This is a basic argument for my PhD research project. The thesis itself undergoes many changes over time as I develop my thoughts further and learn more about the topic. Constructive feedback is welcome and may result in changes to my ideas. Thanks for reading.

“Science literacy is a vaccine against the charlatans of the world that would exploit your ignorance.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

What is the purpose of science education?

What is the purpose of science education? The purpose of science education as it is practised around the world today appears to be to train and educate future scientists in the ontology (knowledges) and practices (methodologies) of science (Osborne, 2007). Such an education often focuses on one or two detailed concepts, phenomena or practices at a time; this is much like examining single pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and expecting to gain meaning. It is only when the jigsaw has been completed that the larger picture can be seen and appreciated.

This is fantastic, for the small proportion of the population who will, eventually, become scientists; as scientific research progresses there is more and more to understand and more and more skills involved in being a scientist; also, often scientists today are trained into specialties rather than developing a broader knowledge of science, so the more years of education that can be devoted to the development of these knowledge, the better. When scientists have reached the end of their formal education, it may be possible for them to look back and appreciate how the jigsaw pieces fit together, and gain meaning from the larger picture.

However, the vast majority of the population will not enter a career in science*, and may never have the chance to appreciate the larger pictures of science, and how the small ideas fit together. For the vast majority of the population, we must shift our educational goals and aim to develop scientifically literate citizens who can critically interpret and argue about socially relevant scientific issues such as climate change, pandemic viruses, and space exploration (Bell and Lederman, 2003; Driver, Newton and Osborne, 2007). A lack of scientific literacy is responsible for a public distrust of science, over-representation of anti-scientific views, and over-application of the precautionary principle in scientific research (Osborne, 2007).

Authors of curriculum documents have argued that science education must therefore include more than just scientific knowledge and methodology; it must also include the epistemology of science (nature and histories). Our own Australian Curriculum: Science has therefore added an additional strand to the science curriculum, known as Science as a Human Endeavour, to the historical strand Science Understanding (content) and the more novel Science Inquiry Skills (processes). The Science as a Human Endeavour describes understandings related to students’ appreciation for the nature of science as a social endeavour, and of science as a field that can contribute to the resolution of issues in the larger community (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2012).

I would argue though, that the primary goal of science education must be even narrower than this. We do need to educate students who will eventually become scientists – a small percentage of the population. We also need to educate students  to make judgments in socially relevant contexts of science, such as climate change – a large majority of the population need to be able to do this. However, what is more important is educating students who can make reliable decisions in personally relevant contexts of science. What are personally relevant contexts of science? Personal health and the health of those we care for, nutrition, exercise, drug use, sexual health, gardening, using technology, etc. Every person needs to be able to do this. This is true scientific literacy.

Osborne argues that the utility of science is a fallacy; that it is non-essential to know and understand science to live in this world (2007). Perhaps the knowledges of science – ‘what the general public ought to know about science’ (Durant, 1993, p. 129) – is not necessary. I cannot think of any scientific fact that is necessary to my existence in this world. However, the ability to interpret scientific research, to match evidence to explanation, to be sceptical about claims put to me certainly helps me to make useful decisions each day about my health and diet. Such decisions, made effortfully and using the processes of scepticism, may save me time and money and can make me healthier and happier.

I argue that this is the crux of scientific literacy: to be able to make decisions in personally relevant contexts of science, using the processes and principles of scepticism. What do you think?

References

ACARA Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (n.d.). The Australian curriculum: Science. Retrieved on 5th December 2012 from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Science/

Bell, R. and Lederman, N. (2003). Understandings of the Nature of Science and Decision Making on Science and Technology Based Issues, Science Education, 87(3), 352-377.

Driver, R., Newton, P. and Osborne, J. (1998). Establishing the Norms of Scientific Argumentation in Classrooms, Science Education, 84(3), 287-312.

Durant, J. (1993). What is Scientific Literacy? In Durant, J. & Gregory, J. (Eds.), Science and Culture in Europe. London: Science Museum.

Osborne, Jonathan (2007). Science Education for the Twenty First Century. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 3(3), 173-184.

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