I hear a constant lament: I can’t believe this is the world we are leaving our children.
It is inescapable: Truths, lies, and inaction about climate change, Covid-19, and racism. Everywhere we see pitched battles over whether and how to respond. Our children live in this adult-made mess. They pay attention. Some age-appropriate shielding of young children may be wise, but they don’t live under rocks. The very least we can do is ensure that they grow up to be smarter about evidence and more caring than so many adults. It is imperative and possible through K-12 curriculum that prioritizes scientific thinking and a caring school culture.
Adults and young people alike are bombarded with a range of information which, depending on personal perspective, appears to range from obviously true to patently false with a whole lot of ambiguity in between. We want to figure out what’s true and what’s not, but too many of us are flummoxed. Even more challenging and frustrating, we often hit a wall in dealing with repeaters of clear disinformation or folks who simply refuse to care about others. For the sake of our children, we need to do better now and prepare them to face similar conflicts in their future.
Some mix of scientific illiteracy, mistrust of social institutions, and lack of care for fellow humans created a perfect anti-truth storm. As a result, we failed as a nation to stave off the dire climate-altering effects of uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels or to take timely action to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Several generations of decision-makers in government and industries have abetted the use of scientific inquiry to make things worse rather than better for most of their fellow humans. In addition, we live with the lie that inequity and racism are normal and unavoidable, making the impact far worse for some than others.
Alarmingly, a small cadre of parents, with Republican support, are now making a loud fuss at school board meetings demanding purposeful ignorance of history and disease prevention measures. The rest of us, the majority, need to fight just as vigorously–but without the anger and threats–for curricula and instruction that help prepare students to deal with complex contentious problems.
Let’s start with evidence rather than conjecture about what goes on in classrooms every day. Children are not always the most reliable or detailed reporters of, “What did you do in school today?” Parents cannot nor should they be constant classroom observers. Students and their teachers need some space. So, we need inferential evidence. It’s what comes home: A backpack filled with papers or what is in notebooks. Along with all the other normal and pandemic-enhanced demands on parents, it’s a lot to pick through. But take a moment to look for some specific indicators. It is a matter of life and death– not for tomorrow but for the world our children will inherit and be able to influence.
Look for evidence that they are engaged in answering scientific questions through investigations: Across the day, what causes the length of shadows changes from long to short and back to long? What explains that rain puddles remain on some materials, but not others; What causes some species to become extinct or the polar icecaps to shrink; Where does all the material in a giant redwood tree come from?
These questions lend themselves to learning vital science concepts but there is something more important: You should see that students offer their tentative ideas about natural phenomena and then gather evidence to confirm or revise their thinking. For example, you might see some variation on: I used to think……., but then we found this new evidence ……… Now, I think ………
That is quite different from what many of us remember about school science: Memorizing–and soon-forgetting the chemical equation for photosynthesis; What went where on the periodic table; or the order of the planets in our solar system. And, it is not just getting to do hands-on science, although engaging in investigation with materials is important.
The big idea is that they are asked to make claims and either defend or change their initial ideas based on evidence and that they listen to and evaluate what others think based on evidence. Some key questions are: Why do you think that? How will you know if you are mistaken? Imagine if they developed that ability and carried it into adulthood!
Earth’s atmosphere is hurtling headlong toward the 1.5• C global temperature threshold that will wreak havoc due to unprecedented frequency of powerful storms, heat and cold waves, floods and drought, and resultant crop failures, starvation, mass migration, and inevitable political conflict. If that were not dire enough in the United States, lack of trust, ignorance, and resentment continues to fuel Covid-19 vaccine and mask resistance. Our collective behavior is killing us. We can teach our children to do better than what the past few generations have wrought. Whether or not young people are paying attention to these threats, it is affecting them. They cannot solve these problems. That’s on today’s adults. However, we can insist that young people learn the knowledge and dispositions to make things better for their future.
The people who made the decisions that got us to this terrible moment did OK in school. They learned to read and compute. However, they apparently did not learn to care about other people. Surely, many of them memorized some science facts, but did not learn an essential attribute of science, arguing from evidence. As a result, we live with widespread inability to separate fact from misinformation. Dismissal and inaction on climate change and Covid-19 prevention measures abets the dangerous notion that scientists’ evolving explanations are admissions of failure rather than a victory for discovery of new, often life saving, new knowledge.
Of course, the fossil fuel industry employs plenty of skilled scientists and engineers, but that does not prevent them from continuing to despoil the planet. Congressional resisters to mask and vaccination mandates know full well that these measures are vital to protect humanity. They just never learned or committed to care for other people.
For our children’s sake if not for our own, we cannot just shake our heads in exasperation and anger. Today’s threats to life will not go away soon. Todays’ young folks will surely need to be able to respond to these and other existential threats. In classrooms, they can learn to do so with respect for evidence, reason, and with empathy and responsibility for other human beings. They can learn how people have organized to influence whether science helps or harms people. However, it will not happen without parent advocacy and consistent support. Parents need to go to school board meetings to demand it.
It’s the least we can do.
Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He writes about education and social justice. He works part-time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He has taught and led science and education projects in New York City, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.