Changes in Science Education
Changes in Science Education

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6 The public understanding of science

The phrase ‘the public understanding of science’ touches on many of the arguments highlighted up to now. In its simplest form, this is the level of scientific knowledge and understanding displayed by lay members of the public – those who are not scientifically trained. In the next reading, there is a mention of the survey methods that have been used to gauge the level of public understanding of science. Many of these are in the form of short exam-style knowledge questions – typical example might be ‘are antibiotics active against viruses?’ or ‘does the Sun go around the Earth or the Earth go around the Sun?’ The final scores could be used to express the level of scientific understanding in the population as a whole; nowadays ‘league tables’ of performance allow international comparisons (see Eurobarometer, 2003), just as they increasingly do in educational contexts. Some such questions are designed to assess the public's awareness of the processes of science – for example, recognising the importance of controls in the testing of new drugs or of the importance of verifying results by repetition.

Using these demanding criteria, such surveys have produced measures of scientific literacy in the population at large that many see as ‘disappointingly’ low. For example, Jon Miller's pioneering work with US citizens (Miller, 1983) has suggested that as few as 10% of the population at large could be classified as ‘scientifically literate’. To some, the implication is that the extent of public participation in the type of decision-making we've talked of already can be no more than rudimentary. Others have been sufficiently alarmed to look for a radical change in science education such that the school curriculum provides a more appropriate and effective foundation for the public understanding of science. Some have argued – following the logic of critics such as Henry Bauer outlined in Section 3 – that the achievement of widespread scientific literacy is an impossible illusion. These lines of thought are pursued more thoroughly in the next reading.

Reading 2

Now study the article ‘School science, citizenship and the public understanding of science’ by Edgar Jenkins.

Click to open the article by Edgar Jenkins [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

A number of key issues spring from the article, and these are summarised in Questions 1–9 below. They are followed by my own answers in the form of brief notes that flesh out some of the details. Read the note that relates to a particular question before moving on; many such notes pick up on ideas we've explored in earlier sections:

  1. For what types of decision-making might scientific literacy be required?

  2. In contrast to surveys of the type already mentioned, what insights have qualitative investigations into the public understanding of science provided?

  3. Give some examples of ‘science for specific social purposes’ from your own experience.

  4. I've already mentioned the utilitarian argument for promoting scientific literacy. What arguments from Jenkins (a) strengthen and (b) weaken the utilitarian argument?

  5. Jenkins argues that ‘scientific knowledge is considered alongside [an] experiential and personal knowledge base’ and that scientific knowledge relevant to an issue is ‘linked intimately with its social and institutional connections’. Provide examples from the Jenkins article that illustrate such statements.

  6. Recall what Jenkins says about whether students gain insight into how scientific investigations are conducted.

  7. If students are to engage more with science-related issues likely to be of interest and concern to them, what changes in school curricula might be required?

  8. Do Jenkins' comments about a greater variety in school curricula in different countries resonate with Michael Reiss' comments on ethnoscience in the first reading?

  9. When Jenkins talks of acknowledging the limitations of science, do you think such a move would do a disservice to science?


Notes on Questions 1–9

  1. Both socio-scientific issues of the type we've mentioned before (e.g. DNA technologies) and personal decision-making – say, relating to diet.

  2. A more complex, interactive picture, where science emerges as something far from ‘coherent, objective and unproblematic’. Science is not seen as something set apart from other forms of knowledge but ‘is weighed alongside other more personal or local knowledge in establishing a basis for action’.

  3. Jenkins quotes the example of citizen opposition to the construction of a runway. At present, my own examples would include knowledge for choosing a new touring bike and effective ways of losing weight. A colleague is hoping to use science (or, more likely, technology) to help her decide on what type of central heating system to install.

  4. Science for specific social purposes emphasises the usefulness of particular aspects of science. But Jenkins’ examples at the top of p. 15 – for example, the workers in a computer firm – may find that the science on offer is inappropriate for required use. In other instances, science of practical value (in home insulation) become subsumed within value judgements and personal knowledge far removed from the world of science.

  5. Examples are farmers in the northwest of England and elderly people dealing with advice about insulating their homes. The BSE example in the UK showed clearly the relationship between the ‘scientific tale and the teller’, where government advice was treated with scepticism. This raises questions too of the allegiance of reputedly objective scientists – whose interests are they serving?

  6. In view of the difficulties discussed earlier about the teaching of the nature of science, the despairing reference to ‘reading Richard Feynman’ is perhaps not surprising. Jenkins's description of ‘unconvincing pedagogic strategies’ and ‘contrived, expensive and time-consuming laboratory activities’ reflects a justifiable scepticism about the value of current approaches.

  7. Jenkins talks of paying less attention to the ‘minutiae of established physics, chemistry and biology’ and a higher profile for science that is controversial and less certain. Teachers would need to engage more in debate and as I've hinted already, the social and institutional connections of scientific knowledge need to come to the fore.

  8. Indeed they do. Reiss talks of the inappropriateness of focusing exclusively on ‘modern international scientific thinking and discoveries’ and finds it impossible to accept that all scientific thinking operates within the same paradigm. Jenkins' notion of flexibility of school curricula are based more on pragmatic grounds and culturally-specific needs; Reiss' more philosophical concerns relate to the truthfulness of trying to portray the rich diversity of science as a single ‘off-the-shelf’ model.

  9. Like Jenkins, I take the view that such a move doesn't undervalue the scientific cause. Rather, it aims to encourage a re-examination of the relationship between science and other forms of knowledge – though distinctions of this type are difficult to achieve in practice.

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