Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Science Literacy

Recently there has been quite a bit of talk about science literacy. As most of us know, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, of The Intersection, have recently written a book entitled Unscientific America where they discuss this phenomenon. Two questions immediately spring to mind. The first, what is science literacy, was discussed over at More Grumbine Science not too long ago in two blog posts here and here. The second question then (in two parts) is as follows: 1) who is responsible for science literacy; and 2) how do we effectively increase science literacy?

Over at More Grumbine Science I left the following comment:
1. What is scientific literacy? Taken from the National Academy of Sciences: Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately. (National Science Education Standards, page 22)

Given this definition, I believe that scientific literacy means that the individual is able to apply critical thinking skills to issues with a scientific bent. I believe that this means that we really need to get away from the rote memorization system of teaching, which IMO crushes critical thinking skills at an early age. People grow up thinking the correct answers are always going to be provided to them. Then when issues get politicized, they're sitting ducks.

2. How important is it for modern society to be scientifically literate?

Extremely important. This country was founded upon the ideas of people who could think for themselves. Just look at the countries that suppress critical thinking. I'd hardly call them "modern societies". There is a lot of blame to go around, and journalism (not science) should take the bulk of the blame. All the major networks, all the major newspapers and magazines ... all put their own political spin on everything. Where have the days gone where people give us the facts, and we make up our own minds?
However, I think that perhaps I'm in error when I say that the bulk of the blame should be journalism. Rather, I think the bulk of the blame probably resides with our educational system. I said as much in my response to #1 where I said, we really need to get away from the rote memorization system of teaching, which IMO crushes critical thinking skills at an early age.

Which brings me to my point for the day (other than the one at the top of my head). As I'm putting together my peer case, I'm going over the past presentations, interactions, etc that I have performed in the last few years of my career and I recalled an interaction I had with Dr. George Gopen (who I have made mention of a handful of times on the blogosphere). Yes, the Professor of Rhetoric at Duke University indeed has his own webpage.

At any rate, I recalled a discussion he presented about communication. I'm going to quote his paper Why So Many Bright Students and So Many Dull Papers?: Peer-Responded Journals as a Partial Solution to the Problem of the Fake Audience (PDF, 27 pages).
When a professional in any field writes, that person tends to be an expert. The expert writes so that those who do not know something may come to know it. Readers in the professional world read in order to find out what someone better or differently informed has to say. We have a technical term for this rhetorical relationship: We call it communication.

I would argue that it is fantasy to believe that students writing assigned papers for teachers are primarily engaged in the rhetorical act of communication. They do not think, having been two days at the library, that they have become the “experts” in this field and will now produce an essay in order to fill full the empty vial of teacher with the milk of human knowledge. Their belief takes them too far in the opposite direction: They tend to think that teacher knows 100% of what can be known about this subject. There is no perceived need for “communication”; instead, the rhetorical task at hand here is the duller, narrower, more burdensome one of “demonstration.” Students must demonstrate to teacher that they control a modest amount of that which teacher knows expertly.
Emphasis mine. Communication versus demonstration. Which one more effectively leads the student towards a better understanding of the subject material? I would contend that clearly, it's communication. Communication in the sense that the students need to understand the material, and vigorously defend it. I remember in college having to partake in debates, and defending some issues/points of view that I did not agree with. Those are the ones I remember most clearly, and those are the ones I took the most pride in (considering I successfully defended a position I would never personally hold). Are our children challenged in such a way in our educational system? If Hollywood is our judge, then the answer is obviously NO. If it were, movies such as The Dead Poets Society would not have been as popular as they are. Instead, rote memorization rules the day. Students and teachers need to meet quotas, and critical thinking does not fill quotas.

More on this later, but feel free to add your comments.


Jen Avere said...

New reader here. I have enjoyed perusing your thoughts and I particularly like this post. As a student (and future instructor, possibly?) this really speaks to me, especially the "...need to get away from the rote memorization system of teaching." I presume you mean at every level of the education system of course, from kindergarten to college.
Yes, there needs to be a system in place to promote more critical thinking -- my entire secondary education was through a gifted program that left me *completely* unequipped to deal with the assembly-line, scan-tron-oriented college system. I was bitterly disappointed to find that critical thinking (and especially debate) was discouraged in the college setting.
So, I am bored out of my mind, and consequently lose interest easily.

Yes, there are many of us who prefer communication over demonstration. I am probably in a minority here, but I would much prefer to be tested via oral examination than have to circle (A) (B) (C) or (none of the above).

Now, I do understand the need to process tests quickly, but in the end the students lose out for the reason you've stated: no critical thinking was involved.

But what is the alternative?

Great post and I look forward to reading more.

Tom said...

Thanks for stopping by Jennaviere, and I apologize for neglecting this entry. I WILL bring it back to the forefront soon.