Yale-NUS Professor: Climate Lessons Need to “Demonstrate an Emotional Orientation”

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

According to Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Yale-NUS associate professor of social sciences and humanities, we have to lead students to express correct emotional responses to climate change issues, rather than just presenting them with facts and letting them draw their own conclusions.

To Teach Students about Climate Change, ‘Just the Facts’ Isn’t Enough

We also need to talk about emotions and discuss pathways to action

By Matthew Schneider-Mayerson on September 28, 2021

After the latest gut-wrenching Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, with the United Nations Climate Change Conference ahead, and with the school year in full swing, a question arises: How should we be teaching young people about climate change?

I’ve taught about climate change for over a decade, and I’ve found that two critical elements are frequently overlooked as we teach students about the warming world. Failing to include them in the classroom not only leads to an impoverished understanding of the subject, but inhibits our collective ability to respond. These elements apply to teaching outside the classroom, too—whether it’s practiced by parents, grandparents, siblings or mentors.

The first is emotion. How should students feel about climate change? Emotion norms guide us on how to feel about different issues, but these norms tend to prioritize certain topics (such as intimate relationships) and ignore others (such as collective or global challenges). Some of my students enter my classroom having experienced significant climate anxiety. For others, I have the heavy responsibility of opening their eyes to some deeply troubling realities. At that point I may be the person in their lives who knows and cares the most (publicly) about climate change. As such, they unconsciously take cues from me about how one might feel about the subject, just as they take cues from their friends, public figures and people they encounter on social media and in films, TV shows and literature.

Should they respond to the climate crisis with a sense of objectivity and disinterest? That is what most teachers are trained and frequently incentivized to demonstrate: just the facts, please. Should they feel despair and hopelessness? Many students leave classes that discuss environmental issues in such a state. Should they feel blindly optimistic, despite the avalanche of bad news? It’s painful to see my students suffer, so there’s a temptation to end my classes by saying, “With the right policies and innovation, everything will be fine,” even if it’s not true.

Or should students acknowledge, feel, discuss and process their emotions—emotions that attest to their underlying care, concern and connection to the natural world? Should they use these feelings, hard as they are, as fuel to take meaningful action? This is what I now try to encourage and model for students. It begins by admitting to myself that teaching is, among other things, an affective demonstration, and that my students are carefully (if unconsciously) attuned to my performance.

That puts an additional burden on teachers. Not only must we stay up to date with a subject that is constantly developing and craft classes that are both educational and engaging during a pandemic, but we also have a duty to demonstrate an emotional orientation towards climate change. That’s hard; perhaps it’s unfair. So is climate change. It’s time we acknowledge that emotion is a critical aspect of learning about and responding to it.

Read more: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/to-teach-students-about-climate-change-lsquo-just-the-facts-rsquo-isn-rsquo-t-enough/

Yale-NUS claims their mission is “… As a community, we aim to provide every member with a transformative experience by encouraging habits of the mind (such as creativity, curiosity and critical thinking) and character (integrity, professionalism and ethic of service). Central to the transformation process is our engagement with diverse modes of enquiry and a commitment to challenge our assumptions. …”.

I’m curious about how the rigidly proscriptive teaching style Professor Schneider-Mayerson describes teaches students creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, and helps students acquire the self confidence to challenge assumptions.

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September 29, 2021 at 12:11PM

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