This post offers ideas for developing differentiated curriculum for gifted youth that addresses climate change.
One of the privileges of my work is to judge the 3M Young Scientists Challenge. Every October I leave Minneapolis/St. Paul with my “hair on fire,” knowing that middle school kids can solve the world’s problems. Many of these kids are gifted, and they will be the ones to lead our society into a more hopeful future. How does one change the normal curriculum to meet the needs of these gifted students when they are craving that we address one of our most pressing problems: climate change?
Gifted children differ from normal developing children with regard to several physical, emotional, and moral characteristics. Roeper and Silverman (2009) found that the moral interests of gifted children develop more distinctively at an early age. Accompanying moral development is a strong sense of justice. Gifted children are acutely aware of inequalities, injustices, and double standards because of their abilities to understand concepts across subject areas, abilities to observe closely, and to think logically and question deeply.
Gifted students actually feel anxiety regarding the future and the environment and other problems faced (Roeper & Silverman, 2009). So, the point here is that providing “the Why” for learning is not just good pedagogy: it also meets a need among gifted children that educators must address. In a recent study conducted in 2018 highly gifted 7 to 9-year‐olds were compared to other students of the same age. Self-reported, parent-reported, and children’s responses to issue‐laden drawings revealed significantly more issue awareness in the highly gifted than did self-reported or parent reported-data. The disparity between children’s and parents’ perceptions of these same phenomena is striking.
How do you teach climate change? Share your ideas for curriculum design with us below!
Truth Telling: What Students Need
When Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, I had the privilege of writing the curriculum to accompany the film. In the precis to that curriculum I wrote the following specific advice for teaching Climate Change which still applies today:
To be motivated learners, students must see a direct and immediate impact of their efforts on their own lives and on the community. Students need an effective model to exercise the 4 C’s of 21st Century thinking: Collaboration, Creativity, Communication and Critical Thinking. For gifted children in particular an action piece is required. Providing a step-by-step problem-solving model can be an excellent way to teach students in a transdisciplinary way.
Teaching climate change is based on the following five tenets:
- Teachers and students must turn to natural phenomena around them to identify the problems to be solved. This empowerment helps students realize that they can become actively involved in greater and seemingly more distant issues such as climate change.
- Teachers and students need learning experiences that let them create their own universes of knowledge rather than assimilating knowledge created by others.
- Student questions are the major contributors, if not the guides, to the scope of the unit. Gifted students are more receptive when their own learning agendas are considered and incorporated.
- Teachers act as guides and co-learners to help students acquire the skills of effective learners and problem solving. This dynamic enables gifted students to see and feel that they are acting upon the world to make a difference.
- Finally, parents, teachers, subject-matter experts, and other contributors are encouraged to take an active role in the classroom, just as students must be allowed to take a more active role in the community.
So how do we as educators deal with America’s deficit in climate change literacy? Follow me down this rabbit hole as I explore what’s at the root of our problems. These questions I’m asking will lead you to the foundational understanding we need in order to make climate change teaching part of our curriculum.
Ask Ourselves the Root Questions
Without Googling anything, try to answer this question off the top of your head:
What is the source of the mass of a tree?
I have asked more than 5000 teachers and students this question over the last 10 years. I have asked this question to those as young as preschool, to graduate school students, to veteran teachers. In my work I have the privilege of interacting with educators all over the United States, which is why I know what the likely answers will be to this question. In order from most popular to least popular, the answers teachers give are almost always as follows:
- a combination of the aforementioned
- carbon dioxide
- and straight-up crazy stuff. I have heard things ranging from “magma” to the extremely metaphorical.
Before we home in on the correct answer to this rather specific question, there are a few more salient ones to consider as we tunnel toward our foundation.
- Why don’t we know the answer to this question?
- Honestly, do I as an educator actually care what the source of a tree’s mass is?
I would argue that in the majority of pre-K to 16 settings, educators have not given students a reason to be interested in this question. When I pose these kinds of queries to teachers, I share my absolute confidence that middle school kids, if provided with the proper precursors, will fully grasp the purpose of numeracy and literacy. I tell them how important it is providing context for learning.
The Source of the Mass Matters
It turns out that this mass question is really very important. Bear with me as I toss you another query: we are almost there.
- Without attempting to balance the formula, what are the products and reactants of photosynthesis?
Want to know how your fellow educators tend to answer?
- Most teachers and students are able to remember water and sunshine.
- 95 to 99% cannot name the other products and reactants.
As a science teacher of almost 40 years, I must admit that this deficit requires me to manage a lot of sadness. We are not helping our citizens to have basic climate literacy.
Photosynthesis is arguably the most fundamentally important process, a process that allows all living things to exist. It is the way that we capture energy in the form of food and in the form of petroleum. Without photosynthesis, we just do not exist. It is also central to an understanding of climate.
The answer to my original query? Carbon dioxide.
The mass of trees results from trees capturing carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide from human activities are the most important cause of increased global temperatures. So, an understanding of climate starts with the foundation of and understanding of photosynthesis and the carbon cycle.
So again, why do we not know this answer?
Focus in on Photosynthesis
Let’s all think honestly about how photosynthesis is taught in schools. Many life science or biology teachers simply ask kids to memorize the formula in preparation for tests. Of course, once the test is done, students immediately forget the formula. What is missing is the affective domain.
- Why should a student care or feel any affinity for understanding photosynthesis?
- How is it connected to the world and to the aspirations, hopes, desires of humanity?
- How does it connect to where we are going as a species?
As it turns out, this question of origin and destiny is one of the most important questions to consider as we work to engage gifted students. Highly gifted children become aware of philosophical, ethical, societal, and environmental issues very early on and possess a deep need to consider the moral implications of their studies. Educators of all students, but particularly of the gifted, must help to make this connection so that their students can derive a purpose for numeracy and literacy across all subject areas.
What Parents Think
In addition, parents do not believe that climate is being taught in schools for a variety of reasons including:
- Teachers do not have time in the curriculum
- Teachers are not equipped with climate content knowledge
- Climate change is risky and politically charged
Teachers have expressed need for more expertise in teaching climate change, but some interviews seem to indicate that climate change is being taught in schools. Check out Teaching Climate Change: Push and Pull, 1A podcast. Here are more tips for creating this kind of curriculum.
What We Teachers Can Do
- Let Kids Study Issues That Matter.
- For the very best crystallization of such issues, check out the Grand Engineering Challenges and the United Nations Sustainable Goals. Talk about providing purpose for numeracy and literacy! Integrating these topics into the curriculum is highly motivating for gifted youth.
- See also Duke TIP eInvestigators mystery-based learning, The Perplexing Pestilence for a case designed for gifted youth addressing the U.N. Sustainable goal on maintaining biodiversity on earth.
- Teach in a Transdisciplinary Manner. The world’s most vexing problems require a new synthesis of ideas from across domains. The problem is that we still teach 90 minutes of science and 90 minutes of math and 90 minutes of social studies in a way that is artificial and disconnected from the world. What we need particularly for gifted children is to depict the complexity of problems as they actually manifest. GIted students want to know how all domains connect and allow us to think about novel new approaches and solutions.
We teach as if the world were like this:
But the world is actually like this:
A transdisciplinary approach illuminates pathways of hope and action for gifted students. For a K-8 curriculum based on the grand engineering challenges, see Discovery Education’s STEM Connect.
- Integrate the Affective Domain. How our kids feel is so important. Gifted children in fact all people are motivated by inspirational narratives, great books, great music, great plays, and by seeing people treating others with empathy. These experiences help them envision pathways of hope. For an excellent strategy on gauging the way that students feel about climate see the Spotlight on Strategies entitled AEIOU.
Here’s an example of how you can use this strategy to inspire your gifted students using the subject of photosynthesis.
Review the AEIOU strategy with students.
- A= Adjective: Find a word or two that describes something you saw or learned.
- E= Emotion: Describe how a particular part of the segment made you feel
- I= Interesting: Write something you found interesting about the content/topic.
- O= Oh!: Describe something that caused you say Oh!
- U= Um? Write a question about something you learned or want to learn more about.
Give students these directions: As you watch the video below, do NOT take notes. If you look down to take notes, you will be missing content. Instead, pause the video to reflect upon your thoughts, using the AEIOU questions. In addition, consider whether this video on bionic leaves and biomimicry might inspire students to want to learn more about photosynthesis.
Reflect on your experience using the strategy. How did the video make you feel? Do you think Would gifted kids be more likely to be motivated or see a reason to learn about photosynthesis?
- Present Problems as They Actually Exist. That is, include the complexity and rigor needed to address global problems. Move on the continuum of inquiry from structured to open ended so that students discover knowledge on their own, learn to problem solve, and learn to create novel ideas.
- For example, add world-wide climate to our local weather forecasting, and the controversy surrounding the U.S. participation in International Climate Agreements.
- Help Students Get an Establishing Shot. Many people do not understand the real threat of global warming because they are standing in the wrong place. To fully grasp the danger, they need an “establishing shot.” The language of film can help us help students in their learning. They have to take a step back and a step up from where they are. The neighborhood may look the same, but if they can see the entire planet and the damage that has been done in the last one hundred years, the changes that have occurred will be very clear.
- Movie producers often use the idea of spatial perspective when making movies. One method used is called “POV” – or Point of View. This means that the camera (and the audience) will see a scene just as one of the actors sees it. If there are ten actors in a scene, there are ten possible different POVs.
- Other spatial perspective methods relate to the distance from the subject in the scene. There is a far shot, medium close-up, close-up, an extreme close-up, and an establishing shot. An establishing shot is an initial reference shot used to frame the setting of the scene. For example, an establishing shot may show the outside of a courthouse where a trial will be held in the upcoming scene.
- The same principles apply in science. Your understanding of a subject will often depend on your point of view and how close or far you are from that subject. For instance, have you ever seen a photo that you thought was a moonscape with valleys and craters, and then found out that you were looking at a magnified picture of skin? The lighting and extra close-up of an electron microscope made the pores look like the pockmarked surface of the moon. Or, perhaps you were looking at what appeared to be beautiful flower petals waving in the breeze, and the camera backed up to reveal a terrifying looking creature. But wait — it’s only a closeup of a mosquito! It’s all about perspective. Distance, angles, lighting, and position all affect your perception of the image. A global perspective takes on an added dimension when applied to the subject of global warming. It’s hard to know what you are looking at until you step away and see the bigger picture.
- How can you create trees-to-forest panning out experiences in your classroom to help students get a sense of global impact? If you need some more background content as you design your curriculum, use resources that have been objectively derived and endorsed by scientists. See CLEAN: Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network
Climate change is not about point of view. It’s about survival. One of the greatest survival strategies we as educators can implement is immediate attention to this key challenge of our curriculum design.