Can I Grade Students on What They Believe?

We educators often hope our work is a tool for fighting economic inequality, hunger, climate change, and other global problems our students’ generation is inheriting. Yet we will inevitably encounter students who see inequality as the necessary movements of markets, hunger as a natural and even potentially positive by-product of overpopulation, and fighting climate change as a religious movement or other mumbo-jumbo.

What then? Work to change our students’ minds? To change who they are?

Part of the problem seems to lie in distinguishing between what we want our students to learn and what we want them to believe.

Dan Kahan at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, has shown that people with more knowledge or curiosity about basic science are not more likely to believe in human-caused climate change. A 2013 Pew Poll demonstrated that a slightly higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats correctly answered the question, “What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise? Is it carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium, radon?” The differentiator was not their education, but their cultural identity.

At the same time, Kahan writes persuasively that we certainly can teach any student the basic facts of climate change–or evolution for that matter. They can learn the science: this just doesn’t mean their beliefs will change. So simply giving someone “the facts” on climate change or white privilege or campus rape culture is not necessarily going to lead the students to believe what we do.

What the graphs below show is the fact that the disagreement about the existence and causes of climate change, and recognition of the scientific consensus about it actually becomes MORE pronounced as basic science intelligence grows. Wow!


We all belong to many social groups with various levels of affinity. Sometimes these memberships determine what information we take in, sometimes they pose identity-based reasons for feeling a particular way about an issue. And so, Kahan argues, for some, seeing little risk in the consequences of climate change is perfectly rational.

“[Denying the risk of climate change is not] going to affect the risk posed by global warming for him or her or for anyone else that person cares about.

“But if he or she takes the ‘wrong’ position in relation to his or her cultural group, the result could be devastating for her, given what climate change now signifies about one’s membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups.”

This problem is not limited to teachers and students. For more than 15 years, I have watched fellow teachers angrily confront the notion of white privilege in professional development workshops. These good professionals, often quiet open-minded in their outlooks, certainly didn’t feel it worth their while to be told they were part of the problem. Being told one’s worldview precludes them from seeing “reality” is not a winning method of teaching or coalition-building. Depending on the people taking part, it’s likely a strategic mistake.

“If we want to overcome [identity-based confusion, defensiveness, or denial] Kahan writes, then we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.”

With this in mind, we might see our efforts to make our students engaged citizens tackling intractable and often invisible problems as wars on two fronts: the factual and the social. Kahan argues, persuasively I think, that these two must be kept as far apart as possible–at least until there is sufficient culture/identity-based “reality” to remove the barrier. Kahan’s case in point is South Florida, where Republicans and business leaders often join together with their liberal neighbors to address increasingly frequent incursions of sea water–and not endlessly debate the reality of climate change.

Okay, back to our classrooms. Where does this leave us as we try to nurture engaged citizens? Is the relationship between teachers and students analogous to that between “climate scientists” and the general public? Not quite, I think, yet despite our personal relationships, teachers are definitely outside students’ “reputational community.”

I am not sure quite where I land on all these questions but I am taken with Kahan’s argument that “focusing citizens’ [or students’] attention on the unifying question of ‘what do we know’ & avoiding the divisive question ‘who are you, whose side are you on?'” is going to be far a more successful communication strategy. This means, I think, introducing our students to the best facts, research, and analysis we can find and then trusting them to develop their own responses.

This suggests to me that if we want the students to take action in public, they should have as much say as possible about what that action looks like. This way, I hope, we are teaching them to collect evidence, think critically, and then act responsibly–and not just telling them what they need to believe.


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