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The future of Science Literacy: link it or lose it! November 21, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education.
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from Colin Webb

In this post Colin Webb argues that science education is insufficiently valued in primary (elementary) schools, and that the most effective forms of science learning combine both science and literacy learning strategies.

I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald recently with some sadness. The headline read: ‘Focus on basic skills blamed for decline in reading standards’ (SMH 21/09/2010). I have long held the belief that a focus on state and national testing of literacy and numeracy would not only lead to a narrowing of the curriculum but also to a decline in literacy standards. Professor Barry McGaw, the chairman of the Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has analysed Australia’s decline in reading performance and described this fall as statistically significant, and has suggested that it is mostly the result of a decline in student performance at the highest level.

So, what has this to do with the future of science education? There have been sad but consistent indications that primary schools are increasingly partitioning the curriculum, with the result that science education is perceived as not as important as the results obtained in NAPLAN tests. In combination, the emphasis on literacy and numeracy, as defined by NAPLAN results, together with the quarantining of science education, has resulted in science being relegated to a lower position in the curriculum hierarchy. McGaw suggests that the decline in reading performance is “… due to schools focusing more on basic achievement levels and not so much on the development of sophisticated reading of complex text.” It is now common for primary schools to have specific times in the day that are allocated purely to teaching literacy and numeracy. The future for science education in primary schools is one that must be linked with literacy (and numeracy) rather than one where science education is considered of little importance under the regime of national testing. The focus on basic achievement levels rather than the sophistication and complexities of factual texts encountered in scientific content essentially implies a ‘dumbing’ down of science itself. Not only is science rarely taught in the primary school curriculum, but when it is the opportunities for literacy development are overlooked because science and literacy are not integrated.

Norris and Phillips (2003) argue that western science would not be possible without text, and that because of the dependence of western science upon text, a person who cannot read and write is severely limited in the depth of scientific knowledge, learning, and education he or she can acquire. To be truly scientifically literate, students must acquire a fundamental sense of scientific literacy that involves reading and writing when the content is science. Being knowledgeable, learned and educated in science is a derived sense of scientific literacy. The two senses are related. Most conceptions or definitions of scientific literacy focus more on the derived sense of literacy and not to the fundamental sense. Reading and writing are essential elements of learning in science and are inextricably linked to the very nature and fabric of science, and, by extension, to learning science.

Using learning experiences that focus on science (and technology) as the starting point provides an authentic context for teachers to develop both a fundamental sense of literacy and a derived sense of science literacy; in other words, the foundations of meaningful scientific literacy. They can integrate fundamental literacy skills and also develop the derived sense of scientific literacy. It would seem to me that creating authentic and integrated science and literacy programs may have the advantage of increasing the literacy levels of students as well as their general scientific literacy.

References: McGaw.B. (2010) ‘Focus on basic skills blamed for decline in reading standards (SMH. 21/09/2010)’. Norris, S. P., & Phillips, L. M. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87, 224-240.

Colin Webb is a Lecturer in science education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He particularly specialises in and promotes engaging science pedagogies for young people aged 3-12 years.


1. Robyn Gregson - December 2, 2010

Colin I agree with all you have said and I too feel disheartened by the lack of status science has in schools. However I think the issue goes even deeper. Primary teachers lack the confidence to teach science as many completed their science education at Year 10 level. They chose contexts in which they will teach literacy and numeracy and science is made a low priority as they see the content as “too hard”. As tertiary educators we need to provide opportunities for trainee teachers to have positive experiences with science and provide skills for them to gain confidence.

2. auntylee - March 9, 2011

Colin,In the past we learned mainly by reading texts but have you considered that today most learning is by video. The written word is used mainly for communication of opinions and ideas.

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