Classroom Science Literacy
Science literacy is so important… But what is it? According to the OECD (link here) ‘Scientific literacy is the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity.’ I particularly like this definition because it uses some key terms which I believe are critical to the concept of science literacy - evidence-based and use scientific knowledge - while you don’t need to be a science expert to be scientifically literate; a base of knowledge such as middle school or high school level science is enough to get you started. Evidence is critical for this concept, part of what makes scientific literacy so important to teach is that we as individuals - and as a society - need to be able to know when rogue scientists are lying or claims are false.
This ability to filter content based on our understanding and looking for evidence is massively important in our information based age. When misinformation, clickbait reporting and biased representation of data is an everyday occurrence, we need to be able to investigate claims to understand are they realistic and worth understanding or are they false and not worth our time. This has been shown time and time again with the media sensationalizing small jumps in scientific - and technological - developments and leading to negative or unrealistic expectations of those developments. Problems with scientific literacy are shown by politicians, the individuals who run our governments and the administrations of our country need a sound understanding of basic scientific principles in order that they may serve as gatekeeper to funding and informed advisors to those in power. For example, the education minister should have some experience in education and hopefully teaching, while a minister for science and technology would - we hope - have some experience in those fields as well and understand the underlying principles behind them.
Science literacy builds key skills in other areas too almost as a natural extension of teaching it. When students are asked to read a scientific article, it is likely they will learn to analyse diagrams, charts and graphs increasing statistical literacy. Students could learn more difficult words that they may not otherwise be exposed to, enhancing vocabulary and supporting students to learn new words through research and context. It can even help us get students to explore deeply what science is and why / how we do it.
So given that scientific literacy is a key issue and teaching it is part of a necessity for the future of each student and our global society as a whole, how can we teach it? The first would be to help them filter between reasonable and unreasonable claims in the media. For example, there are many clickbait style headlines which claim we have done some sensational technological innovation which overhyped the reality of what we can and have achieved. Students could be given a selection of poor quality scientific news articles and those of a more well-rounded and higher quality nature, then asked to analyze which they think are the best quality and why or which are the least well substantiated claims and why do they believe this to be the case? (ie: they need to back up their claims with critical thinking and evidence).
Another method to teach this concept is to learn about the level of scientific evidence, what we see as the gold standard of scientific evidence and what is considered to be weaker evidence. While this is not a perfect science and there may be a little difference in opinion between scientists and policy makers here and there, the majority of this quality ordering is consistent. Just consider the infographic below for this concept.
Image original link: https://newslit.org/educators/resources/levels-of-scientific-evidence/ (attribution to the News literacy project and Dr. Katrine Wallace for their products on this topic)
Other ways to teach scientific literacy include reading about science and looking at reflective questions, broadening their knowledge base beyond the syllabus alone or to go deeper into their learning and consider the ramifications of scientific technology. In order to help with engaging your students on the topic of science literacy, I have started a series of science articles that check student comprehension to be used in class, some of which are free (and some for a small fee) - link here.
I would encourage students to use one of the most powerful and clear words / questions we have in education and science: ‘Why?’; I almost cannot overstate how powerful this word is to scientific inquiry and engaging with global learning at a broader level. Why does it work? Why did they use this method? Why do they believe in their results? Why are they citing their own previous work and not the work of others? It leads to really great discussions and generally more curious thinking and deeper learning.
Image link: https://ageofthrivability.com/the-deep-why/
I hope given all the ways and whys of teaching science literacy above that this blog post might help with doing so more intentionally in the future and you consider doing a little more cohesively. After all, if we all understand science a little better, we can all make more informed decisions, enjoy better science fiction and fund the best and more critical research for coming generations in this pivotal era of human history.
Thanks for reading.
Cheers and stay curious
Oliver - The Teaching Astrophysicist
(Note: This blog post was NOT generated by AI and is conceived, typed and uploaded by a real person.)