Is science literacy an appropriate major goal for science education?

Field trip with First Grade Outdoor Education by woodleywonderworks, on Flickr–Occasional commentary by Robert E. Yager (NSTA President, 1982-1983)
Science Literacy is widely used as an important goal for science teaching. The term Popularity and Relevance of Science Education for Scientific Literacy (PARSEL) in Europe is used to indicate science reforms for every K-12 classroom; the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in the U.S. lists it as a “guiding principle” for PreK-16 science education. But, what does it mean in practice?
Few argue against it as a goal. But, Morris Shamos, a practicing scientist (physics) and a past president of NSTA, has written a whole book entitled: “The Myth of Scientific Literacy” (1995). He used himself as an example of being scientifically illiterate (based on the fact that he could not pick up an issue of the AAAS “Science” journal and read every article with understanding)!
To be literate means being able to read and write (check any dictionary in English!). Reading and writing are fine skills for all to obtain, but are they basic to “doing” science? To do science does not begin with a book about science results and reading and writing what is included in the book using the English language.
Instead of reading and writing only, science focuses on actually exploring the natural world known to humans. Science requires engagement with student minds as they seek to explain the objects and events encountered.
Too many teachers tell students to read a science textbook, recite on what it says, and be ready and able to answer verbally what the book includes. Correct responses to teacher questions about what is included in the book are expected as an act of transmission from teachers to students. It is to be an indication of evidence that learning has occurred. Students are only expected to remember what teachers judge as important. These actions are not acceptable for deciding if a person is “scientifically literate.”
It is not fair to merely accept Shamos’ conclusion that science literacy is a false goal–and one that opposes the very nature of science itself! If it continues to be met as a guiding principle by NSTA and many other reformers, it is important to clarify explicitly what needs to be done and what is not done for accomplishing such a goal. The ability to define terms is fine–but what really is meant by “defining” use of the term as being central to science education and an indication of “scientific literacy.” Why are both words important alone or together? And, what about desired actions, including curiosity and evidence collecting? Why has science become a group activity and not a piece of art or possibly a physical sport? These human activities are personal and not something requiring evidence and thinking by others.
One of the most important outcomes of K-16 science teaching should include more practice for students in actually doing science. This means always beginning with questions and not merely “being given” explanations (from teachers, textbooks, or lab directions). Information for class discussions should be science with personal interests of students. It should also relate to others using their further insights. Should understanding the Nature of Science be a goal for science teachers and their students? This would lessen teacher led discussions or reviews of what is included in textbooks. It has to eliminate students asking if something will be “on the test.” Too often laboratories are expected to involve students in only following directions–often focusing on the science content considered.
–Robert E. Yager
Professor of Science education
University of Iowa
Image of students on nature trip courtesy of Woodley Wonder Works.

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2 Responses to Is science literacy an appropriate major goal for science education?

  1. Sara says:

    Being able to read and understand every article of Science or the like is way too narrow of a goal for young students. This definition should, of course, vary between grade levels.
    A good exercise for high school students would be to dissect scientific articles for methodology, hypotheses, abstracts, and the like in order to differentiate between the overly simplified “scientific method” units must schools espouse and its actual usage. Writing scientific papers based on a long-term project (preferably of their choosing) would be suitable for serious students (particularly in AP), but I would argue very difficult to achieve in most science classes given the amount of content instructors are required to teach. To give them an adequate depth of understanding, teaching of scientific literacy to achieve this goal MUST be supported from very early years. Most teachers themselves would require explicit teaching of scientific literacy before expounding them to their students.
    Still, overall, my belief is that a comprehensive understanding of the nature of science and its methodology is the reason why America falls behind other countries in science education. Such lapses in critical thinking allow unsound theories to gain prominence. Any tactic that teach students otherwise should be fully supported by any teacher passionate about her/his profession.

  2. Susan Townsend says:

    Literacy is SO much more than simply “reading and writing!” and I haven’t met a teacher YET that would “…tell students to read a science textbook, recite on what it says, and be ready and able to answer verbally what the book includes.”
    This posting hit nerve, ok, more than one.
    My goal as a science teacher IS to develop in my students skills of scientific literacy. All of my students will NOT go on to pursue careers in science. All of my students MUST have the tools to fully and effectively engage as a citizen of the world.
    Just as the goal of education is to develop the capacity for continuous learning, the goal of literacy is to develop the critical reasoning and communication skills to use that knowledge to both make decisions and take action.
    I completely agree that we learn science by doing science. The rigorous process of doing science to discover knowledge is why the scientific method framework is so interwoven with my broader understanding of literacy.
    Consider, please, the following definition of literacy:
    *Literacy skills enable individuals to effectively take in a message (read, hear, touch, see), use their critical thinking skills to analyze the content they receive (decode, understand vocabulary and recognize images, recognize purpose and point of view, connect it to what they already know and understand about the world) turning the information into knowledge they can respond to, then apply and use their new understanding (build new skills in their field, solve a problem, make a decision, communicate their own ideas and understanding, persuade others, create change).
    *The literacy cycle begins with receiving, recognizing and interpreting ideas followed by analyzing and questioning. The process is only complete when the understanding of the ideas that were received is used to create something new …knowledge, answers to questions, problem solutions, change in the world beyond the individual.
    Scientifically literate citizens are empowered to ask relevant questions and challenge the data they are given before they make decisions. It is a matter of justice, not merely reading and writing.

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