Developing Students’ Scientific Literacy

The primary goal of K-12 science education should be to develop students’ scientific literacy. For example, the New York State P-12 Science Learning Standards identifies that very goal, stating that, “our education system [should] keep pace with what it means to be scientifically literate.”

But what exactly does “scientific literacy” mean? One way to define it would be to stack up the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the appendices to the NGSS, and the Framework for K-12 Science Education (the template for the NGSS). Scientific literacy could be defined as everything in those documents. But that is close to 1,000 pages of text.

English teachers and science teachers can agree that 1,000 pages makes for an unwieldy definition. Can we do better?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—which periodically tests thousands of students in dozens of countries across disciplines, including science—developed a more concise definition. For PISA:

Scientific literacy is defined as the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen….

That’s not bad. Actually, it’s quite good. PISA’s definition can easily encompass the three dimensions of the NGSS: disciplinary core ideas (DCIs), scientific practices, and cross-cutting concepts. Scientifically literate people know some science content and understand, generally, how scientists practice science and develop new knowledge.

But beyond that, and equally important, PISA’s definition emphasizes, as the NGSS does not, that scientific literacy is for everyone, not just for college graduates or those who often use science as part of their jobs. In other words, the goal of developing students’ scientific literacy is simply not the same as “preparing students for college and careers,” the stated goal of the NGSS. The latter is a cramped, narrow view of scientific literacy. It conveys a message that the NGSS is a “prerequisite” to the real work that comes later: college and careers. “Don’t worry about applying science outside of college or careers,” is an unintended message, especially to the millions of students who are not college-bound.

For more than three decades, from the time that Science for All Americans was published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1989, key leaders in science education have focused on educating all students. As the AAAS book states, “When demographic realities, national needs, and democratic values are taken into account, it becomes clear that the nation can no longer ignore the science education of any students,” including the non-college-bound student and the many others who won’t use much science in their careers. The book’s introduction expands on the idea:

Education has no higher purpose than preparing people to lead personally fulfilling and responsible lives. For its part, science education—meaning education in science, mathematics, and technology—should help students to develop the understandings and habits of mind they need to become compassionate human beings able to think for themselves and to face life head on. It should equip them also to participate thoughtfully with fellow citizens in building and protecting a society that is open, decent, and vital. America’s future—its ability to create a truly just society, to sustain its economic vitality, and to remain secure in a world torn by hostilities—depends more than ever on the character and quality of the education that the nation provides for all of its children.

As Penny Noyce and I have written recently in Education Week, the narrow view of the NGSS almost certainly makes science class less appealing to many students. People are interested in themselves and other people, and the national science education standards say little that humanizes science, little that could literally put a human face on the subject. For example, the NGSS does not mention a single scientist by name and the words “women” and “minorities” don’t appear in the text of the NGSS.

If Americans want to develop all students’ scientific literacy, Penny and I believe science teachers need to put a greater emphasis on the following five topics, “keys to scientific literacy.” These are:

  1. Teach science in the context of societal and personal issues
  2. Tie scientific literacy to traditional forms of literacy
  3. Teach how to find reliable scientific information and how to reject junk science
  4. Include some important events in the history of science
  5. Help females and minority students realize their potential in science

The NGSS devotes hundreds of pages to identifying what students should learn, focusing almost entirely on science content and scientific practices. By having students learn mainly about investigating scientific “phenomena,” the NGSS leaves behind many other important aspects of scientific literacy.

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