Environmental issues intersect with social studies in PA schools

by Matthew J. Long
November 20, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As methods to help mitigate climate change continue to grow, two Penn State researchers have been studying teachers’ beliefs and practices about environmental issues and theorizing a conception of social studies focused on "earthen society," not just human society.

Mark Kissling, assistant professor in Penn State’s College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and faculty affiliate of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, and doctoral candidate Jonathan Bell have been publishing the initial results of their research. One study, “Teaching social studies amid 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 Pennsylvania Social Studies Teaching," in Social Studies Journal.

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

About 90% of teachers agreed to the statement that climate change is occurring, 85.6% thought climate change is a significant issue for human society, and 69.2% indicated they believe human activity is a primary driver of the changing climate. Nearly seven in 10 teachers saw the roots of climate change in relation to human living.

Despite overwhelming concern about this issue, when asked whether they would teach about climate change during the 2017-18 school year, 77.6% replied they would include the issue in their curriculum but only 12.9 % said they would teach about it often. 

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

The study found that while environmental issues (EI) were deemed important, barriers that prevented more frequent teaching of EI were the perception that EI are more the domain of science than social studies; lack of comfort, preparation and knowledge for teaching EI; political controversy surrounding EI; and already-crowded, non EI-focused social studies curricula.

“I was surprised to find a number of teachers who reported not teaching about climate change because of the political controversy surrounding it,” Bell said. “Many teachers in their responses said they were not allowed to talk about issues that are particularly political. I didn’t imagine current politics could have such a big impact on the way things are being taught.”

Kissling works with students who are learning to become social studies teachers and said a lack of environmental attention in the field stems from how the field has defined itself. A primary takeaway from the survey is that teachers are primed to teach about EI and address the ecological crisis, but they have received little support from the structures of the field to perform this teaching.

“Social studies, as a field, is not very Earth- or environment-focused,” Kissling said. “Social studies was defined from the outset as focusing on humans. The original definitions of the field are all about human relations and improving human society. We call those original definitions out and say that the Earth and the surrounding environment supports humans — we should take care of them too.”

Lorraine McGarry, a social studies teacher at Delta Program High School in State College, said she understood why teachers would have reservations on teaching the subject, pointing to course relevance as an issue, but agreed with the majority of social studies teachers.

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

To maintain support to affect 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 living, particularly in highly industrialized countries such as the United States. 

2. The field must declare the ecological crisis as directly relevant to social studies education, and that requires understanding what social studies has been, is and can be, and reckoning with the anthropocentric history and present of the field, on the way to reconceptualizing the foundational structures of citizenship, community, democracy and society toward what they’ve termed an ecosocial conception of the social. 

3. All areas of the field must facilitate the move toward earthen social studies in order to support teachers in doing so. Curriculum workers; teacher educators; researchers; theorists; organizations such as National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA); and everyday citizens all must band together to mitigate the crisis.

“Social studies is about the teaching of effective citizenship in the larger earthen society, not just human society,” said Kissling. “One of our big undertakings so far is to make this push for environmental issues inside this field.”

Last Updated December 04, 2019