Environmental issues intersect with social studies in PA schools

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania — As methods to help mitigate climate change continue to develop, two Penn State researchers have studied teachers’ beliefs and practices about environmental issues and theorized a design for social studies that focuses on “earth society”, not just human society.

Mark Kissling, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Penn State’s College of Education and faculty member at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, and doctoral student Jonathan Bell have released the initial results of their research. A study, “Teaching social studies in the midst of an ecological crisis”, was published in Theory & Research in Social Education, a leading journal in the field of social studies education; and another study, “Climate Change and Social Studies Education in Pennsylvania“, in Social Studies Journal.

Kissling and Bell distributed an online survey to social studies teachers in public high schools in Pennsylvania to better understand social studies teachers’ views on environmental issues and how they feel about their teaching. Of the 7,456 teachers to whom the survey was distributed, 1,174 responded from 440 Pennsylvania school districts.

About 90% of teachers agreed with the statement that climate change was happening, 85.6% believed that climate change was an important issue for human society, and 69.2% indicated that they believed that human activity was the main driver of climate change. Almost seven in 10 teachers saw the roots of climate change in relation to human life.

Despite overwhelming concern over the issue, when asked if they would teach about climate change in the 2017-2018 school year, 77.6% said they would include the issue in their curriculum , but only 12.9% said they would talk about it often.

Bell and Kissling said they hope to motivate the social studies field — including curriculum developers, researchers, teacher educators, districts and states — to support teachers in their teaching about climate change and related issues.

The study found that although environmental (EI) issues were deemed important, the barriers that prevented more frequent teaching of EI were the perception that EI is more in the realm of science than social studies; lack of comfort, preparation and knowledge to teach EI; political controversy surrounding employment insurance; and already overloaded, non-EI-focused social studies curricula.

“I was surprised to find a number of teachers who said they don’t teach about climate change because of the political controversy surrounding it,” Bell said. “Many teachers said in their responses that they were not allowed to talk about particularly political issues. I never imagined that current politics could have such a big impact on the way things are taught.

Kissling works with students learning to become social studies teachers and said the lack of environmental attention in the field stems from how the field has defined itself. One of the main lessons of the survey is that teachers are prepared to teach about EI and to deal with the ecological crisis, but they have received little support from structures on the ground to provide this teaching.

“Social studies, as a field, isn’t very Earth-focused or environment-focused,” Kissling said. “Social studies was defined from the outset as human-centered. The original definitions of the field relate to all human relationships and the betterment of human society. We call these original definitions and say that the Earth and the environment around it support humans – we must also care for them.

Lorraine McGarry, a social studies teacher at Delta Program High School at State College, said she understands why teachers would have reservations about teaching the subject, pointing out that course relevance was an issue, but that she agreed with the majority of social studies teachers.

“Although we tend to think of climate change as something we teach in science class, the science isn’t really controversial,” McGarry said. “That’s how we’re going to respond to science and the perfect place to practice that is in the classroom.”

To maintain support for change in the field of social studies, Kissling and Bell cite three arguments:

1. The field must explicitly acknowledge the ecological crisis, call out the political controversy that often surrounds it, and how the roots of the crisis are cultural and created by human life, especially in highly industrialized countries like the United States.

2. The field must declare the ecological crisis as directly relevant to the teaching of social studies, and this requires an understanding of what social studies has been, is, and can be, and a consideration of history and the present anthropocentrics of the field, on how to reconceptualize the fundamental structures of citizenship, community, democracy and society towards what they have called an ecosocial conception of the social.

3. All areas of the field should facilitate the transition to earthen social studies in order to help teachers do so. Curriculum workers; teacher trainers; researchers; theorists; organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA); and ordinary citizens must all come together to alleviate the crisis.

“Social studies is about teaching effective citizenship in the larger earth society, not just human society,” Kissling said. “One of our big undertakings so far is to advance environmental issues in this area.”