Science in the Formal Curriculum – and Sustainability – 2

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This is the second of 3 postings about the relationship between the school science curriculum and sustainability.  The story begins here.

A rationale for why the study of science needs to be a core aspect of young people’s experience at school might be something like this:

A large proportion of the situations, problems and issues encountered by individuals in their daily lives require some understanding of science (and technology) before they can be fully understood or addressed.  Thus, an understanding of science and technology is central to young people’s preparedness for life in modern society, as it enables them to participate fully in a society where science and technology play such a significant role, and confront individuals at personal, community, national and even global levels.

This understanding also empowers young people to participate appropriately in the determination of public policy and action where issues of science and technology impact on their lives, and therefore contributes significantly to the personal, social, professional and cultural lives of everyone.

Thus, studying science is important, not only because a study of science is culturally important, but also because doing this also empowers people, individually and socially.

One way of thinking about the purpose of a formal science education is to see this as making students scientifically literate, appropriate to age and culture.  In this sense, we need a conceptual framework that will enable a shared understanding of what this might mean in practice.  OECD, for the purposes of its PISA assessments, has defined scientific literacy in this way:

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 history. OECD 2003:133

This draws on Bybee’s (1997) work; in particular on his ‘third level of scientific literacy’ which is termed “conceptual and procedural literacy” as being more appropriate for PISA purposes than levels one & two (nominal and functional scientific literacy), and level four (which OECD deems only appropriate for specialist study).

The distinction made here between scientific knowledge, and what one might term social capability in relation to that knowledge, is striking.  Importantly, of course, mastery of levels one and two are implicit in mastery of level three.  Thus, appropriate knowledge and understanding are a necessary component of any science course, both as an end in themselves, and as a means to a much more significant social purpose.

It follows from the above that, for PISA, students’ knowledge is important, but so is their capacity to use this knowledge effectively, as they carry out cognitive processes that are characteristic of science and scientific enquiries of personal, social, or global relevance, as a preparation for students, either now or in the future, making decisions.  Of course, this way of thinking about science education in schools is not significant just because the OECD sees it in these terms, as it is a somewhat mainstream cultural rationale throughout developed, socio-liberal economies.  However, because OECD / PISA is such an important international benchmark of educational attainment, many would see its having additional weight.

The appropriateness of a focus on (environmental) sustainability within formal science education seems implicit in the way that scientific literacy has been viewed here:

the capacity … to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human history.

… as an interest in (and education about) sustainability is not focused on the natural world, per se, but about human interactions with that world, and in this, scientific knowledge and understanding is a crucial component of such a study.   This mirrors the focus of the two aims which provide the “essential context” within which English schools currently develop their curriculum.  Aim 2 states (inter alia) that:

the school curriculum should develop students’ awareness and understanding of, and respect for, the environments in which they live, and secure their commitment to sustainable development at a personal, local, national and global level.  It should also equip pupils as consumers to make informed judgements and independent decisions and to understand their responsibilities and rights.

It also fits with the statement of values and purposes that currently underpin the school curriculum which (inter alia) says:

Education is also a route to equality of opportunity for all, a healthy and just democracy, a productive economy, and sustainable development.  Education should reflect the enduring values that contribute to these ends.  These include valuing ourselves, our families and other relationships, the wider groups to which we belong, the diversity in our society and the environment in which we live.

The next post will look at the implications of all this for what might be taught in school science.

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