The LENScience learning programmes are designed to support the development of scientific literacy. But what exactly do we mean by this. I met with the Science Department of Fairfield College in Hamilton, New Zealand last month and we engaged in discussion about the difference between scientific literacy and literacy for science.

The Fairfield team have a very active and engaging science programme within their school exploring issues of significance to the students and their community. They have become a partner research school with LENScience and are interested in how science learning experiences can support links between school and community, while also supporting student engagement and achievement appropriate to 21st century communities.

Many definitions are attributed to scientific literacy and we explored two statements, one defining and one describing scientific literacy.

We agreed that we wanted science learning experiences in schools to support young people to develop competencies that would enable them to use scientific knowledge, skills and understanding in decision-making about issues relevant to the students, their families, communities and society. Personally I think that the New Zealand Curriculum statement puts this simply, but strongly, and acknowledges the importance of culture in the consideration of when and how scientific knowledge is used by individuals, communities and society. If students develop the competencies described in this statement, and have the opportunity to engage with relevant science knowledge, they will have the opportunity to participate in informed decision-making about when and how they use scientific knowledge in their own lives, and will contribute similarly to community and societal decision-making. Issues of access to resource to enable those decisions will impact on whether they are realised or not.

The OECD PISA programme, in looking at what should be measured when assessing scientific literacy is very helpful in highlighting the importance of the development of understanding of a combination of factors including:

  • concepts of science | the nature of science | processes of science | the culture of science.

I have represented this concept diagrammatically, helping to highlight the matrix of competencies required to allow students to use scientific evidence in decision-making. If the learning experiences offered in schools support the development of each of these aspects of scientific literacy, they will also support students to explore and develop their own attitudes towards science and its place in society.

The LENScience learning modules are designed to support development of each of these aspects of scientific literacy using contexts that support students to visualise and explore the links between science, their personal and family lives, their communities and society. However, it is not possible to develop scientific literacy capability without the support of many other skills and competencies associated with literacy, numeracy, ethics, thinking and decision-making. This is where the team at Fairfield engaged in a robust discussion around the challenges associated with development of the literacy (and numeracy) skills required to enable students to access science learning experiences.

Literacy for science describes the literacy skills required to engage with science as it is presented in school, in the media, or from within the science community itself. This is different to scientific literacy, but is absolutely required to enable scientific literacy. As teachers we need to proactively develop learning experiences that support both these goals, as well as to engage in cross-curricular linkage to support students to actively transfer the literacy and numeracy skills that they develop in other subject areas into their science learning.

Even if our students develop scientific literacy capabilities and the associated literacy and numeracy skills required to engage in evidence-based decision, making, access to current science knowledge for communities and society is a significant issue, and one that a group of Year 12 students raised with me last week. They were reflecting that when they were engaged with the LENScience Diabetes: An Issue for My Community programme in Year 11 they felt that they had access to relevant current scientific and health information to support their decision-making, but that this was generally lacking for their generation through the media. This is a challenge that I have agreed to explore with the students, around half of whom are not taking science subjects any longer. I am interested to hear from them about how they think that their generation can be supported to engage with relevant scientific information.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) The PISA 2003 Assessment Framework –Mathematics, Reading, Science, and Problem Solving Knowledge and Skills, OECD, Paris, France, 2003

Ministry of Education (MoE) The New Zealand Curriculum for English-medium teaching and learning in years 1-13. Wellington: Learning Media, 2007.

Further Reading:  Bay JL (2013) Let’s talk about scientific literacy. New Zealand Science Teacher 132, 50-53

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Jacquie Bay

LENScience Director; experienced biology teacher, science educator and researcher.

Jane Duffy

LENScience Project & Comms Manager; working across all the LENScience programmes.