Research Summary

Climate change and morality: Students' perspectives on the individual and society

Students’ Moral Reasoning Shifts with their Perspective

International Journal of Science Education

As China’s economy booms, factory emissions are soaring and, at the same time, more and more families are enjoying the opportunity to purchase a car. As a result, China is emerging as a world leader in greenhouse gas emissions. Reconciling economic growth with environmental concerns is just the kind of challenge that’s ripe for teachers to explore in the context of socio-scientific issues. This type of educational exploration is gaining favor among science education experts as way for students to build science literacy with real-world problems, forcing students to consider different perspectives as they make informed decisions.

According to the authors of this paper, moral reasoning is an important part of the process of analyzing socio-scientific issues, but it’s often overlooked by science educators. In the context of climate change, there has been a lot of research about what kids know about the science of climate change, but far less is known about students’ moral reasoning around the issue. So the authors embarked on this study to better understand students’ moral reasoning.

The authors enlisted a Chinese biology teacher from a Beijing university to conduct interviews with nine students from Chinese Green Schools, which explicitly focus on environmental education. The students were 14 years old, in seventh grade, and were selected based on their willingness to participate. Interviews were conducted in small groups of three students each.

The results of the interviews reveal that students understand that CO2 is a major cause of the greenhouse effect, and they identify emissions from cars and factories as two major causes of climate change, which is accurate, especially in China with its coal-fired factories. The students seemed to focus on the role of the individual in solving climate problems. But, interestingly, the authors note that “the students’ interpretations of individual took two different positions, individual as self and individual as others.” When the students considered possible solutions from their own perspective, many were more concerned with their own interests than those of the natural environment. But, the authors observe that “When the individual is ‘someone else’, the students seem to advocate a keen concern for the environment . . . .” For example, when asked about what to do about polluting factories, many students indicated that they should be closed down. But, if probed about what they would do if they owned a factory, the students conceded that they would not shut it down.

Also interestingly, when asked about whether they would buy a large or small car, most of the students said they would buy a smaller, less-polluting car. But when probed about whether they were telling the truth, some admitted that, in fact, they’d like to buy a larger, more comfortable car. The authors surmise that the students wanted to please the interviewer with the “‘morally correct’ answer,” but when they realized that the interviewer was not their teacher and this was not an exam, they felt more at ease to speak freely.

The authors conclude that the students’ moral reasoning shifts depending on whether they consider issues from their own perspective or that of someone else. Their conceptions of government and society also shift with their perspective. If the students imagine themselves as polluters, they see government and society’s role as relatively supportive. But if they think about other people as polluters, the students think government should play a more “controlling and punishing” role, having the authority to shut down factories or force other changes.

These results are aligned with other research that suggests that moral reasoning depends on the context. The authors argue that “moral reasoning depends on content, audience, and situation,” and “to equip students as future decision-makers teachers should not avoid talking about moral, social, and societal aspects” of these issues.

The Bottom Line

In thinking about complex socio-scientific issues such as climate change, students appear to view solutions differently depending on who is making the sacrifices. They are more likely to expect others to make difficult changes, and less likely to place the same burden on themselves. They also may shift their thinking depending on who is asking. For example, they might be inclined to give what they think is the “right” answer to a teacher, but give a different answer to a peer. Teachers using socio-scientific issues to build literacy and decision-making skills should consider these differences in moral reasoning as perspectives shift, and work to help students better understand issues from multiple perspectives.