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Developing Scientific Literacy-Using News

Developing Scientific Literacy-Using News

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Published by: muhammad soenarto on Feb 19, 2011
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07/22/2014

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It is often stated, frequently rather glibly, that the study of science in school
will (or at least should) help young people to solve problems and make deci-
sions in respect of the science-related issues they encounter or will
encounter in their daily lives. The ability to make informed decisions
regarding such issues is seen as a significant component of functional
scientific literacy.

Many writers also contend that students, in order to advance their
scientific literacy, should engage in contextualised decision making. As
Zeidler and Keefer (2003: 11) argue:

[I]f citizens are expected to make rational, informed decisions
about their society (one that is permeated by science and technol-
ogy) then as students they ought to be provided with the necessary
experience in which to practice and apply this kind of decision-
making.

News items provide just such context. Almost daily actual situations are
reported where individuals or communities are faced with choices in
respect of science-related issues. Among these are some with the potential
to catch the interest of students and to be presented in a manner that is
accessible to them. Such news stories can be used to good effect in the class-
room as a resource for decision-making activities.
In so saying, however, we would want to make three key points. First,
while these news items are authentic decision-making experiences for those
involved, typically they are not for our students. Ratcliffe and Grace (2003:
118) remind us that: ‘Decision-making implies commitment to a choice …

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from which deliberate action follows.’ They draw a distinction between
‘informed opinion’ and ‘informed decision-making’ and plainly it is the
former that best describes most work of this type undertaken in school.
Despite this, they note that ‘decision making’ is the term most commonly
employed in the literature to designate such activities. For this reason they
– and we – continue to use the term.
Second, and importantly, it must be recognised that the link between
scientific knowledge and decision making in real-world contexts is very
complex indeed. It is seldom that choices can be made or action taken solely
on the basis of some sort of rational application of scientific principle
or procedure. Abd-El-Khalick (2003: 43) leaves us in no doubt about the
difficulties:

[S]ocio-scientific problems are ill-defined, multidisciplinary,
heuristic, value-laden … and constrained by missing knowledge.
Engaging the problem most likely (will) lead to several alternative
‘solutions’ each with an incomplete set of burdens and benefits …
Given the lack of any algorithms to go about weighing the identi-
fied burdens and benefits, a decision regarding socio-scientific
issues necessarily involves a judgement call, which could be an
agonising undertaking.

We have already noted that science is ‘messy’ in application, often asso-
ciated with complexity, uncertainty and controversy. By the same token, it
is problematic when called on to serve in support of personal and social
decision making. Indeed the words ‘mess’, ‘messy’ and ‘messiness’ occur
again and again in the relevant literature (Abd-El-Khalick 2003; Bell 2003;
Jenkins 1997; Pedretti 2003; Zeidler and Keefer 2003). To fail to acknowl-
edge this with our students and to convey to them some understanding of
why it is so is to do them – and science – a grave disservice.
There is a balance to be struck here. It is undoubtedly the case that
science can usefully, indeed, crucially inform our decision making in rela-
tion to socio-scientific matters and there are circumstances in which,
though we may choose so to do, we ignore its findings at our peril. Nicholls
(2004: 130) quotes Carl Sagan:

Science by itself cannot advocate human action; but it can cer-
tainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses
of action.

We need to share this with our students while also pointing out that
the relevant science knowledge may be incomplete, uncertain and con-
tested. It may need to be ‘restructured’ (see Jenkins 1994b; Layton et al.

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1993) to meet the demands of the situation. Furthermore, knowledge from
other domains may be as important or more important and influential in
the decision-making process. In particular there may be ethical and moral
concerns involved. In relation to socio-scientific issues, there is seldom one
right answer or a single, simple solution. There are likely to be ‘multiple
benefits to weigh against multiple costs’ (Bell 2003: 74). As Abd-El-Khalick
(2003) testifies, some decisions are agonisingly difficult to take.
Third, Bell (2003: 77) contends that ‘without explicit, purposive
instruction, the possibility of improving decision making is likely to remain
a pipedream’. Therefore he argues for ‘explicit instruction on decision
making that emphasises roles for moral reasoning and understandings of
the nature of science’ (2003: 64). Levinson and Turner (2001: 28) affirm:

As developing citizens young people should develop the analytic
skills that will enable them to use ethical reasoning when con-
sidering scientific and other controversies. They should be empow-
ered to discuss the issues of the day using their scientific
knowledge within an ethical context.

Some writers suggest we should encourage young people to move
beyond discussion by creating opportunities for them to participate in or
even instigate community action (Cross and Price 1992; Hodson 1999;
Pedretti 2003; Roth 2003).
There is a small, albeit expanding, stock of writing and resources that
can guide and support teachers wishing to tackle these tasks. Much of this
deals, at varying depths, with the treatment of ethical and moral consider-
ations in relation to socio-scientific issues and some specifically address the
theme. Some focuses on citizenship education. A list of useful references is
contained in Appendix 4. These resources offer, for example, frameworks to
aid decision making (Figure 8.1) and advice on important matters such as
the role of the teacher in discussion of controversial issues and the need to
be sensitive to the backgrounds and beliefs of students. The need remains,
however, for further professional support and curricular materials to assist
teachers tackle these difficult issues.
Through such instruction we may, in Pedretti’s words (2003: 231)
‘provide students with critical thinking and doing skills that assist them in
understanding and reaching informed decisions while participating as citi-
zens in a democratic society’. Or, at least, we may achieve Millar and
Osborne’s (1998: 12) more modest goal that young people should:

Appreciate the underlying rationale for decisions (for example
about diet, or medical treatment, or energy use) which they may
wish, or be advised, to take in everyday contexts, both now and in
later life.

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Figure 8.1 A decision making framework from Ratcliffe (1998: 55)

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