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.

The NGSS is one piece of a bigger system

Several reviewers noted that education standards like the NGSS are only one influence on classroom instruction, whether in science or other subjects. We heartily agree! Their comments are an important reminder.

The quality of science teachers, the support they receive, the amount of time allocated to teaching science, the nature of high-stakes tests, support of STEM education by parents and the community—these are just a sample of other important influences on teaching and learning science. One reviewer wrote, “I agree with the ultimate goals for raising scientifically literate students … but I question what new and improved standards will do without addressing the current lack of infrastructure to implement them.”

The white paper does not claim that improving the NGSS is the one and only way to improve science education. At the same time, the NGSS promotes an excessively narrow vision of science and scientific literacy, so we should not be surprised when many teachers adopt that narrow vision.

As an example, too many parents believe that vaccines cause autism. Students graduating high school ought to know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) is an excellent source of information about vaccine safety and about many other public health issues. Similarly, students should learn that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) is a primary source of information about the causes and the impacts of climate change. Organizations like the CDC and the IPCC are central to NGSS practice #8, “obtaining, evaluating, and communicating” science-related information, bringing together experts from many institutions to synthesize and vet scientific findings. Such institutions are one key mechanism for determining scientific consensus, if and when it exists. Yet the NGSS makes no mention of any scientific institution. Nor does it explain how science helps to inform public policy—about vaccines, climate, food safety, or other issues. This is short-sighted.

Improving the NGSS is no guarantee that science instruction will improve, yet guidance from national standards cannot be ignored merely because other factors are important, too.

Andy and Penny

Welcome to our blog

Thank you for reading this blog. We will add posts several times each month, or even weekly. You can subscribe by clicking the link at the top of the right column.

Your participation in the conversation about science education standards can be important. Education standards are intended to meet the needs of a large number of individuals and groups. By the same token, changing standards requires widespread discussion before revisions are made.

We worked on the white paper “Opportunities to Improve the Next Generation Science Standards (the NGSS)” for more than six months before posting it on this website in late 2019, making the paper widely available. Earlier, several experts agreed to review a draft and provide comments, for which we are grateful. In future blog posts we will highlight some of the comments and suggestions we received from them and from others, and we invite you to offer your own comments on this blog.

Continue reading