Wednesday, August 05, 2009

What I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science (Part 6): Scientific Literacy

This is a continuation of my Top Ten List of Things I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science:

#5)“Science is a method of begetting knowledge / What is Scientific Literacy”

I can't say I was in the dark about this fact, as you learn a thing or two about science as you go through college (hopefully). What amazed me is how important this fact is for our students today, and upon personal reflection, how poorly it has been emphasized in education.

As a student in grades K-12, most of what I remember from science classes was reading textbooks and filling out worksheets, the occasional dissection, and science fair projects without much in-class emphasis other than the evaluation. Seldom did we approach scientific phenomena presented in class as scientists do, and allow for an inquiry-based, self-discovery of scientific principles rather than teachers dictating the facts and the reasons for those facts. I wrote before about using the scientific method to uncover the purpose of a mysterious pile of cardboard pieces. That the pieces combined to form a jigsaw puzzle would be the “science” taught in schools, when the process of questioning and uncovering their purpose is actually the essence of science itself.

Science state standards like the ones referred to in my previous post are modeled after National Science Education Standards (NSES 1996), which “spell out a vision of science education that will make scientific literacy for all a reality in the 21st century.” The NSES focus is on maintaining inquiry-based instruction, as it explains:

“The Standards call for more than "science as process," in which students learn such skills as observing, inferring, and experimenting. Inquiry is central to science learning. When engaging in inquiry, students describe objects and events, ask questions, construct explanations, test those explanations against current scientific knowledge, and communicate their ideas to others. They identify their assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations. In this way, students actively develop their understanding of science by combining scientific knowledge with reasoning and thinking skills” (p. 2).

As I said before, I believe reasoning ability, being one of the “Big 3” of student needs, should be a prime focus of science education. Inquiry-based instruction as spelled out by the NSES is a path to targeting this reasoning ability and promoting scientific literacy for all. But what is scientific literacy, and does inquiry-based instruction help students attain it?

Scientific literacy, as defined by the National Research Council in the National Science Education Standards, is “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity” (NSES p. 22). A scientific literate person applies an understanding of science to choices made in his or her daily life, whether that is through positing and answering questions through the scientific method or making informed choices about policies that impact the environment. Yet promoting scientific literacy for all students is a daunting task, and research shows that typical, non-constructivist (not inquiry-based) approaches to science education lead science educators further and further from this lofty goal of literacy for all students.

In one research study, Buxton (2001) focused on the scientific literacy of university undergraduates in different social spheres, and noted that students were most able to bridge the gap between science concepts and real world applicability in informal science settings like study groups, where students could collaborate in asking questions and piecing together concepts learned in lecture to construct individual understanding, rather than in rigid, traditionally taught lectures (the norm for some K-12 science classrooms). Buxton’s conclusions highlighted four ways for promoting scientific literacy in K-12 classrooms, all of which coincide with an inquiry-based approach: (1) give students opportunities to reflect on what is learned in class and how it relates to their community; (2) allow students to collaborate in learning; (3) empower students with control over what they learn and how they learn it; and (4) focus on strengthening scientific literacy throughout the year.

The goal of scientific literacy for all can be reached if educators utilize inquiry-based instruction to allow students to learn what science really is all about, and as Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg writes in “A Nation at Risk Revisited,” even the health of our democracy hinges on our meeting this goal:

The vitality of a democracy assumes a certain “core of knowledge” shared by everyone which serves as a unifying force. It is fundamental to the effectiveness of our democratic system that our citizens be able to make informed judgments on the more and more complex issues of scientific and technological public policy.


  1. Interesting blog. I'm intrigued by your views on inquiry based teaching. Does TFA advocate that in its orientation for the people in the TFA program?

  2. I don't recall how specific they were in calling it "inquiry-based", but I think the workshops I attended emphasized the importance of these same classroom characteristics. The classes I took that were focused on science education were not a part of TFA, but I'm certain they were big on inquiry.