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As California faces the daunting realities of mid-year budget cuts, our San Diego schools, at every level, are faced with tough choices about which programs to eliminate, where to cut spending, and how to stretch already thin resources. And yet, jobless rates remain high and many people are looking to education as a recipe for future employment. In San Diego especially, which is at the forefront of biotech research, we need adult citizens educated and trained to fill local jobs in science and technology.
More than this though, we have a responsibility to prepare San Diegans to be well-informed, engaged and reflective citizens, ready to grapple with the multiple questions raised by the cutting edge work happening in our own community, and to participate in conversations with scientists and policy makers about new discoveries and applications. It’s worth examining how we can better meet these responsibilities.
Inevitably, the discussion of the public’s lack of scientific knowledge and the breakdown of communication between scientists and the rest of the population leads to a cry for better science education. Too often, though, those who make this cry imagine the problem too narrowly, as a content problem, rather than more broadly as a literacy issue. Simply put, many students don’t comprehend their science textbooks because they lack the critical literacy tools required for decoding the information. In other words, the problem is not students’ inability to understand scientific ideas; it is their inability even to access them in the textbooks they are reading.
The logic of this claim works like this: Many students have never directly encountered lessons on high-level reading strategies (activation of prior knowledge, making predictions, genre recognition). Some have picked them up along the way, but most have not. Even those who have learned strategies for complex reading have usually done so in the context of their language arts/english courses. However, content areas such as science have different rules, different structures, and different modes of communicating ideas (for example, science text books tend to be much more multi-modal, incorporating text, image, graphs, and data sets all on a single page) which require that students incorporate different reading strategies. Without these strategies, students struggle to access the information. As a result, they perform poorly and fail to grasp what, to trained readers of science, are relatively simple ideas. The result is both teacher and student frustration and a cycle of failure that leads to an ever widening gap between scientists and the vast majority of the public.
However, over the last decade a number of studies have convincingly demonstrated the powerful effects of incorporating literacy training directly into science curricula. The studies show that students in science classes in which instructors model reading strategies and incorporate opportunities for organized student reflection on their own reading/learning perform better on science tests. They also perform better on English tests.
And yet, we do not see these practices systematically implemented in the curriculum. They remain the territory of individual instructors scattered throughout education at a variety of levels. There are a number of real, vexing reasons for this. Some of them are institutional and bureaucratic, some are economic, and some are based in disagreement over individual responsibilities. Many science teachers resist incorporating reading instruction into their science classrooms on the grounds that it is not their responsibility and that, even if it were, they are neither trained nor qualified to do such work. And they are not entirely wrong.
We train people to specialize. We expect our content teachers to have and maintain high levels of expertise in their fields. Is it reasonable, though, to be asking our science teachers to learn a whole new area of study, and to redesign their lessons, and to modify their teaching strategies, all while maintaining their content area expertise? It is not difficult to understand why this type of work often makes faculty uneasy. On the other hand, however, ought we not to expect that our science teachers maintain an expertise in teaching? They are, after all, teachers. Our students deserve the opportunity to learn from instructors who have continued to pursue the highest levels of expertise in their chosen fields, but who have an equal commitment to achieving expertise in pedagogy.
Importantly, though, this is not just a “science teacher” problem, or even a “content area” problem. Language arts/English teachers bear a responsibility in all of this as well. If we are to train an entire generation of teachers to teach in new ways, it will be our reading experts who guide the professional development work. Here though, not surprisingly, we meet with the same kind of teacher resistance. “I am not a scientist;” “I don’t know how to read a science textbook, either;” “My job is already difficult, and I am not ready to take on a whole new area of expertise.”
So what is the fix? It will have to involve commitments to reimagining instructor responsibility, certainly, and reconsidering the way we stucture on-going professional development and teacher education. And we will need the kind of political and institutional commitment to this difficult work that brings the money and focus it will require to make deep changes in the structure of education.
Finally, we need to recognize that this fundamentally matters because the ethical implications of a science illiterate population are profound. If our students can’t comprehend the science they are being taught because they aren’t being taught the processes of comprehension, they won’t, as adults, be able to accurately parse the media’s reporting on science. They likely won’t be able to make sense of the most basic statistics often thrown at them in print and online news reporting about medical, scientific, and technological breakthroughs; they won’t understand the difference between causation and correlation, and why that difference is important. If they can’t clearly grasp what they’re reading, there is little chance that they will be able to make use of the information, which may interfere with the ability to make good medical decisions for themselves or their families, or to be a meaningful part of larger conversations about good and ethical practices in science. Increasingly, science literacy is not just the purview of the scientist; it is a fundamental part of productive citizenship.
The San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology will be hosting a free public forum, “Science Literacy and Underserved Populations,” at The Rueben H. Fleet Science Center on January 4th from 5:30-7:00. Here’s more information about this talk. Register to attend here.
Tate Hurvitz is an Assistant Professor of English at Grossmont College and he regularly teaches in interdisciplinary links with math and science. He lives in Chula Vista.
Dena Plemmons is interim director of the Division of Research Affairs at San Diego
State University. She also writes on behalf of the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. She lives in San Diego.
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