There are at least two interpretations that emerge when we explore why we teach science from the democratic argument. The first interpretation is that we should be teaching science to help students become informed citizens in an increasingly technocratic and scientific world, and provide them with the tools to intelligently discuss, vote on, and make decisions about “modern life, politics and society.” (Turner, p. 10.) But we also interpret the democratic argument in the context of democratic schools–that is schools in which students and teachers participate equally in shared decision-making on matters related to the organization of school, the curriculum and related matters.
In am going to focus on the first argument here, namely that school science should be in service of helping students become informed citizens. In science education, there is an interesting history of curriculum projects and efforts at the school level aimed at a science education that are context-based. (See Judith Bennett for synthesis of the research on context-based science) Helping students become informed students is also the subject of Science-Technology-Society Environment (STSE), environmental education, social responsibility, public understanding of science, humanistic science, and citizen science.
In the democratic paradigm of science education, contexts and applications are the starting places for learning about science, which is in contrast to the traditional approach to science teaching, which chiefly attends to the structure of the disciplines of science, and its subject matter knowledge in curriculum design. This is clearly a very different approach than is used in the design and construction of standards in science. The 1996 NSES and the Conceptual Framework for a New Generation of Science Standards start with the key concepts or core ideas in the disciplines of science: earth science, life science, and physical science ( engineering and technology were added as a fourth area in 2010 Conceptual Framework). If you want to find examples of STS or Context-based science standards, you have to mine the standards to find instances of STS.
The democratic argument creates a curriculum that potentially is more interesting to students. In fact, in a synthesis of research on S-T-S Context-based science programs, Judith Miller and colleagues reported that:
detailed research evidence from 17 experimental studies undertaken in eight different countries on the effects of context-based and STS approaches, drawing on the findings of two systematic reviews of the research literature. The review findings indicate that context-based/STS approaches result in improvement in attitudes to science and that the understanding of scientific ideas developed is comparable to that of conventional approaches.
This is an important finding. In a very large study involving more than 40 countries, researchers of the Rose Project (The Relevance of Science Education) surveyed the attitudes of thousands of 15-year old students to find out the status of science education. Under the direction of Svein Sjøberg, & Camilla Schreiner (University of Oslo), the Rose Project seeks to address:
mainly the affective dimensions of how young learners relate to S&T. The purpose of ROSE is to gather and analyze information from learners about several factors that have a bearing on their attitudes to S&T and their motivation to learn S&T. Examples are: A variety of S&T-related out-of-school experiences, interests in learning different S&T topics in different contexts, prior experiences with and views on school science, views and attitudes to science and scientists in society, future hopes, priorities and aspirations as well as young peoples’ feeling of empowerment with regards to environmental challenges, etc.
The findings in the ROSE study are important to the democratic argument because the researchers sought to find out about students attitudes about the science curriculum and science in their lives and society. As the researchers claim, developing a positive attitude about science is an important goal of science teaching, and it would appear important to know what attitudes students hold. Most large scale assessments of students focus on the “knowledge” students have as reported by TIMSS and PISA. ROSE researchers point out that
It is a worrying observation that in many countries where students are on top of the international TIMSS and PISA score tables, they tend to score very low on interest for science and attitudes to science. These negative attitudes may be long lasting and in effect rather harmful to how people later in life related to S&T as citizens.
Designing a science curriculum around STSE not only will further the democratic argument, but it might contribute to more positive attitudes of students about science. In Bennett’s research, it was found that in context-based science programs, students achieved at the same content levels as students in more traditional science courses. We could argue that context-based program might serve not only the students, but contribute to an improvement of science teaching in general.
Moving ahead with a context-based or STSE approach to science curriculum is not without problems. Are there significant context-based themes that could be used with young students, say in grades K- 4? Is this approach more applicable to students in middle and high school? There is also the problem with teacher education. Some researchers suggest that teachers are more reluctant to move away from the content of their discipline, and entertain social and contextual issues as a basis for curriculum.
But there are many examples of context-based science programs that are successful with students and teachers. ChemCom (Chemistry in the Community) is one example—a high school chemistry course that is context based, SEPUP (Science Education for Public Understanding), Project Learning Tree, and Project Wild, just to name a few.
Students need to see relevance and connection between their lived-experiences and the science content (or any content for that matter) that they learn in school science. The democratic argument for why we teach science appears to foster these connections.
Coming next: Why do we teach science? The Skills argument.