Deliberate Thinking about Climate and Other Controversial Topics

A fun part of getting ready for the new school year includes checking in with our colleagues in the classroom to see how their summer went, and using this time to share some new resources. Erin Twamley introduced me to some incredible new resources, a series of issues-related strategies called Environmental Issues Forum that are incredibly useful when working with controversial topics. For example, the issue guides on climate change and energy provide the overall framework for deliberative discussion and debate on best solutions for addressing each issue and can be used as a template for discussions on other topics.

Project writer Erin helped to develop the supplemental teacher guides to help bring this critical thinking process – a deliberation – to the classroom. Using this approach, students can strategize real solutions on topics such as creating, defining, and calculating their own carbon footprint, creating infographics on renewable energy sources, surveying their local environment, or other important actions. There are so many ways to use this deliberation strategy across a wide swath of topics. To learn more, I asked Erin directly about this group, their goals, and the possibilities:

CW: Erin, who is behind this project and what do they hope to accomplish?

Erin: This project is led by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and the Kettering Foundation. The goal was to provide teachers with lesson ideas, research projects, and online accompanying resources to bring evidence-based information and deliberation into the classroom. Together, these teacher guides  aim to have students go in depth and gain a deeper understanding of the topics. The guides can help a teacher craft a one-hour activity to preparing a full unit on the topics.

CW: What is your role?

Erin: As an educator and author of two STEM books on renewable energy and climate change, I wanted to make sure that teachers knew about all the free resources available on these topics. We often rely on other teachers to share resources and lesson ideas. My focus was on identifying resources and sample activities to bring in evidence-based projects and learning to support the deliberation process. The best part – they’re free to download.

CW: What factors are impacting classroom learning on climate change and energy?

Erin: Students and teachers today are being bombarded with misinformation. What we see is that youth are often persuaded by emotions, by their parents or often feel under pressure to make a definitive choice on a topic with limited understanding.

CW: Isn’t climate change a hot button topic these days? How are educators responding?

Erin: Educators, even many science teachers surveyed, are skipping over topics like climate change and have misconceptions themselves on the topic. Despite this, 98% of scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans and that renewables will help us transition to a sustainable planet. Therefore, it’s important that we continue to engage students on these important topics.

CW: It appears to me that these guides could help to mitigate some of that worry by helping teachers to help students think through these issues and search for evidence along the way; evidence, by the way that is expected for students in the C3 Social Studies frameworks as well as NGSS.

Erin: Yes, that’s true. The teacher guides supplement the environmental issue “choices” documents that provide the framework for deliberation, while the teacher guides promote the use of evidence-based information to drive and encourage discussions on solutions for climate change and energy consumption. The two deliberation documents are:

Climate Choices: How should we meet the challenges of a warming planet?
Energy Choices: What Should We Do about America’s Energy Future?

CW: What I like about these teacher guides is that they create a process that teachers can use for all kinds of controversial topics. And they could be used with my other favorite strategy: questioning – it seems to me that this process is ready made to dovetail with a questioning process.

Erin: Yes, although it is important to note the purpose is to not to debate whether climate change is real or whether fossil fuel use needs to be reduced. The deliberation should be focused on what options we can take to reduce fossil fuel use and address climate change. This is the richness of NAAEE’s guides. They require students to discuss advantages and disadvantages of various solutions. Students are encouraged to provide evidence-based solutions or background information in the deliberation.

CW: What does a typical deliberation look like in a classroom?

Erin: Depending on the students’ knowledge levels you can dive right into a deliberation or you may need to build up some understanding. For example, students could research which sectors in the US produce the most emissions or discover how their own state handles energy resources. Others may want to extend the learning after a deliberation such as students identifying design changes in their school to reduce energy use. The teachers guides detail supplemental resources and guidelines to make a successful deliberation in the classroom.

CW: Would you give us the “quick guide” to this process?

Erin: Each issue “choices” guide has 3 proposed options for addressing the issue. A variety of hands-on labs, online interactive tools, and quizzes to videos and worksheets enable a teacher to develop a one-off activity, class lesson(s), or a unit to support the deliberation. The actual deliberation would take about 5 class periods, and a sample of how to manage each class is also outlined.

CW: Why does deliberation matter and why use this approach in your classroom?

Erin: The deliberation format provides an opportunity for students to explore arguments for and against different solutions. Students will analyze evidence-based information, hone critical thinking skills, and become more skilled at framing an argument.

CW: What role can libraries and librarians play in deliberation?

Erin: Libraries are a wealth of knowledge, for some students it means getting the basics, and for others it’s a deep dive into a specific innovation or solution. Librarians can really help students do research and evaluate sources – a critical component to developing an argument!

CW: How important are youth in leading environmental changes in our world?

Erin: A great last question. Students are key to the future! In fact, youth are leading the first US legal suit regarding climate change impacts. Other organizations such as The Alliance for Climate Education run assemblies for high school students. Educating students is the doorway to educating adults. It’s important that people see how addressing climate change impacts their communities. Moreover, that understanding and changing our energy consumption behaviors makes a difference.

Find more in these topics using hashtags like #ActOnClimate #Teach4Climate #renewables.

Do take a look at this not only from an environmental perspective (and not just science: definitely excellent for conversations for government, and CTE building and design courses) but to learn the deliberative process. As we all delve more deeply into “courageous conversations” with so many topics that are considered to be controversial this provides a rich process that encourages looking through many different lenses.

(For more about Erin Twamley, energy education, and gather some ideas on teaching about climate see: “Earth Day Every Day”).

Let us know your thoughts!

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, STEM/STEAM, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

1 reply

  1. Thank you for sharing this information and these resources, Connie. There are many climate change issues that can spark inquiry learning. Erin Twamley and her team have created resources for empowered students and educators.

    I recently learned about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (#TeachSDG):

    Resources like these can support educators in providing background, launching, and guiding student-led investigations and offer outstanding opportunities for classroom-library collaboration.


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