Pre-service teachers’ understanding of climate science

By Heather King - February 2014


Ratinen, I. J. (2013). Primary student-teachers’ conceptual understanding of the greenhouse effect: A mixed method study. International Journal of Science Education, 35(6), 929–955. doi:10.1080/09500693.2011.587845

Research Brief

This study frames its examination of the climate science knowledge of pre-service teachers in the broader context of limited public understanding. Ratinen argues that, despite regular reporting on climate change in the media, the public’s understanding of key terms is inadequate.

In an interesting and comprehensive review of prior research, Ratinen notes that the greenhouse effect has largely been seen as a problem, when in fact it is a natural phenomenon that regulates Earth’s climate, keeps the temperature relatively stable, and makes life on Earth possible. He also notes that respondents in previous studies have tended to conflate global warming and ozone depletion, with many believing that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are responsible for climate warming because they destroy ozone, thereby creating a hole that allows ultraviolet (UV) rays to reach Earth (Andersson & Wallin, 2000). Research has also noted that many people regard all environmentally unfriendly actions, such as littering, as contributors to climate change (Nevanpää, 2005).

In his study, Ratinen sought to understand pre-service primary school teachers’ understanding of the greenhouse effect and their ideas about the consequences of and solutions to global warming. He argues that the findings are important because, as prior studies tell us, knowledge is related to action. Educators thus have a responsibility to communicate important concepts accurately, particularly if other sources of information—such as broadcast media—do not seem to be working.

The Study

275 Finnish pre-service primary- level teachers in their second year of their training completed questionnaires aimed at uncovering their understanding of key terms and concepts related to climate science. Significant findings can be summarized as follows:

Finally, and somewhat ironically, the less students knew about the consequences of and potential solutions to climate warming, the more they held environmentally friendly attitudes.

Implications for Practice

Ratinen argues that “climate change is a challenge to environmental educators and researchers, because it is an issue that is characterized by controversy, uncertainty, interdisciplinarity, and complexity” (p. 953).

If educators themselves have an incomplete or misguided understanding of climate science, their efforts to communicate its complex ideas will be severely compromised. Clearly new pedagogical strategies are needed to support learners’ understanding of the key terms and processes in climate science—whether those learners are student teachers, children, or the general public. In particular, educational programmes need to emphasize fundamental concepts in climate science, such as the wave and particle nature of radiation and the interactions among the various greenhouse gases.

Then, at the secondary level and above, these programmes should support learners’ understanding of scientific systems—enabling them not only to identify the components and processes of a system, but also to understand the relationships among components.

In addition, attention should be paid to accurate use and explanation of terms in the wider society, including museums and afterschool programmes. Indeed, to this end, Ratinen notes that “greenhouse effect” may be a problematic term: Greenhouses work primarily by preventing convection, whereas the atmospheric greenhouse effect prevents radiation loss rather than convection.

This paper should encourage all who are involved in climate science education to ensure that they fully understand the subject in all its complexity and relevance. In particular, our educational systems must be sure to link particular problems to particular causes, consequences, and solutions.


Andersson, B., & Wallin, A. (2000). Students’ understanding of the greenhouse effect, societal consequences of reducing CO2 emissions and why ozone layer depletion is a problem. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(10), 1096–1111.

Nevanpää, T. (2005). It might have something to do with these greenhouse gases: 7–9th graders’ conceptions of climate warming. Research Reports 17. Jyväskylä, Finland: Institute for Educational Research.