What is scientific literacy?

Here are ten desired outcomes for students in the 21st Century, which could characterise the sorts of skills and dispositions of the scientifically literate citizen, whereby ALL students:

1. Are bold and confident participants in a continually changing landscape

2. Appreciate science as a way of knowing about the world

3. Possess a sense of awe and fascination about the world

4. Understand the impact of science on society

5. Are savvy consumers of science

6. Understand the nature of science and science concepts that are relevant and useful to their lives

7. Accept a responsibility towards the natural environment.

8. Understand science as being value-laden.

9. Engage with science as accessible and do-able

10. See the potential for science to contribute to the common good

Overview of Scientific Literacy
October 27, 2011 by simon lindsay · No Comments · Uncategorized ·Edit

Here is a nice academic overview of Scientific Literacy from Karen Murcia Murdoch University Western Australia.

Science for the 21st Century:
Teaching for Scientific Literacy in the Primary Classroom

Karen Murcia
Lecturer, School of Education
Murdoch University, Perth, Australia

Our world is increasingly shaped and directed by science and achieving scientific literacy as an educational outcome is becoming more and more important. The growing demands that are being placed on individuals and communities to understand, engage with and take up the ideas and applications of science are clearly demonstrated when we look around our society. As educators we should reflect on the demands of life in the 21st century and question both how we can best help our children to become scientifically literate and how we can teach for scientific literacy within our classrooms. In order to respond to these important questions we need to clarify the concept of scientific literacy and develop a common understanding of what it means to be scientifically literate. This paper introduces and then uses a concise framework of scientific literacy to highlight the potential of student-centered inquiry driven by real world contexts for developing scientific literacy in the primary science classroom.

Keywords: scientific literacy, teaching and learning.

Our world is increasingly shaped and directed by science. We only need to read the daily newspaper or look around our environment to see the growing demands that are being placed on individuals and communities to understand, engage with and take up, science research, applications of science in the form of rapidly developing technologies and sustainable development practices. In contemporary times it seems increasingly important to achieve scientific literacy as an educational outcome. It may now even stand along side language literacy and numeracy as an essential tool for living in the twenty first century.

Scientifically literate citizens would have a general, broad and useful understanding of science that contributes to their competence and disposition to use science to meet the personal and social demands of their life at home, at work and in the community (Murcia 2005). Without a reasonable level of scientific literacy, citizens of the future would be unable to appreciate science’s interaction with society or their role and the role of others in decisions, values and actions shaping humanity’s future.

What does it mean to be scientifically literate?
As educators we need to be clear on what it means to be scientifically literate and then what science outcomes we want our children to attain. Educational research and classroom practice over the last 50 years have shown scientific literacy to be more than disconnected knowledge of science terms and procedures. It is a broader construct that includes an understanding of the nature of science and the way science interacts with society. Contributing to this is an understanding of the more important and enduring science concepts (Bybee 1997, Fensham 2002, Laugksch, 2000, Millar 1983, Norris & Philips 1999, Solomon 2001).

Enduring scientific terms and concepts
Science is a rapidly developing discipline with an ever-increasing body of knowledge. However, being scientifically literate in contemporary times may only require an understanding of the more important and enduring science ideas. These are the ideas and concepts that will endure rapid change and continue to have relevance throughout at least the next decade. For example the field of genetic research is progressing rapidly with events such as mapping the human genome, stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified food. Perhaps the more important ideas and concepts with continuing relevance in this field would be cell structure, cell division, chromosomes, genes and DNA.

We should then question, how could we most effectively engage students with these key ideas and concepts so that our teaching and learning practices contribute to the development of scientific literacy?

Nature of science
An understanding of the nature of science is an integral part of scientific literacy as it incorporates into our way of thinking, the values and assumptions inherent in the development of scientific knowledge. The following set of themes represents one possible view of the nature of science, which is consistent with contemporary science practice and philosophy (Murcia &Schibeci 1999).
1. Scientific knowledge has a temporary status and should not be accepted as unquestionable truth.
2. Scientists study a world in which they are a part and as such their work is not objective or value free.
3. New scientific knowledge is produced as a result of creativity and imagination coupled with methods of scientific inquiry.
4. Science progresses through continuing research and critical questioning.
5. Science is dynamic and ongoing, not a static accumulation of information.
6. Observations of the world are made through ‘coloured lenses’ built up by prior knowledge, beliefs and theories.
7. Scientists and the scientific community generally display the professional standards of openness of mind and honesty. They are moral and ethical in their approach to their profession.

These themes emphasis that science is essentially a dynamic, human activity that progresses through critical questioning and continuous research coupled with imagination. This suggests that scientific results and knowledge should be considered critically and not accepted as the unchanging foundation of science.

We should then question, how could we most effectively engage students with the nature of science so that our teaching and learning practices contribute to the development of scientific literacy?

Science and society
This dimension of scientific literacy refers to the application of science in daily life, the way it is implemented and its effect on social and natural environments. Citizens need to have the knowledge, skills and disposition to make decisions and solve problems at the interface of science and society (Bingle & Gaskell 1994, Kolsto 2000). This requires the ability to meaningfully engage and critically reflect on science as it applies to social issues and public debate. Some examples of current topical issues are sustainable energy sources, pesticides and fertiliser use, managing water resources, increasing green house effect, ozone depletion, logging forests, increasing soil salinity and cloning to name just a few. Science could also be used as a resource for making informed personal decisions on health and lifestyle issues. Examples could include childhood immunisation, the use of antibiotics, hormone replacement therapy, exercise and healthy eating.

Engaging with science at the interface of society requires an integrated or multidisciplinary awareness of science as one part of the whole complexity of human social contexts that includes political, economic, moral, ethical and religious aspects.

We should then question, how could we most effectively engage students with the interaction of science with society so that our teaching and learning practices contribute to the development of scientific literacy?

A Framework of Scientific Literacy
Scientific literacy is a way of understanding or thinking about science that influences our actions and decisions. Understanding the dimensions of scientific literacy and the way they interact, informs our teaching and learning practices for scientific literacy. A Contemporary Framework, Figure 1 presents a concise view of scientific literacy and should inform and help direct effective science teaching and learning.

Figure 1: A Contemporary Framework for Scientific Literacy

Scientific literacy can be thought of as a blend of these three knowledge dimensions:
• Nature of science;
• Interaction of science and society and;
• Enduring and important scientific terms and concepts.

Scientific literacy is clearly about KNOWING but it is also about A WAY OF THINKING and ACTING.

Being scientifically literate requires the confidence, interest and or disposition to use or put into action a blend of these knowledge dimensions for engaging with science in context. As such, it requires the ability to:
• Use science as a tool for inquiry or discovery;
• Use science for learning, informing or contributing to problem solving; and,
• Critically reflect on the use or role of science in context.

How can we teach for scientific literacy in the primary years?
This framework should assist in clarifying the construct of scientific literacy and support the laying down of strong foundations in the compulsory years of science education. It demonstrates the interaction of knowledge dimensions when thinking and acting scientifically. In particular, when focussed on the Primary years, it can highlight opportunities for building onto children’s innate curiosity about their natural environment and the world around them. Natural curiosity could be a motivation for learning important foundational habits such as investigating, observing, measuring, reasoning from evidence, using scientific language to describe experiences and making informed decisions based on scientific ideas.

Making informed decisions requires children to build foundational understandings of the dynamic, creative and ultimately tentative nature of scientific research findings and knowledge. They would need to develop critical thinking and questioning skills in order to appreciate the role science can take in the solution of social or personal problems or dilemmas.

One possible answer to the question, how could we most effectively engage students with the various dimensions of this framework so that our teaching and learning practices contribute to the development of scientific literacy, could be found in student-centered inquiry driven by real world contexts. This approach would require the blending of knowledge types from within the discipline and from across disciplines as students think and act in a scientific way.

Modelling the Dynamic Nature of Scientific Knowledge
An understanding of the three dimensions of scientific literacy and the way they interact and inform our thinking and acting; would support teachers’ facilitation of student-centered learning. Clearly as teachers, we need to be robust in our handling of the science curricula and its associated materials. This does not mean, however, that we can or need to recall all the ‘facts’ but that we are open to acknowledging the need to learn and then demonstrate the confidence to find out. Given the dynamic nature of science we may at times find ourselves at the same level of initial knowledge as the children in our classrooms. As a result we may work through the learning experience with the children, and at times, at an even slower pace. Science is not a collection of static facts and as such we should be confident to model for students an interest in learning; and then the process of finding out, critically evaluating and taking meaning back to the original context, question or problem.

Inquiring about science in every day life.
Reading and interpreting non-fiction science texts would be an integral part of context driven learning for scientific literacy that could also support the curriculum priorities of literacy and numeracy. For example, children could be given opportunities to read simple newspaper articles about advances in science or applications of science in everyday life. Science in the media can provide a valuable stimulus for inquiry as it often demonstrates the dynamic nature of scientific knowledge and the need for critical questioning. The issues presented in newspaper reports of science are current and can provide a relevant and meaningful context in which students can explore science ideas; it’s nature, methods and interaction with society. In these contexts students could build an awareness of the role of critical questioning in evaluating information and any claims made by the author. They may need to think about the collection and interpretation of data and the way in which it is used to support the researchers’ conclusion. Engaging students with science in the news could also provide the stimulus for classroom discussion about the ethical and moral dilemmas that often arise at the interface of science with society (Murcia 2005).

Integrating Learning
Engaging students attention, interest and desire to know more about every day examples of science interacting with society is an important first step to developing scientific literacy. Real world investigations and learning driven by contexts of interest to students provide opportunities for developing scientific literacy as they encourage children to see the various forms of knowledge from different disciplines relating and coming together to form an understanding of the whole. A student-centered approach could be a catalyst for the integration of science, mathematics and literacy content and skills. Through connected and interrelated learning activities we can be explicit about the values and assumptions underlying the development of scientific knowledge and the way science interacts with society.

Providing opportunities for students to undertake extended science projects motivated by their interest in real world contexts would give students experience in scientific inquiry and provide natural opportunities for integrated learning. Extended projects could require students to collect and interpret information, learn key science content, evaluate evidence and then use evidence to support their own argument or conclusion. Clearly this would not happen in a single science lesson and as such requires us to think beyond content driven curriculum and or a plethora of hands on activities.

An integrated approach to teaching for scientific literacy takes time. Time is needed for reading, exploring, asking questions, talking to clarify thinking, testing ideas, making errors and trying again. When grappling with new contexts and unfamiliar ideas time is needed for learning the science and in some situations the mathematics required to deal with any given question or problem.

Focussing on the quality of the understanding.
Clearly it does not make sense to keep adding more science content to our already full science curriculum and the relevance of doing so is questionable. Reducing the emphasis traditionally given in classrooms to the teaching of science terms and concepts may be a solution to handling this dynamic body of knowledge. At the foundation of science there is a set of major ideas and concepts about the world in which we live, for example the particle model of matter, structure of the solar system, interconnected nature of ecosystems, cells, genes and inheritance, energy and energy conservation, life, diversity and evolution, natural and processes materials, physical and chemical changes and so on (Western Australian Curriculum Framework, 1998). These ideas and concepts should be prominent within our science classrooms but focussing on in-depth detail or the ‘facts’ could be overwhelming, intimidating and even detracting from the development of a real understanding of the scientific enterprise. This view is well captured in the metaphor it is impossible to see the whole building if we focus too closely on the individual bricks. To develop children’s scientific literacy we should be concentrating on the quality of understanding rather than the quantity of information presented. The relevant content could come out of children’s inquiry into a context. This places children at the center of the learning and provides opportunities facilitated by teachers, for children to construct ideas and shape prior knowledge and understandings.

How is this approach to teaching science different?
Critical reflection on our prior experiences of science teaching and learning would for many educators highlight shifts in our thinking about the purpose and practice of science education. Historically, compulsory science education had been focussed on preparing students for future study and work in science based disciplines. However, with the growing scientific demands of life in this century our purpose has increasingly become the attainment of scientific literacy for all citizens. Reflecting on our science teaching and learning, Figure 2 compares a traditional view of science teaching with the contemporary view presented through this paper. This comparison is not intended to suggest that there are only two views of science teaching but rather, it aims to provoke reflection amongst educators on the emphasis that should be given to various practices if our goal is to teach for scientific literacy.

Figure 2: Reflecting on our science teaching and learning.

Aspects of teaching and learning science.

Science for future scientists

Scientific literacy for all citizens
Science ideas and concepts
Content driven teaching and learning focused on the transmission of science ideas that prioritises students’ ability to memorise and recall scientific ideas.

Context driven inquiry based teaching and learning that engages students with the more important and enduring science ideas that are integral to understanding and responding to an original context, question or dilemma.

Nature of science
The values and assumptions of the discipline are addressed implicitly in the teacher directed learning of science content and procedures.

The nature of science is explicitly discussed as a dynamic, human activity that progresses through critical questioning and continuous research coupled with imagination. Scientific results and knowledge are considered critically and not accepted as the unchanging foundation of science.

Interaction of science with society
Links are made to socially or personally relevant contexts in order to demonstrate the importance of learning sequentially developing science ideas, concepts and procedures.

Learning is centered in a relevant, meaningful and or everyday context in which students are motivated by a need or desire to know more. They may respond to the ethical and moral dilemmas that often arise at the interface of science with society

The students’ role
Students participate in learning experience that include learning from the teachers’ input and textbooks. They complete activities that verify science content.
Students actively construct understanding. They question, inquire and learn broad science concepts that can be applied to new situations. They seek understanding from multidisciplinary sources that include for example non-fiction books, the internet and the media.

The teachers’ role
Teachers present science ideas and procedures by talk, text and demonstration.

Teachers engage students’ interest, which can include the posing of questions and presenting of dilemmas. They introduce open-ended activities that enable students to investigate everyday or topical science issues and questions. They recognise students’ prior understanding and facilitated student centred discussion.

The framework proposed in this paper should contribute clarity to the concept of scientific literacy and as such increase its utility. It suggests that to be scientifically literate a child requires knowledge of important and enduring science concepts coupled with an understanding of the nature of science and an awareness of the relationship of science with society. With shared understanding educators can reflect on the scientific demands of life in the 21st century and explore the effectiveness of strategies such as modelling the dynamic nature of science and context-driven integrated learning for developing scientific literacy in the Primary classroom.

Bingle, W. & Gaskell, P.J. (1994). Scientific literacy for decision-making and the social construction of scientific knowledge. Science Education, 78(2) pg 185-201
Bybee, R. (1997). Achieving scientific literacy: From purposes to Practices. Heinemann. Portsmouth.
The Curriculum Council of Western Australia (1998). Curriculum Framework.
Fensham, P. (2002). Science for all. In Wallace, J., Louden, W. (ed) (2002). Dilemmas of science teaching: perspectives on problems of practice. Routledge, Falmer. London.
Overview of scientific literacy“Scientific Literacy under the Microscope” – Loughran, Smith and Berry
June 1, 2011 by simon lindsay · No Comments · Uncategorized ·Edit

This is the best book on Scientific Literacy going around. It is written by teachers, for teachers, as they going about trying to make science teaching and learning more relevant and useful to their students in the 21st Century.

Here’s a link to the first three chapters. https://www.sensepublishers.com/files/9789460915284PR.pdf

And here’s a link to order http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/9460915264


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