In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers evaluated how a type of professional development, called train-the-trainer, could help teachers improve their practice. And they did it for a topic that is arguably one of the most difficult for educators to broach.

“People want to talk about climate change; they just don’t know how to have the conversations,” said lead author Megan Ennes, assistant curator of museum education at the Florida Museum of Natural History and director of the Thompson Earth Systems Institute. “In this training, educators are given strategies on how to have effective discussions with people from different backgrounds, and not just those who are already on board and agree.”

Train-the-trainer programs have a long history of success but little evidence to show for it

It should come as no surprise that educators don’t have it easy. At a time when knowledge and technology are changing faster than at any other point in human history, educators are expected to be polymaths, with skills in a wide range of subjects.

The 21st century could be considered the era of professional development, in which an increasingly skilled workforce invests time in further honing expertise. In most professions, this often involves a workshop, in which people gather to learn a specific skill from an instructor with a job and background similar to their own. Workshops are often limited in scope and are ideally suited to train only a small number of people at a time.

Train-the-trainer programs take a different approach. Developed during the early days of the industrial revolution, they borrowed the tenets of apprenticeships that had been used by societies for decades and streamlined the process. The programs can train a greater number of people as a result, making them a good candidate for keeping educators up to date on climate change communication.

Person smiles at the camera in front of a fence and tree.
Megan Ennes participated in a 2011 train-the-trainer program and later wanted to know whether the program’s content and style of delivery had a lasting effect on educators.

Despite their proven track record and renewed interest, there have been woefully few studies that have looked at the effectiveness of train-the-trainer programs over time. Much of the research has taken place in the fields of health and medicine, and even there, there’s little to no information on the long-term benefits or drawbacks of train-the-trainer programs.

Ennes, who studies different methods of communicating complex information to museum visitors of various ages and backgrounds, wanted to know what makes a train-the-trainer program successful. While working as an aquarium educator in 2011, she participated in one such program developed by the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, which made a lasting impression.

“I know it impacted me,” she said. “It really changed how I approached all of my programming in the aquarium, not just about climate change, but about everything we talked about. I was curious to see if others felt the same way and what pieces they thought were most valuable.”

Discussing climate change becomes less fraught and more productive

The idea behind the train-the-trainer program Ennes took part in was simple. Instead of an impersonal, one-off workshop, participants from 10 institutions were invited to attend three in-person events spread out over six months. Working with climate and social scientists, educators learned about effective ways to cover the basics of climate change with diverse audiences.

Ennes and her co-author examined the long-term impacts of the program. They specifically looked at how it had affected participants’ careers, their teaching practices related to climate change and personal lives. Using a mix of in-depth surveys and interviews, they evaluated the program’s effectiveness against four broad metrics: whether participants still used the strategies they’d learned; whether they’d used what they’d learned to teach others; whether they felt confident discussing climate change after the program; and whether they’d gone on to participate in additional train-the-trainer programs.

The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Participants noted in both surveys and interviews that using program strategies to structure their conversations about climate change increased their confidence and helped them train others to use them. One participant remarked in an interview that they’d likely “retaught this content to thousands of people over 11 years.”

Between the in-person events, participants completed homework assignments and kept the conversation going through social media. This helped foster a supportive community that extended the program’s value.

“What made the professional development so effective was once you were trained, you weren’t just sent off into the world. The community that formed as a result was a valuable tool that they were able to use in several aspects of their lives, even something as simple talking with their uncle on Thanksgiving,” Ennes said.

It allowed participants to expand their professional network, create new job opportunities and cultivate lifelong relationships. It also meant they could call on each other when teaching about climate change, which in turn made them feel less alone and more confident.

One key feature valued by participants was learning the logic behind the strategies offered in the training. Sessions focused on keeping the content and tone of conversations neutral while using metaphors and storytelling tactics to help listeners visualize, understand and remember complex topics.

The program also stressed engagement rather than a mere recitation of facts. Most of the environmental train-the-trainer programs that were available at the time focused on the assumption that if people know how climate change works, they will change their beliefs and behaviors. But numerous research studies show that is not the case. Instead, the participants were encouraged to use open and friendly dialogue, find common ground, discuss problems as they relate to local communities and lay out solid steps people could take to help.

Based on their analysis, Ennes said the things that stood out the most were the community that developed during and after the program, the discussions on why some strategies work and others don’t and a paid staff member who kept everything running.

“These three components led to a successful train-the-trainer program that continues to teach educators how to have effective climate change conversations more than a decade later,” she said. “The results are important for other organizations thinking about how to develop programs that support educator growth.”

Source: Megan Ennes,;
Writer: Lexi Bolger,
Media contact: Jerald Pinson,, 352-294-0452

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