A Holiday Recipe for Science Teachers: Build Trust, Find Common Ground, and Model Scientific Thinking

Holiday table

Author’s Note: We at the National Center for Science Education are excited to be collaborating with our good friends at the National Science Teaching Association on a new series of articles about climate science and climate change education. This first article provides answers to a question that sets the stage for articles to follow: Namely, how do science teachers combat science misinformation that is currently so rampant and that has been used to counter accurate information about vaccines, epidemiology, science itself—and of course, climate change.

Well, it’s the holiday season, and that means it’s time for articles featuring tips on getting along with relatives who disagreeably disagree on politics, religion, vaccines, or maybe just the best way to cook a turkey. Lucky are the people who only have to worry about such conflicts during the holidays! For science teachers, every day presents a non-zero chance that a student, parent, administrator, or colleague will suddenly reveal a heartfelt rejection of a well-established scientific understanding such as evolution, climate change, or basic epidemiology.

How to respond? Around the holiday dinner table, if it’s just that crazy uncle for a couple of hours, the best advice might be to let the remarks pass without engaging. But if it’s your student, don’t you have a responsibility to address their misconception? If it’s a colleague, don’t you have a responsibility to ensure they’re not misinforming their students? And if it’s a parent — or your boss — how do you respond in a way that is scientifically accurate but won’t escalate the conflict to one that puts your job at risk?

My organization, the National Center for Science Education, has been swimming in these shark-infested waters for almost 40 years: in the early days, helping teachers deal with appeals to teach creationism; later on, addressing the issue of climate change; and most recently, providing weekly guidance on combatting misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. What we’ve found effective differs somewhat from issue to issue, but the bottom line is always the same: build trust, find common ground, and model scientific thinking.

Show your students early and often that you will respect all of their questions. Assure them that it is not your job to force answers on them, but rather to help them learn how to find answers for themselves — because that’s what scientists do.

Science teachers have one huge advantage over those of us who are suddenly confronted by a misconception-addled relative at the holiday table. You know you have the science on your side, of course. You also know that you will have many months with these students to take the first step to break down misconceptions about science: building trust. But how?

Trust isn’t earned overnight, but it will grow if you consistently prove to be honest and respectful. And that trust will prove invaluable when something you say conflicts with what students have learned at home or at church, or simply read online. Show your students early and often that you will respect all of their questions. Assure them that it is not your job to force answers on them, but rather to help them learn how to find answers for themselves — because that’s what scientists do.

Another way to build trust is to demonstrate that you respect your students’ values. After all, it’s very likely that you share many of them. For example, you value honesty, and don’t like being fooled, lied to, or expected to blindly accept something that directly threatens your identity or deeply held beliefs. You can tell your students that honesty, respect, and integrity are not only important to you personally, but they are also essential to the practice of science — so as you examine the scientific evidence together, you’ll all be asking these questions: How do we know these results were obtained legitimately? How do we evaluate whether the researchers were biased? If we find two different interpretations of the evidence, how do we decide which one is more credible? What’s most important is conveying the message that you’re not going to tell students what to believe, you’re going to help them learn to think like scientists.

Building Trust to Break Down Misconceptions

  • Show your students early and often that you will respect all of their questions;
  • Assure students that it is not your job to force answers on them, but to help them learn how to find answers for themselves; and
  • Demonstrate that you respect your students’ values.

What does thinking like a scientist look like? Students might enter your classroom thinking that what scientists do is find the answers in books, as if all scientific knowledge is already contained within the covers of textbooks. But of course the practice of science is actually about finding out what we don’t know, not by researching what we do know. So science always starts with asking questions, and has a very particular set of ways to answer them. Therefore, responding to student questions in a way that models how scientists would think about it might look like this: What makes you curious about that question? What kind of evidence would you need to answer that question? Where might you find that evidence, or what experiment could you do to generate that evidence?

Now I know that not all questions are rooted solely in curiosity about science. And those very questions might be the ones you are most nervous about: “Isn’t climate change a hoax?” “Doesn’t evolution say there’s no God?” “What if doctors are wrong about the vaccine?” Questions like these point to an underlying concern that some scientific claim seems to directly conflict with the student’s own deep-seated personal values and beliefs.

Fortunately, being respectful and modeling scientific thinking doesn’t mean that you have to stop everything and address every question immediately. If it’s not the right moment, it’s acceptable to say, “That’s a great question,” and follow with “We’ll get to that later this semester,” or “Let’s put that in the parking lot for today,” or “Why don’t we talk about that after class?”

When teaching about climate change, evidence suggests that beginning your year by building a strong foundation of trust and a basic understanding of how science works will stand you in good stead when you prepare to teach the topics you know are touchy in your community.

Maybe it seems like this advice won’t help you much in the heat of the moment, when a parent demands that you stop teaching that climate change is human-caused, a colleague undoes all your climate change teaching with a conspiracy video, or an administrator suggests you skip teaching about climate change this year because, “You know, it’s controversial.” In those situations, you may feel that you don’t have time to build trust or model scientific thinking. And you’re right: I can’t give you a magic answer that will convince absolutely everyone to agree with you instantly. But you can assure any of these seeming adversaries that you’re actually on the same team and that what you all want is the very best for your students. At least that’s a good place to start.

As for that cranky uncle at your holiday table, maybe the best response is “Could you please pass the potatoes? They’re my favorite!”

Note: This article originally appeared at the National Science Teaching Association's website and is part of a new series, Climate Change Education Corner, that features helpful information, insights, and resources for science educators about climate science and climate change education. This project is a joint collaboration between NSTA and NCSE

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
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Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.