to conserve the Earth, and indeed to preserve our existence. But they giggled through it.

My students, and indeed all of us, need to be scientifically literate about climate change. The AS students are beyond the scope of the National Curriculum per se. But scientific literacy should permeate the National Curriculum. There is sometimes a tendency to treat the sciences in school as a feeder subject for medical students. There is certainly a lot of emphasis on human medical issues and concerns.

Is the curriculum bloated? Yes. So let's get rid of the forensic science component of science courses. It's only there because some policy wonk figured it would get more people to do science if they thought they could be the next CSI superstar. Let's rip out the diet-health-BMI wankfest at A-level. Getting me to tell a bunch of 18-year-olds that they shouldn't eat their favourite Big Daddy Box Meals is a waste of everyone's time. You want to focus on facts? Let's teach real science then - and that includes the carbon cycle, the greenhouse effect, and the effect of temperature on organism growth rates. How can you possibly teach these three and skirt around global warming??

It isn't just the causes of or evidence for AGW we are teaching. It's the understanding that sometimes scientists disagree. We discuss it when looking at evolution. Sometimes scientists see different data and draw the same conclusions. Sometimes they see the same data and draw different conclusions. They may agree to disagree, or they may engage in bitter and public spats. Knowing that this is going to happen, and knowing that does not make the subject any less valid, is an important aspect of science, and one that is perhaps more fundamental than "oxidation and gravity".

We should be teaching biology as the study of life, for the purpose of better understanding the world in which we live. A good grounding for scientific study at university is but a bonus.


  1. Glad you're tackling this, Julia: it's easy for the rest of us to pontificate but we don't have to live with the curriculum - present or future.

    I suspect this is one of those areas where everyone can say the same thing (the curriculum is overloaded) but mean entirely opposite things (the things one faction think should be cut are the things another think should be kept). It probably comes down to the 'science as a collection of facts' vs 'science as a way of organising facts' points of view: I'm a bit confused about what Oates means by 'narrowly instrumentalist', but I suspect he falls into the former camp. If you're interested in teaching about how science actually works, and in giving people the tools to form reasoned opinions on scientific issues, however, then AGW is about as real and relevant as it gets.


    Some of them wailed that there was no point in them turning off the lights in their house when China was still belching loads of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (a fair comment, but if all of us took that view we'd be even more fucked than we are at the moment).

    Of course, once you've taken the time to check how many of your electronic gadgets, clothes and other junk are made in China, you realise that a significant chunk of China's emissions are made on our behalf. Our choices do matter, even to China.

  2. Climate change may not be the "unifying theory" of earth science, like evolution is of biology, ... but it sure is an awfully good way to get students thinking about Earth systems and how they interact with each other and with us. Climate change involves plate tectonics, sedimentary rocks, volcanism, fluid dynamics, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, and on and on. In that sense, it can be a unifying theme for Earth/environmental science...and thus, a very useful teaching tool. It would be a shame to have the (more forward-thinking than the US) UK science curriculum throw it out in the name of teaching only last century's science.

  3. I agree entirely. Particularly with regard to topics like forensic science bloating out the curriculum. AGW is an amazing topic to teach students about critical thinking, reviewing data (peer review), and all related environmental/earth/basic/applied/biological science. It also goes further than simple science if its allowed to, into sociology, politics, international relations - there are fantastic uni courses out there taking that viewpoint.
    Gravity and oxidation, eh?

  4. If you've been keeping an eye on things with UK education then you'll know that our moronic Education Secretary has now said that children should learn about "Newton's laws of thermodynamics". So I think we are doomed.

    There is a lot of talk at the moment (it comes up every so often) of exams dumbing down. My take on this is that it has only dumbed down if one thinks of knowledge as being recall and memorisation of facts. My lot don't need to be able to recite definitions, list all the stages of the Calvin cycle and name the chemical formulae for all the intermediates. However, they need to understand the main stages of it and relate it to carbon fixation, taking account of it being an enzyme-controlled reaction which is therefore affected by ambient temperature. They also have to be able to synthesise that with the rest of the carbon cycle AND the greenhouse effect. In that respect we are doing a better job right now of teaching students to be scientists than the 1998 syllabus did when I was subject to it.

    Ultimately I don't care if my students can recall facts, as long as they understand principles and ideas, and can argue one side or another with evidence. I've started cranking up the pressure on these Intro to A2 students, and they're responding well. We started looking at AGW today, and the point Chris made about China's emissions being largely due to our demands for consumer goods went down a treat. I might even quote John Donne at them tomorrow...


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