Main Goal of Science Curriculum Should be Scientific Literacy

Alberta’s ruling UCP recently released a draft of a proposed new Alberta elementary school curriculum. Educators and many others are heavily criticizing the draft for its inappropriate content, its reactionary political bias, the fact that some of it was plagiarized from a U.S. site, and for numerous other good reasons. Over 25 (out of 61) Alberta school boards, including Edmonton and Calgary, are refusing to pilot it. On April 15, the Alberta Teachers’ Association called for the UCP to stop work on the draft until a rewrite and review can take place.

Certainly, the UCP draft is a major fail and deserves all the criticism it is receiving. At the same time, in the current era, solutions are what is needed. Thus, the key question is, “What should the curriculum be?” Integral to this is the question “What should the aim of the curriculum be?” That is a very broad question indeed so as a science educator of long experience, I am limiting myself here to discussing what might be the aim of the science curriculum. 

The current pandemic has once again emphasized the importance of scientific literacy. Most people are relying on the expertise of experienced scientists such as infectious disease specialists as their source of reliable knowledge about COVID-19, how it spreads, how dangerous it is, what to do about it, and so on. This approach is sometimes sarcastically contrasted to the unsavory option of relying on the social media rantings of some random crank.

If scientific literacy is the main goal of science education then what is it? At one time, it simply meant being in possession of a large number of established scientific facts, e.g., knowing that viruses are living organisms that cannot reproduce without a host cell. This older conception limited the acquisition of scientific literacy to accumulating somewhat disjointed bits of scientific knowledge, similar to preparing for a science-oriented quiz show. 

More recently, scientific literacy is being more broadly defined. In this approach, the key is to link science with the student’s (and teacher’s) lifeworld. There is much more emphasis on the importance of an understanding of science by those who will not pursue science-related careers. The basic aim could be summed up as shaping informed, socially responsible, competent citizens who can deal more effectively with the science-related social problems that face us all, e.g., the pandemic.

What might be some of the attributes of such a scientifically literate person, fostered over a period of time? They might include the following, applied of course to specific areas of science content: bases conclusions on evidence, willingness to change ideas based on evidence, distinguishes experts from the uninformed, is aware of how science is done and how its findings are validated, distinguishes science from pseudoscience, can analyze and process information, recognizes that scientific knowledge is reliable but can change, can distinguish knowledge from opinion, and so on. 

Certainly, scientific literacy still includes understanding scientific knowledge. It is quite impossible to address a science-related social issue without having the relevant knowledge. For example, dealing with the issue of the efficacy of wearing masks to limit virus transmission clearly requires some knowledge of how viruses travel. At the same time, acquiring the scientific knowledge alone is not enough.

Besides scientific knowledge, the other very important aspect of scientific literacy is knowing about the distinguishing characteristics of science itself, a topic often called “the nature of science”, particularly how science is “done”. This is because accepted scientific knowledge is ultimately based on evidence from reliable scientific studies. Those studies must stand up to critical scrutiny, e.g., regarding methodology, controlling of variables, conclusions drawn, and so on. 

Further, scientific claims must be evaluated both in terms of the validity of their content and their relevance (or not) to the issue. Also, while students need to learn to exercise some intellectual independence in evaluating scientific claims, it is difficult to avoid at least some dependence on the views of scientific experts, even when said experts might disagree. Inquiring into what those reasons might be is another aspect of scientific literacy.

While reliable scientific knowledge comes ultimately from scientific research studies, most exposure to such knowledge comes through popular media rather than scientific publications. Popular media can be unreliable, as anyone familiar with social media knows, so students must be both scientifically literate and media literate. Also, everyone must take into consideration their own confirmation bias which is the tendency to favour information confirming one’s already-held beliefs.

Focusing science curriculum on scientific literacy provides an overarching purpose and framework.  It links science to students’ lifeworld and is in harmony with the current ethos and practice of science. For a long time, the approach to science curriculum improvement has been simply to update the subject matter of the traditional scientific disciplines. Instead, what is needed is to create a curriculum that focuses on the utilization of science for the common good, on a science that is not just for a select few but rather for the benefit of all of society.

Further Reading

Hurd, Paul (1998). Scientific literacy: New minds for a changing world. Science Education, 82, 407-416. 

Kolstoe, S. D. (2000). Consensus projects: Teaching science for citizenship. International Journal of Science Education, 22, 645–664.

McIntyre, Lee (2019). How to reverse the assault on science. Scientific American, May 22, 2019.