Polar Bears or People?: Exploring how Teachers Frame Climate Change in the Classroom

Saturday, 14 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Kirstin Busch, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Not only will young adults bear the brunt of climate change’s effects, they are also the ones who will be required to take action – to mitigate and to adapt. The Next Generation Science Standards include climate change, ensuring the topic will be covered in U.S. science classrooms in the near future. Additionally, school is a primary source of information about climate change for young adults. The larger question, though, is how can the teaching of climate change be done in such a way as to ascribe agency – a willingness to act – to students? Framing – as both a theory and an analytic method – has been used to understand how language in the media can affect the audience’s intention to act. Frames function as a two-way filter, affecting both the message sent and the message received. This study adapted both the theory and the analytic methods of framing, applying them to teachers in the classroom to answer the research question: How do teachers frame climate change in the classroom? To answer this question, twenty-five lessons from seven teachers were analyzed using semiotic discourse analysis methods. It was found that the teachers’ frames overlapped to form two distinct discourses: a Science Discourse and a Social Discourse. The Science Discourse, which was dominant, can be summarized as: Climate change is a current scientific problem that will have profound global effects on the Earth’s physical systems. The Social Discourse, used much less often, can be summarized as: Climate change is a future social issue because it will have negative impacts at the local level on people. While it may not be surprising that the Science Discourse was most often heard in these science classrooms, it is possibly problematic if it were the only discourse used. The research literature on framing indicates that the frames found in the Science Discourse – global scale, scientific statistics and facts, and impact on the Earth’s systems – are not likely to inspire action-taking. This study indicates that framing may be a useful theory for investigating how climate change is taught and learned in classrooms. Suggestions are made for how to develop effective professional development for teachers to improve their communication of climate change.