“The hole in the sky is causing global warming?” Restructuring Prior Knowledge in Climate Change Education through Conceptual Change 2012 - 2014

Funding Agency: RS-SAA, NIE/NTU

Role: Principal Investigator



This project builds on the research interest of the principal investigator on climate change education. The baseline research on which the PI is currently working on shows that students in Singapore have no deep understanding about climate change and they hold several misconceptions on the phenomenon.
This proposal aims deepen inquiry through an intervention using a quasi-experimental design.  The main objective is to restructure identified erroneous understanding of teachers and learners about climate change concepts.  It is envisioned that through an iterative, consultative design as aided by the conceptual change approach, this undertaking will inform the implementation of a new curriculum in Geography on climate change.


The hole in the sky is causing global warming? This common misconception about the causes of climate change presents a challenge to educators in developing, enacting and assessing a curriculum for climate change education. It is ironic that misconceptions such as this persist despite the inundation of information about the phenomenon from a variety of sources, from print to social media. Perhaps it is important to consider that students do not enter a classroom as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. In fact, they may possess prior or pre-instructional knowledge, often flawed, about the topic to be learnt. Deeply rooted and entrenched, these preconceptions are known to persist even after a learning activity (Duit & Treagust, 2003). In the absence of ample resource to make sense of a situation, a person’s natural tendency is to gravitate towards what seems to be most plausible explanations. One way is to seek out facts and opinions from people deemed to have the intellectual or moral authority on the issue (Bulkeley, 2000).   What then develops is a tightly intertwined set of concepts composed of fragments of facts, fiction, opinions and myths. Over time, this tapestry of personal theories becomes the common sense logic to explain a phenomenon (Schumacher, et al. in Duit, 1999).
One issue that is commonly misunderstood is the science behind climate change. While changes in the global climate system are highly relevant to humankind, it is also poorly grasped, and remains a contentious discourse in the realms of science and world politics.  The literature is replete with substantiation on how the general public lacks understanding about its causes, impacts and measures to manage its effects (Bord, O'Connor & Fisher, 2000; McBean & Hengeveld, 2000; Pruneau, Liboiron, Vrain, Gravel, Bourque & Langis, 2001). A plethora of awareness campaigns have been organized to educate the general public in a bid to tackle widespread misconceptions.  Policymakers are also cognizant of the value of learning about climate change early on in life. Increasingly, the classroom is becoming the preferred venue to implement long-term intervention strategies through formal education (UNESCO & UNEP, 2011).

Duit (2007) contends that learning may not be as simple as it looks, as teachers themselves may ‘hold conceptions of science concepts and processes that are not in accordance with the science view and often are similar to students’ pre-instructional conceptions’ (in Treagust & Duit, 2008, p. 298). In the case of climate change, several studies highlight the need for teachers to upgrade, if not unlearn, their content knowledge (Hestness, McGinnis, Riedinger, & Marbach-Ad, 2011; Fortner, 2001; Papadimitriou, 2004). Thus, Hewson et al. (in Treagust & Duit, 2008) strongly suggest going back to restructuring educators’ misconceptions as a first step.
The current stock of research shows that students are largely puzzled about climate change, often confusing related concepts with some other environmental issue, the most popular of which is the depletion of the ozone layer, commonly referred to as the hole in the sky.  Such is persistent across age groups and year level in different research locations (Francis, Boyes, Qualter & Stanisstreet, 1993; Koulaidis & Christidou, 1999; Lee, Lester, Ma, Lambert & Jean-Baptiste, 2007 among others).  They also tend to lump together environmental issues such as lead pollution, radioactive contamination and acid precipitation with climate change (Boyes, Chuckran, & Stanisstreet, 1993; Francis, et al., 1993; Gowda, Fox & Magelky, 1997; Papadimitriou, 2004). Moreover, they could hardly differentiate concepts such as the weather and climate (Gowda, et al., 1997; Papadimitriou, 2004). In the Singapore context, the principal investigator’s current research mirrors these global trends.  For example, majority of the respondents (54.4%) have no understanding about the concept of the enhanced greenhouse effect, simply stating ‘I don’t know’ or giving irrelevant answers (e.g., ‘An updated house that is green in color’). A significant number (30.5%) provided answers riddled with misconceptions such as ozone depletion causing the enhancement of the greenhouse effect. A few (6.3%) are able to point out the differences between the natural and the enhanced greenhouse effect but explanations provided are usually incomplete.  For example, they fail to incorporate and discuss elements such as infrared radiation, water vapor and carbon dioxide, or merely mention one or two of these factors in passing.

Indeed, Singapore students are as confused as their global counterparts. They could hardly differentiate the weather and climate and view global warming as a phenomenon affecting other countries only.  They are mostly ambivalent towards learning about the topic in-depth, merely seeing the matter as part of a larger environmental topic on which they will have a test on. There is a lack of understanding of how disasters commonly associated with climate change (e.g., hurricane) are formed.  While they are able to identify one or two strategies to deal with the challenges posed by a changing climate, they are not able to explain or evaluate the usefulness of these strategies. They also believe that the natural greenhouse effect is generally bad for the Earth. (See Annex 1 for preliminary report).
True to Schumacher’s (1993) claim, unorthodox explanations by students about climate change are formed from everyday experiences, observations and information from the media. They mix these together with concepts learnt in school to support an ideation that, more often than not, is unrelated to fact (Svihla & Linn, 2011).  Li & Cecilia’s (2011) interview with 14 year-old students confirm that students conceptualize the solutions to mitigating climate change in relation to two different stances-- either themselves or from another person’s point of view. Hansen (2010) and Gowda et al. (1997) further stress that students tend to rely more on media messages than from school instruction. They assert that less time devoted on environmental issues in the classroom is detrimental to the building up well-informed world citizens.
To this end, the present problem is clearly to address the situation of how best to correct the misconceptions for both teachers and students, as highlighted by the international studies and from the author’s own baseline study.  Consequently, this proposal aims to take the step further and address the issue of correcting these misconceptions through a purposefully designed intervention study. Following the constructivist paradigm to learning, the interventions proposed herewith will be guided by the tenets of conceptual change approach, a framework that has been used far and wide to disentangle misconceptions mostly in the domains of science (Duit & Treagust, 2003) and has expanded into other disciplines such as mathematics, writing, reading, and teacher education (Hewson, 1992).
This research aims to answer two key questions (below). The literature review that follows discourses several interventions in addressing students’ misunderstandings about the topic of climate change and the challenges encountered.  The study framework and methodology will then outline how to address the gaps identified and, ultimately, how the research questions posted will be answered.


Research Questions

Q1. What is teachers’ prior knowledge about climate change? 
a. How do teachers understand the science of climate change?
b. What constitutes their prior knowledge about the phenomenon?
Q2. To what extent does teachers’ content knowledge of climate science impact students’ understanding of climate change concepts?  


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