Earlier this week, I gave an overview of the new Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing course that Peyten Dobbs and I are teaching this semester. Today I want to address a pointed concern about our methodology as expressed by a colleague from our Science Department and then echoed by a commenter on my last post. They raise some terrific questions, and indeed we’ve had some of the same questions ourselves.
Physics teacher (and award-winning edublogger) John Burk first pushed back when Peyten tweeted the first writing prompt we used with the kids:
He was quick to point out that scientific understanding isn’t a matter of “belief” but a matter of evidence and investigation:
Soon afterward he expanded on his reservations in an email:
I find what you guys are doing to be very interesting, and it really sounds like one of the most exciting courses in the school. But I also would love to learn more about the decision to show both An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle. The self-righteous and professionally trained scientist in me doesn’t think that the facts of GW are something that really has two sides . . . I just worry about the the idea of trying to teach about global warming by pulling out two controversial films staked at opposite sides of the spectrum, since this might heighten the “controversy” students perceive, which might be counterproductive for developing a deep understanding of the subject.
Academics and the media have for far too long given climate denial far too much credit. The simple facts are that 98% of climatologists agree with the basic science of anthropogenic climate change. We’re long past the point where that’s a subject of legitimate debate, so why imply otherwise to your students?
Indeed, when climate science gets taught at our school within our Science Department, there is no “equal time” given to perspectives not supported by the scientific consensus. So why are we going this route in Writing Workshop? Are we doing our students a disservice?
My initial response to these questions is that we’re not teaching a science course but a writing course, and so an understanding of the political debate and the public confusion around the issue is a part of better knowing both the issue and the audience. Moreover, experiencing and understanding and working through this confusion is great fodder for writing and thinking.
As I responded to Hrynyshyn earlier, this is in some ways as much a course in practical epistemology as anything else, as can be seen in the list of “Guiding Questions” that we’re asking the students to continually think about through their writing:
- What do I understand about the sustainability debate? What do I have certainty about? Where do I still have questions? What would it take to change my mind about my current stance?
- How do I know what I know? How do I know this? What are my sources of information? How do scientific facts and cultural values influence my opinion? How do I know who to listen to?
- What are the personal implications of this knowledge?
Moreover, the list of “Essential Learnings” that we will use to assess our students has language describing their developing skills in writing, research, discussion, collaboration, and presentation—but no expectations for scientific understanding or environmental ethics. We took this stance partly to diffuse potential criticism; we’re not science teachers, after all, and we can’t weigh in as authorities on a politicized subject. But we also don’t presuppose outcomes of scientific understanding because we want to allow space for authentic “uncoverage” (to borrow a term from Grant Wiggins and Jay Mctighe) precisely because we do care about our students’ having a better understanding of the issues in question.
We won’t simply be showing the two films and then turning the kids loose to go with whatever opinions they may have at that point. Wiggins and McTighe propose five steps toward discovering depth, and that’s the journey that we want to attempt together:
- unearth it
- analyze it
- question it
- prove it
- generalize it
When Hrynyshyn asks “why expose students to [sources that dishonestly portray the science], unless you have the resources to fairly critique them?” I have to point out that they do, indeed, have all the resources they need. In today’s world, we all do, anywhere that we have an internet connection. As our students try to sort out the claims and counterclaims of the two films, they can email actual climate scientists for clarification! The problem today isn’t that we don’t have access to information but that we don’t know how (or don’t have the inclination) to dig and filter and sift and evaluate. In this respect, the most precious resource that we’ll be making available to them is time. Our role is not to teach them about environmental issues. It’s the (sometimes long, sometimes messy) process of writing and researching and thinking and discussing that will help them learn.
If we presume to predefine the destination, then we shortchange the process. We’re hoping, by starting with controversy, to supercharge it. But it is, admittedly, a little scary to set a ball in motion without having certainty as to which way it will roll.