–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.