Why Politics Belongs in My Science Classroom

Spring 2020

By Kenton Buck

Education, at its core, is inherently political. Everything in education—from the textbooks to the curriculum to the policies that govern teachers’ work and students’ learning—is political and ideologically-informed. Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.—Alyssa Hadley Dunn1

Students bring with them into the classroom a long list of concerns about racism, climate change, inequality, gun violence, and many other issues. They need to be able to explore these topics in safe spaces with trusted adults, yet teachers are under increasing pressure not to be “political” in their classrooms. This pressure is rooted in a “lack of trust, autonomy, and professionalism for teachers in our current climate."2 Understanding the ways in which scientific issues impact the lives of real people and what we as both scientists and citizens can do to create change is inseparable from the content I teach.

The Problem of Polarization

The pressure to remain politically neutral in the classroom is an outgrowth of an increasingly polarized political climate in which political identities increasingly trump evidence on a range of issues.3 Many of the controversial subjects that students encounter in science classrooms are uncontroversial within scientific circles. For example, a scientific consensus agrees that Earth’s climate is changing and it is changing as a result of human activity.4 Our students’ concerns about the epidemic of gun violence in America’s schools,5 the disproportionate effect of Trump-era politics on students of color,6 and the threat of pandemic disease are justified. Communicating this evidence in a classroom setting has become polarized only because opposition to scientific consensus has been wedded to a political ideology that has also deemed it too partisan to teach. “There is no need for political agendas to be forced on students,” says Lennie Jarratt, a member of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that in 2017 shipped copies of the book Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming to more than 300,000 teachers nationwide.7

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are the first science standards to bring together science educators and policymakers with leading organizations of scientists, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academies of Sciences. Twenty states and many independent schools have adopted the standards, which include learning objectives on global climate change. Many of the states that have chosen to develop their own framework are altering language regarding Earth’s changing climate and evolution.8 States such as Florida are using legislatures to create exceptions for schools to teach alternatives to “controversial theories,"9 meaning that a student in Florida could receive a radically different science education from a student elsewhere in the country. Teachers may look to this political disagreement as reason to hesitate when teaching issues that might draw the ire of parents or administrators. Indeed, almost a third of students currently receive mixed messages from their teachers on the seriousness of climate change.10 As the political divide deepens11 and more issues that are uncontroversial in scientific circles and those that were traditionally nonpartisan become polarized, teachers will find it increasingly difficult to avoid the appearance of “bringing politics” into their classrooms.

The Illusion of Neutrality

From this landscape, teachers may choose neutrality as an alternative to inviting the enmity of the last three years into their classrooms. Neutrality itself is also a choice, and it is a choice that reinforces the status quo. Failure to engage with our students as future scientists, voters, activists, and change-makers communicates to them that we prioritize the appearance of impartiality over evidence or their concerns and interests. In this case, we also leave students to educate themselves about the most important issues in society in an ecosystem of “alternative facts” and misinformed polarized views or to abandon themselves to the same apathy they see modeled by educators refusing to engage. Given that many of our students belong to marginalized groups, our inaction from positions of privilege may exacerbate inequality. In this case, the pressure to remain neutral around issues of social and environmental justice is little more than tone policing. I became a teacher to push back against forces of ignorance and intolerance and to teach a scientific worldview that invites my students to study and find solutions to the world’s problems. I cannot do that from a place of neutrality.

Teachers who want to appear neutral might likewise be tempted to teach “both sides” of scientific topics that nonscientists have labeled as controversial. This form of neutrality is problematic because it invites pseudoscience into our curriculum. Educators should both honor the best parts of the education we received and edit out of our practice the vestiges that do not reflect the best available evidence or that reinforce systems of dominance and oppression. We can look to the world around us and adopt into our classrooms the culturally responsive pedagogy that may have been missing from our experiences as students.

Finding Their Voices

Younger generations are frequently chided for their lack of interest and participation, yet we can hardly expect them to become the engaged citizens we tell them they should be without providing similar guidance in course content. Our goal should be to help students find their voice and inform their opinions through critical examination of evidence, listening to the perspectives of others, and creative solution-making. One promising method of “science civics” advocated by Shawn Otto, an award-winning science writer, uses structured debate to help students learn about the influences of scientific discoveries and policy.12 When we teach students to participate in arguments from evidence as political conversations, they are learning democracy. Helping students understand the difference between scientific evidence and pseudoscience is essential to training the next generation of scientists and citizens. Disagreements should be welcome as part of this inquiry process, inviting students and teachers to more closely examine the evidence. Educators can model this process by sharing with students situations in which we have changed our minds in response to new evidence and pedagogy.

Politics in the classroom has the potential to become problematic when it diverges from this open and in-good-faith inquiry. Again, the objective is not propagandizing but to help students find their own voices. “Political seepage,” such as political humor or sarcastic comments, detracts from, rather than adds to, a classroom culture that values autonomy and fairness.13 Our role as educators is not to stand at the front of our classroom with lists of endorsements and condemnations but to build curriculum as both window and mirror14 in an environment that will prepare students to build the democracy they want to see.

Conclusions

Students entering our schools this year will be in the workforce until the 2080s. The world that we are creating for them will require a different set of skills and mindsets from what we obtained during our experiences in education.15 Our challenge and opportunity is to create classrooms for those students entering this rapidly changing world that simultaneously draws from the wisdom of previous generations of educators, is responsive and relevant to the experiences of students today, and imagines a future of increased engagement in democratic society. The young people in our classrooms will very soon be making important decisions in our democracy; the sooner we get them started, the better.

Endnotes

 
Kenton Buck

Kenton Buck (kbuck@tarbut.com) is a middle school science teacher at TVT Community Day School in Irvine, CA.