In Science, teachers take pains to help students understand scientific concepts and principles. But for students to be considered truly scientifically literate, science communication should be a part of their education.
Much of our everyday life revolves around science. From the biggest issues of our time to the most trivial decisions that we make every day (what to eat for lunch?), we need our knowledge in science to guide us.
But how many of us are scientifically literate? Are we aware of how science is shaping our environment? Do we use scientific knowledge to identify questions and draw conclusions for decision making (Curriculum Planning & Development Division, 2013)? According to the Ministry of Education, our students should be capable of these and more to be considered literate in science.
“Scientific literacy is the goal of Science education, and it is to develop in every person an awareness of the role of science and of their role as citizens in a world driven by technology and science,” says Dr Tang Kok Sing, an Assistant Professor at NIE.
But to achieve that goal, our students will need more than content knowledge. They will also need to know the language of science.
The Language of Science
Like every discipline, science has its own unique language. Scientific language is never just about words. Kok Sing explains that multimodal representations such as diagrams and graphs are part of it as well. In addition, scientific language encompasses various text types, such as reports, arguments and explanations that are different from our everyday use of language.
“In order to learn science, one must have the ability to understand the language of science first,” he says. While some seem to pick up the language naturally, there are many others who need a little more help.
It is not that teachers are not teaching the science language in class. “It’s just that sometimes, it can be very implicit,” observes Kok Sing, who is leading a research project on disciplinary literacy in Science classrooms.
Scientific literacy is the goal of Science education, and it is to develop in every person an awareness of the role of science and of their role as citizens in a world driven by technology and science.
– Tang Kok Sing, Natural Sciences & Science Education Academic Group
For example, in a single lesson, teachers communicate with their students in myriad ways: They explain a scientific concept verbally, do a demonstration, and then draw a graph and write an equation with mathematical symbols. They also use language for different purposes, such as framing a question, describing an observation, explaining the reasoning, asserting a claim and providing evidence.
“It’s quite common to assume that students can piece together all the different parts and understand the content and processes, but it’s very hard, actually!” Kok Sing comments. “If we’re going to teach students the language, it’s got to be more explicit—it’s got to link all these modes and purposes of communication together to form a coherent understanding.”
Communicating in Science
Kok Sing and other NIE researchers have identified science communication as one of the key areas in Science education that they wish to explore (See box story below).
“Disciplinary literacy is looking at the science language in the teaching and learning context; it is something that needs to be taught to the students,” says Kok Sing. Science communication is, however, more general. It is about how science is communicated between different parties.
“We should look at the different people involved. First, between scientists and scientists – how do they communicate?” asks Kok Sing. We can look at journals where they publish their findings, or conferences where they present and discuss experimental results.
Next, how is science communicated to the general public by the scientists so that it is easy to understand? Books on popular science, and even science centres and museums are good examples of that.
Third, and most importantly for Kok Sing and his colleagues, is the communication in classrooms—not just between teachers and students, but also among students themselves. In other words, they want to know how teachers and students are reading, writing and talking science in the classroom.
Tweaking the Communication Equation
What are the communication patterns like in our Science classrooms? For his project, Kok Sing and his team observed four teachers teaching upper secondary students. They found that writing took up about 10% of the time, but this was mostly limited to copying of text. Reading was almost zero. Talking happened a lot more, but usually, it was the teachers doing it. This situation prompted the researchers and teachers to do something about it for the next phase of the project.
For our students to become savvy science communicators, the equation needs to be tweaked. Reading is something that Kok Sing thinks the teachers can spend more time on.
Students often read the textbooks on their own for revision, but do they actually comprehend what they are reading? Teachers can try “scaffold reading” in class to make sure all students are reading with understanding.
“But don’t just restrict it to the textbook. You can also read other sources; articles on popular science, for instance,” advises Kok Sing, who was also involved in a project about harnessing popular culture in the teaching of the Sciences (See article in Issue 43: Popular Media in the Physics Classroom).
“There’re a lot of such texts around. In this age of multimodalities, ‘reading’ also involves watching the news or science documentaries. Outside the classroom, there’re also a lot of science.”
Kok Sing and his team also worked with the teachers to plan for more student discussions and writing of different text types in science, such as explanation and argument. This is all part of educating students to write, talk, and even behave like scientists.
But it does not stop there. Students also need to know how science is being communicated to the public by scientists, especially for important issues concerning the environment, pollution or medical research.
“Science is so much a part of our everyday life! We read science everywhere, be it the TV or newspapers. We need to know how to read them in order to argue or to critique them,” says Kok Sing.
Indeed, our students will need this ability in an increasingly complex world to be responsible citizens who make informed choices and decisions that not just affect themselves, but also the society and environment.
In order to learn science, one must have the ability to understand the language of science first.
– Kok Sing on the importance of understanding the science language