The Meaning of Scientific Literacy
Published: July 10, 2009
This paper sets out to provide an overview of scientific literacy specifically related to whether emphasis is placed on the ‘science’ or the ‘literacy’ aspect, accepting that literacy, wherever used, is wider than simply reading and writing. It does this from a general rather than a country perspective. The emphasis in giving meaning to scientific literacy is placed on the literacy component in recognition of the trend towards relating scientific literacy to skills and values appropriate for a responsible citizen. Rejected is a consideration that scientific literacy is related to an emphasis on the acquisition of content and this is especially considered, noting the social bias and cultural embedding of science. The emphasis on enhancing scientific literacy is placed on an appreciation of the nature of science, the development of personal attributes and the acquisition of socioscientific skills and values. Furthermore, in teaching towards this view of scientific literacy, a key component is seen as relevance and a model of relevance for science teaching is put forward based on relevance being seen from two perspectives. Relevance from both perspectives is very much geared to the view that scientific literacy is best taught by seeing science education as ‘education through science’ as opposed to ‘science through education.’
Nature of science, scientific literacy, responsible citizenship, education through science, relevance, nature of science education
The term ‘scientific literacy’ has been used in the literature for more than four decades (Gallagher & Harsch, 1997), although not always with the same meaning (Bybee, 1997). It is a simple term and its major advantage is that it sums up, at the school level, the intentions of science education. The term scientific literacy avoids the use of distracting detail and, as such, convincingly portrays a complex idea which intuitively appears to be correct (Baumert, 1997). Baumert recognises that the core of the idea behind scientific literacy lies in its analogy with literacy.
Many definitions have been put forward for scientific literacy since Paul deHard Hurd used the term in 1958 (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1989; Bybee, 1997; Gräber et al., 2001; Holbrook & Rannikmae, 1997; Hurd, 1958; Laugksch, 2000; National Science Education Standards [NSES], 1996; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2003; 2007). There is confusion as to its exact meaning; Norris and Philips (2003) contend that the term scientific literacy has been used to include various components from the following:
They cite references to illustrate this. The confusion as to a precise meaning has led to a call to remove such a term as a goal for school science education (Fensham, 2008). Yet the OECD sets out to determine scientific literacy for future adult life through a longitudinal international study (OECD, 2007), although this has been criticised, not least because its measures are through written tests and questionnaires, which generally show developing countries to be in poor shape to meet such a goal.
In this paper it is suggested that retaining the use of scientific literacy is still appropriate, but it is necessary to relate scientific literacy to an appreciation of the nature of science, personal learning attributes including attitudes and also to the development of social values (Holbrook & Rannikmae, 2007). For this, relevance of the learning plays a role and teaching materials, striving toward student enhancement of scientific literacy, need to consider a societal frame, introduction of conceptual science on a need to know basis, and to embrace the socio- scientific situation that provides the relevance for responsible citizenship (Holbrook, 2008).
It is extremely difficult to give clarity of meaning to either the term scientific literacy, or scientific and technological literacy (a term used in recognition of the relationship between science and technology in everyday life). This is especially the case when translating the term into languages other than English. A forum on scientific and technological literacy for all (UNESCO, 1993) suggested the French term as “la culture scientifique et tec/mologique,” a translation that clearly reflects the cultural intention and points the way towards recognising that a person who is scientifically and technologically literate is a person who can function within society as a whole, rather than simply as a scientist in the workplace.
As part of the Science-Technology-Society (STS) movement, the NSTA (1991) suggested that a scientifically and technologically literate person needs intellectual capability but that other attributes are also important. The components put forward were (subdivisions added by the authors for clarity):
Intellectual (Higher Order Thinking Skills)
However there are many who see scientific literacy aligned with ‘knowing science’, limited to the intellectual components expressed above, and this view is particularly prevalent on the internet. Even major projects such as Project 2061 (AAAS, 1993) try to spell out the science content that students should know, even though they recognise that science (and technology) are evolving at a faster and faster pace and content is prone to becoming obsolete. Millar (1997), in suggesting that civic scientific literacy - considered as the level of understanding of science and technology needed to function as a citizen - is important, puts forward data to suggest that the amount of basic school science is the strongest predictor of civic scientific literacy in adults.
Whatever the actual definition, there is, it seems, general agreement that the term ‘scientific literacy’ is used somewhat metaphorically. It thus goes beyond any notion of reading and writing, and few would claim that it refers simply to the ability to read scientific journals (Hand, 1999; Klein, 2006). The metaphorical use tends to turn scientific literacy into a slogan, meaning all things to all people, but it does serve to indicate the intentions of science education. As such, the goal of science education can be expressed as scientific, or scientific and technological, literacy (ICASE, 2003; Norris & Philips, 2003).
While agreement on the meaning of scientific literacy, beyond the metaphorical use, is much less universal, there seems to be two major camps, or points of view:
The first camp seems to be very prevalent among science teachers today. It builds on the notion that there are ‘fundamental ideas’ in science that are essential and that there is content of science which is a crucial component of scientific literacy. It has been described as a short term view (Maienschein, 1998) of knowing science and even labelled as “science literacy” to distinguish it from a longer term view of “scientific literacy”. The term science literacy, however, is not common, and for the most part it seems to be a play on words.
The second camp encompasses the longer term view and sees scientific literacy as a requirement to be able to adapt to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. This focus sees scientific literacy align with the development of life skills (Rychen & Salganik, 2003). It recognises the need for reasoning skills in a social context, and above all, this view recognises that scientific literacy is for all, having little to do with science teaching solely focusing on a career in science, or providing only an academic science background for specialisation in science. In fact, it is contended that the second view refutes the need for two types of school science courses - one for general education and another for specialists - and recognises that a specialist course is simply an extension of the former with an increase of “time on task” - that is, more science lessons, which will give time for more in-depth investigation.
Between these two camps, Gräber et al. (2001) see a continuum of views that stretch between the two extremes of subject competence and meta-competence. Whereas Bybee (1997) proposed a comprehensive hierarchical model still very much driven by the discipline of science, a more central position can be taken in which subject competence is important, but is propagated by general competences within education, and this is strongly supported by Project 2061 (AAAS, 1993). A further intermediary view for scientific literacy sees the general aim as being oriented towards societal requirements, to learn how to deal with social issues and to make rationally founded decisions. Shamos (1995), however, doubts whether any definition of scientific literacy, which includes both wide and deep content knowledge and process competence, is possible. He sees scientific literacy far more in terms of promoting competent consumers of science with the ability to gain knowledge from experts as and when appropriate.
The Gräber model for scientific literacy (2001), illustrated in Figure 1, is put forward as competency-based. The model reconsiders the balance between the various competencies and reflects on the specific contribution science education can make to the education of adults. This view upholds the need for scientific literacy to be far more than knowledge and integrates the component of values education as an essential component of science education (and although only an ethical component is mentioned, it can be seen to interrelate with human rights, tolerance, education for peace, gender equity, and the place of indigenous technologies). But it contrasts, perhaps, with ideas that point to a need for education, and especially science education, to play a strong role in the development of responsible citizens. In this area, scientific literacy would need to encompass socioscientific decision making skills (Holbrook, 1998; Holbrook & Rannikmae, 2007; UNESCO, 2003) as an area above and beyond scientific problem solving.
The trend in defining scientific literacy is suggested as away from the short term product approach, in which the facts and skills are paramount, towards the inclusion of issue-based teaching, the need to go beyond scientific problem solving to encompass socioscientific decision making, and the recognition that scientific literacy relates to enabling citizens to effectively participate in the real world. The trend indicates a movement that gives less attention to scientific literacy being viewed as the possession of conceptual understanding of pure science abstract ideas and emphasises more the ability to make decisions related to the technological applications of scientific ideas or socioscientific issues facing society, these being recognised as crucial learning components. Shamos (1995) prefers the use of science awareness, rather than scientific literacy in this context. In this frame, biological literacy, chemical literacy or physical literacy are seen as non-existing entities and only the encompassing term, scientific literacy, is seen as meaningful.
The shift toward the long term view of scientific literacy does not mean that it is a single entity. At the school level, Bybee (1997) has suggested scientific literacy can be considered at four functional levels:
It is clear that only the multidimensional level is the goal for the long term view of scientific literacy, and this is recognised by Bybee. While this breakdown of scientific literacy is perhaps meaningful for school purposes, it may be less applicable to adult life. Here Shamos (1995) suggests scientific literacy can be sub-divided as cultural, functional and true, where the three 3 levels are seen as increasing in sophistication.
It should thus be clear that a single, simple definition of scientific literacy is extremely problematic. The OECD (1998) PISA study sees scientific literacy as;
The capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity.
This was later modified and PISA moved to determining scientific literacy in three dimensions (OECD, 2007).
о the recognition of scientific questions
о the identification of evidence
о the drawing of conclusions
о the communication of these conclusions
о the demonstration of understanding of scientific concepts.
All but the last of these do not require a pre-set body of science knowledge. Yet since no scientific process can be ‘content-free’, the PISA science questions will always require understanding of key scientific concepts.
An issue here is the meaning of ‘key concepts’ related to the second part. By introducing such a term, this more description picture contrasts with the definition put forward in the ICASE-UNESCO forum on scientific and technological literacy for all (UNESCO, 1993, p.15) as
The capability to function with understanding and confidence, and at appropriate levels, in ways that bring about empowerment in the made world and in the world of scientific and technological ideas.
And both differ from a definition covering scientific and technological literacy, put forward as (Holbrook and Rannikmae, 1997, p 15):
Developing the ability to creatively utilise sound science knowledge in everyday life or in a career, to solve problems, make decisions and hence improve the quality of life.”
All, however, see the need for scientific literacy to relate to an ability of functionality as a citizen within society (at home, at work, in the community), not purely at a knowledge level, but in making decisions and acting as a responsible person. Only the last, however, may be suggested as emphasising socio-scientific decision making, where it is not the changes to the natural world alone that are the focus, but also the way of thinking.
An understanding of the Nature of Science plays an important role in the development of scientific literacy. The difficulty here is that there is no specific description for appreciation the exact nature of science. It seems that the Nature of Science does not have one clear interpretation. As all philosophical concepts/terms, its context is not a continuum and hence its meaning is floating/changing accordingly to the subject-object relationship (teacher to student; scientist (1) to teacher, scientist (2) to teacher, etc.). However, there is a certain agreement as to what science is - even if different groups argue and emphasize different aspects of the nature of science (Bell & Lederman, 2003) - and it is not surprising, therefore, NOS within science education schools can be considered from different perspectives:
Definitions that do not recognise the meaning of ‘big ideas’, or suggest that such a concept does not exist, obviously reject this interpretation of the nature of science.
Few definitions would omit this interpretation entirely, although the alignment with scientists’ science is in contrast to an interpretation of science education which rejects a scientist’s logic and stresses the need that science is for all and aligned with functionality in society. In this view, content is acquired on a need-to-know basis, and emphasis is on the skills to know how to extract and handle information when needed. It is here that a familiarity with language, or communication tools in general, can play a role.
This alignment is very much related to definitions of scientific literacy which recognise the need for decision making within a societal frame as important components of scientific literacy. While views on the nature of science has been researched among scientists (Schwartz & Ledermann, 2008), teachers and students (El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000; Zeidler, Walker, Ackett & Simmons, 2002; Bell and Lederman, 2003; Sadler, Chambers & Zeidler, 2004), only a few studies so far draw attention to this area of research among science educators and students outside the USA and Europe (Rannikmae, Rannikmae & Holbrook, 2006). Nevertheless, if it is appropriate to suggest that knowledge is not fundamental to the idea of scientific literacy, then the basis of scientific literacy can be considered, in general, as the nature of science, personal attributes and social development (Holbrook & Rannikmae, 2007, Figure 1).
This is proposed as a major change of focus for classroom implementation and also for the assessment of student achievements in the discipline of science education. It suggests the teaching of science subjects is through this educational structure, not simply through science content. Furthermore, such a structure forms the focus for the enhancement of scientific literacy through formal schooling. As such science content, as a specific identity rather than giving meaning to the context, has little direct relationship with scientific literacy. The teaching 282 thrust for this form of scientific literacy has been described as education through science and contrasted with science through education (Holbrook & Rannikmae, 2007). This is illustrated in Table 1 below.
This article recognises that the relevance of school science is also important for the enhancement of scientific literacy. Relevance has been interpreted as importance, usefulness or meaningfulness to the needs of the students (Levitt, 2001). A more personal interpretation of relevance put forward by Keller (1983) defines relevance as a student perception of whether the content or instruction satisfied his/her personal needs, personal goals, and career goals. These visions suggest that relevance influences motivation and in particular intrinsic motivation. Furthermore a number of science educational literature studies have also equated relevance with students’ interest (Matthews, 2004; Ramsden, 1998). Relevance is seen as the key to raising student interests by making it more useful in the eyes of students (Za'rour, 2001).
The relevance of science education in the eyes of students is multidimensional and depends on several components (Teppo & Rannikmae, 2008). Van Aalsvoort (2004), in reviewing the literature, concludes that there are four aspects of relevance related to the study of science in school:
From a teaching perspective, however, these components of relevance can be divided into two major areas. From one perspective, relevance can be associated with the initial impact of the learning on the students, that is, trying to justify the answer the question ‘why study this?’ (personal relevance). In this way relevance is a perception by the student. It is a perception of usefulness, meaningfulness, being helpful, needfulness, and importance of the area of learning. And it is a perception before the learning starts to take place. It is thus viewed very much from the perspective of whether the learning will meet the need perceived by the student. This perceived need may have been previously initiated in a number of ways, for example, aspects in the media, debates taking place in the society, relationship with employment, both at present and in the future. This perspective suggests relevance cannot avoid ‘interest’ (individual interest and situational interest - Krapp, 2002) and leads towards emphasising the relevance in an appropriate, and an appropriately addressed, topic for teaching.
But it is noteworthy that relevance can also be used within the learning to show that the learning has relevance to the student i.e. relevance of the learning or if you wish, in answer to the questions 'why learn these science components?'. This relevance is triggered by the teaching (towards creating a professional, social or personal need by the student) and as such is satisfying a need, rather than being perceived as having the potential to satisfy the need.
Both are presumed to relate to ‘motivation to learn’ (Keller, 1983). But the first means that the initial impression or perception is important. If this does not conjure up an indication that it can meet the need, the motivation to learn is likely to be strongly affected. The emotional response is likely to be ‘why am I studying this?’ Thus here relevance precedes motivation and becomes a trigger to motivate the student. This relevance might be called the relevance of the topic presented to the student for study.
To gain a relevant initial impression, the title of the section of learning and the ‘situation’ that introduces this (setting the scene) become very important. These form the impression. If the title has unfamiliar, scientific terms with no obvious link to the student’s prior experiences, why should this be perceived as relevant? And if the introductory situation is abstract, or related to another culture, why should this be perceived as having meaning for the world of the student? The title and ‘situation’ thus need to relate to familiar terminology (everyday language) and to the life experiences of the student.
The second meaning of relevance leads to satisfying a need. It is sufficiently motivation- ally promoted that the student participates in the learning and, if other factors promoting motivation also function well, the student wants to, and does, learn. Here motivation drives relevance by the science teaching satisfying student learning needs. Such relevance may be dependent on the classroom situation, the comprehensibility of the science and how the learning might help with a career or further studies. This relevance might be called the relevance of the projected subject matter.
This article has sided with definitions where scientific literacy has been related to functionality within society and as such sides with those who relate being scientifically literate with situation and circumstance (Layton, Jenkins, Macgill & Davey, 1993). The article has also tried to show that an appreciation of the nature of science is a further component important for scientific literacy. The importance of differentiating science from pseudoscience or developing an awareness that science in not applicable to the solving of all society’s problems, is recognised as important in today’s world of horoscopes and dramatic media or advertising headlines. The link to today’s world also brings in the need to consider relevance of the learning.
A new definition is put forward for scientific literacy and hence the target for science education. This tries takes note of the need to address an appreciation of the nature of science and the relevance of the science being acquired.
Enhancing scientific literacy through science education is:
Developing an ability, to creatively utilise appropriate evidence-based scientific knowledge and skills, particularly with relevance for everyday life and a career, in solving personally challenging yet meaningful scientific problems as well as making, responsible socio-scientific decisions.
But it is necessary to recognise that enhancing scientific literacy is also dependent on the need to:
Develop collective interaction skills, personal development and suitable communication approaches as well as the need to exhibit sound and persuasive reasoning in putting forward socio-scientific arguments.