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Scientific Literacy Without a Text

By W. Jason Niedermeyer — September 05, 2008 6 min read
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It is hard to look at a term like “scientific literacy” and not think it an oxymoron. As an English teacher, I’d say that, after “jumbo shrimp,” it may be the easiest example of linguistic opposition for my students to identify.

Subject matter in high school has for the better part of the last century been compartmentalized: It was the domain of the English department to introduce and investigate the use of the written word, and of the science department to provide the opportunity for experimentation with a variety of living, nonliving, and previously living subjects. But with the drive to boost state and national reading scores, the old rigidities have collapsed.

My situation is complicated because I teach in both of these domains—science and English. I have been asked, as a biology teacher, to incorporate the teaching of literacy skills into my science classes. To aid in this task, I’ve attended training sessions on how to help students distinguish between a topic sentence and supporting details in their books, and been given handouts on how to write questions that force students to provide answers in complete sentences.

This, you might say, has become the textbook definition of scientific literacy.

Learning with a 10-pound text in hand has the potential to produce the kind of populace that E.D. Hirsch Jr. perhaps was hoping his campaign for cultural literacy would accomplish. The notion was that, if every child had a bank of common words, facts, and concepts he or she knew at the end of each grade level, it would translate in time to a citizenry able to communicate more effectively with one another.

If these standards were applied to the sciences, this would theoretically infuse society with individuals capable of discussing the natural world in a literate manner. It would counteract the sense of informed ignorance that has come to pervade fields such as technology and medicine. When someone was participating in a discussion of the speed of a computer’s processor, for example, he or she would know that the hertz being talked about had nothing to do with renting a car, but referred to the number of cycles per second. And, when told there was no antibiotic for West Nile virus, this same person would understand that this was because the virus is not actually alive. We might even be able to have a national conversation about global warming that mentioned practical solutions.

But would this mean we had achieved scientific literacy? No.

Science is about wonder; it is about discovery. The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget believed that each child learns through discovery. The cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner determined that each person must achieve that input in his or her own way, because there are multiple intelligences. Charles Darwin set foot on the HMS Beagle simply because it offered the promise of handling creatures no one in England had ever observed—and eventually proposed the theory of natural selection. Albert Einstein preferred his own “thought experiments” (that is, daydreaming) to schoolwork. He ultimately advanced the theory of relativity.

If science is about finding the ruling principles of our natural world, and if the people who helped write the definitions came to their conclusions by personal discovery, then shouldn’t a part of becoming scientifically literate be to go through those same paces?

By allowing students to discover concepts on their own, we enable them to scaffold the ideas with observations they have made in their daily existence, thus binding the learning to emotion. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, would argue that this kind of learning allows students to create lifelong memories that reinforce the learning. This ensures that something taught in 5th grade, revisited in 7th grade, and further elucidated in 10th grade will be easily recalled. And it provides the opportunity for students to develop their own, singular questions based on perceived anomalies in what they observe. These can lead to investigation and experimentation—the lifeblood of science.

It is during the investigatory part of a science course that the final, and possibly most important, part of scientific literacy is learned: understanding the fallibility of experimentation. Science is not static, a fact that students sometimes fail to recognize. Teflon was discovered because an experiment to produce refrigerant went awry. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin when he accidentally let a bacteria culture become contaminated with a fungus. By allowing students to both replicate the experiments of others and devise their own, we enable them to recognize that mistakes can be made, variables unaccounted for, conclusions wrong, and yet the exercise is still worthwhile. It is from our mistakes that we learn most.

One might ask, if students are so busy questioning and creating experiments, how can it be guaranteed that they are actually becoming scientifically literate? This is where curricular development comes into play. Leaders in each field of study should meet with highly decorated teachers every year to discuss where science is headed and what kind of background will be needed to investigate the field in its current state. This information would help form the core subject matter for that year, providing the relevance and foundational knowledge that Jerome Bruner, in The Process of Education, argued are essential to learning.

By having a yearly forum in each subject, we would be teaching students as if each class were the last one they would take.

And that was very nearly the case for sophomores in my on-track biology class. Rather that tell them we were going to be studying evolution after genetics—and risk having some immediately object—I provided opportunities for students to discover natural selection the same way Darwin did. I took them through the same paces. The word “evolution” was not mentioned until the fourth week of the unit. Then a lone dissenter emerged, who declared that she did not believe in evolution. Later, near the end of the seventh week, the same girl approached me and asked if there was any way to reconcile her family’s Christian beliefs with the discoveries she had made about evolution. Her outlook on the world had changed, and she wanted to know how she could convey this to her parents.

I was floored. I wanted to provide students with the chance to discover as Darwin had. She wanted to help others challenge their views as she had.

That moment has remained etched in my mind. A teenage girl, in the midst of the chaos that is a typical high school student’s life, had discovered the most important fact about science she could—that any hypothesis, theory, or even belief can be challenged. And, after that, she wanted to advocate on behalf of science.

John Dewey suggested in Democracy and Education that it is the goal of education to produce citizens, and that the United States as “a democratic society must, in consistency with its ideal, allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures.” By allowing students to discover concepts on their own, we perhaps make possible a question about a chemical process, or about an accepted theory, or about a personal belief that could change not only the questioning student’s perspective, but also those of classmates and teacher.

It is within the potential of such a question that a student’s success can be evaluated. That is why I know this particular student is on her way to scientific literacy.

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Scientific Literacy Without a Text

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