Science in the Formal Curriculum – and Sustainability – 3

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

As I have argued, this linkage between science knowledge, understanding and sustainability does not need to be forced as both are rather ‘natural’ in scope.  It does, however, need to be made visible to schools, and encouraged, in at least two senses: [i] at a very basic level, permission needs to be given that a focus on sustainability is appropriate for school science; and [ii] that it is a necessary (but far from the only) context of study if the aims of studying school science are to be fulfilled.

These need not be separate exercises and can be established through [i] the kind of preamble statements of aims, purpose and values that we have seen (Post 2), and [ii] the identification of learning focus and/or outcomes.  So, with this rationale, and this view of scientific literacy, what is it important for young people to know, value, and be able to do in situations involving science (and technology)?

For PISA, scientific literacy refers to young people’s:

  • Scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, acquire new knowledge, explain scientific phenomena and draw evidence-based conclusions about science-related issues
  • Understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry
  • Awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual and cultural environments
  • Willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen    OECD 2009:128

In what follows, one way of thinking about the outcomes of a science education ending at Key Stage 4 is set out, with sustainability in mind, based on the OECD notion of scientific literacy.

Students should have an appropriate knowledge and critical understanding of …

1 fundamental ecological concepts; viz: diversity of lifeforms,  communities of lifeforms in specific areas,  ecosystems,  adaptation of animals and plants to their environment,  energy flow through such systems,  material cycles in nature,  inter-relationships between energy flow, material flow and the viability of lifeforms and communities

and to have studied these, as appropriate and possible, at first-hand.

2 theories of genetics, inheritance and evolution, the theories and practices of plant and animal breeding, and the concepts of biotechnology and genetic engineering.

3 ways in which the natural world is of benefit to humanity; viz:

  • a source of those resources necessary for life and bio-processes (eg, viable ecosystems, a benign climate, a clean atmosphere, the greenhouse effect, nutritious, edible and palatable food, clean water)
  • a source of resources required for social and socio-economic activity (eg, fuels for heat, transport and economic activity, raw materials for shelter, security and economic activity, eg, minerals, plant crops, gases)
  • a means of disposing of the waste products of humans and their socio-economic activities in order to render such waste harmless, and/or in order to recycle/reuse it for further/future use

4 the evidence around the ways in which both social and economic human activity are thought, increasingly, to disturb and stress natural cycles and flows, and jeopardizes the viability of such systems; viz:  habitat loss and the commensurate effects on species and biodiversity; agricultural land loss;  acidification of soils and the oceans;  desertification;  eutrophication;  temperature fluctuations;  global warming, accelerated climate change; pollution of air, groundwater, land, waterways, and the oceans;  stratospheric ozone layer depletion, …

5 ways in which human activity is using up resources which are finite and irreplaceable, the search for alternative materials, and the problems associated with this.

6 arguments about, both the need to change the ways in which humans use energy and the urgency of such action, and the steps which are being taken to shift to greater use of renewable sources.

7 the large discrepancies in the use of energy and resources across the world, and the resulting differences in the quality of life and life-expectancy for different groups of people; and of the ethical issues raised by such differences.

8 arguments about how humans have a duty of care and responsibility towards other life-forms on the planet, both in the need to treat them humanely (eg, in experimentation, agriculture, hunting, their use in commerce and in domestic contexts) and in the need to do nothing to jeopardise their continuing viability at the species level; and of the ethical issues raised by such differences.

9 arguments about how humans have a duty of care towards the needs of future human generations and the future of the planet; and of the ethical issues raised by such differences.

10 the implications of all of 4 to 9 for the quality and perhaps even the existence of future life on the planet (human and all other), including a critical understanding of the quality of the arguments and evidence upon which such concerns are based, and the implications for future policy, activity, training and education.

Students should acquire such knowledge and understanding in a way which …

11 requires them actively to engage with ideas and data, and allows them to appreciate the complexities of the arguments

12 gives them appropriate first-hand experience of environmental issues in authentic contexts

13 allows them to acquire suitable practical environmental investigation and action skills

14 demonstrates the links between science and other disciplines

15 involves a respect for evidence and a recognition of the need for balance

16 requires them to create their own theories about how environmental issues might be understood and dealt with

17 increases their own sense of concern and responsibility for the future of lifeforms on the planet

So that students, individually and/or collectively, will have the ability and motivation to …

18 comprehend and contribute to the on-going debate about environmental and sustainability issues in a way which is both scientifically and environmentally sound, doing this in a critical way

19 be aware of individual and collective impacts on environmental systems in daily life and work, and think about how these can be mitigated

20 help influence those around them at work and in the community to raise the level of awareness of environmental/sustainability issues and the implications of actions

21 use their action skills at home, at work and in the community, for positive social benefit

22 contribute through deliberative social processes to shaping policy at local and national levels.

Although this has a strong environment / sustainability element, it remains a science course of study, where the sustainability issues are aspects of a scientific focus on the nature of, and our understanding of, the natural world.  It has been interpreted only for those aspects of science that have a bearing on an understanding of sustainability and environmental issues.  As such, this does not address all those other elements which do not have such a link.

Inevitably, what is set out is incomplete.  It is indicative, rather than definitive, and can only be an illustration of what might be.


Barratt Hacking EC, Scott WAH & Lee E (2010) Evidence of Impact of Sustainable Schools.  London: Department for Children, Schools and Families

Bybee R (1997a) Achieving Scientific Literacy: From Purposes to Practices; Portsmouth NH: Heinemann

Bybee R (1997b) Towards an understanding of scientific literacy, in W. Gräber & C. Bolte (Eds.), Scientific Literacy: An International Symposium, Institute for Science Education at the University of Kiel (IPN) Kiel, Germany,

OECD (2009) PISA 2009 Assessment Framework Key competencies in reading, mathematics and science; Paris: OECD

OECD (2003) The PISA 2003 Assessment Framework mathematics, reading, science and problem-solving knowledge & skills; Paris: OECD

[1] By way of contrast, how PISA categorieses knowledge of science is set out in Appendix 2

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