What is science communication and why does it matter for Science teachers? Our Guest Editor Dr Tang Kok Sing discusses these and more in this literature review for teachers and practitioners.
In the 21st century, communication skills are some of the core competences required in a globalized world. As part of MOE’s framework for 21st century competencies, communication skills encompass the ability to speak and write confidently and to handle complex multimodal information.
Having these generic skills is however, not the only reason why science communication is important. The following review looks at three reasons provided by research to further support the importance of science communication. These are: communication at the advanced level is disciplinary-specific, science communication is an integral part of scientific practices, and science communication forms the essence of scientific meaning making.
Advanced Communication Is Disciplinary-specific
Research from literacy education has increasingly shown that different disciplines have specific ways of communication which students need to master in order to be successful in the discipline. This aspect of science communication is closely related to the notion of disciplinary literacy that is being emphasised in several national curricular standards (e.g., Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; Wilson, Jesson, Rosedale, & Cockle, 2012).
The growing interest in this area stems from the awareness that students at the secondary level find it more difficult to read and write challenging texts in the subject areas. These higher level literacy skills demanded by the disciplines are not something that students can learn easily on their own as they differ significantly from the everyday language and modes of communication which students are more familiar with.
Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) distinguish these differences by referring to generic versus disciplinary skills. They argue that there are basic literacy skills which are generic to all subject matter. These skills are usually learned in kindergarten and lower primary and encompass foundational aspects of literacy required for virtually all reading and writing tasks, such as word decoding, pronunciation and simple sentence structures for the English language.
However, in secondary schools, students begin to encounter increasingly complex forms of language and communication that are specific in the science classrooms (Lemke, 1990). For example, the abstract nature of scientific texts is partly a result of its high degree of lexical density – the number of content words within a single clause or sentence (Fang, 2005). Many of these content words are technical vocabulary specific to science.
Thus, as the disciplinary literacy practices of a scientist are different from those of a historian, mathematician, poet or writer, students will require more advanced communication skills to be able to speak, read and write effectively in science. This implies that teachers outside the discipline (e.g., English teachers) may not be the best equipped to teach the specialized communication skills required in the discipline.
Shanahan and Shanahan’s (2012) view of a linear progression from generic to disciplinary literacy applies in formal learning, from kindergarten to university. But outside the schools, people move in and out of many domains and the disciplines are not the only specialized domains in which peoples participate.
Rather than progressing from one basic domain to a disciplinary domain, all of us continually navigate across multiple domains in learning and adapting to the discourse practices associated with those domains (Moje, 2013). For instance, science communication is crucial in a laboratory or medical clinic due to the precision and technicality of its language. However, science may not be the most appropriate form of communication in other social situations.
Thus, good communication skills do not only mean knowing the language of the discipline well, but also involves knowing when and where it is most appropriate to use a particular language. In any case, having a wider repertoire of discourse practices enables a person to function more effectively across a number of diverse settings. Such will be the nature of advanced communication skills required in the pluralized world of the 21st century.
Science Communication Is Integral to Scientific Practices
Another reason why science communication is important is because it is part and parcel of scientific practices. Many people, including science educators, have a misguided view that the practices of scientists mainly involve the “doing” of experiments (Pearson, Moje, & Greenleaf, 2010).
As such, when it comes to the promotion of scientific inquiry, teachers often emphasise hands-on activities and exploration, and neglect the value of science communication. However, the lack of focus on science communication does not reflect the nature of scientific practices in reality.
Anthropological studies of practising scientists in laboratories and research centres over the last 3 decades have revealed the complex communicative practices undertaken by scientists, which include the use of print, images, graphs, tables and other symbolic systems to represent or access science information and ideas (Latour & Woolgar, 1979).
For instance, scientists need to read what have been published as they generate new research questions and hypotheses. They also need to write claims and arguments based on evidence collected in the form of inscriptions (e.g., codified labels, data tables, computer displays and graphs). Overall, in the production of scientific knowledge (in the form of written publications), communication plays a central part in enabling scientists to carry out their professional work.
In classroom teaching, the role of science communication is to help students make sense of scientific texts as part of the scientific inquiry process. These include teaching students how to use language more effectively to construct scientific explanations, make evidence-based arguments, and obtain and evaluate information (National Research Council, 2012).
Many studies have been carried out to examine teaching strategies used by teachers to promote science communication. For instance, Kelly, Brown and Crawford (2000) identified a number of discursive strategies used by an elementary science teacher to promote student talk, such as orienting, questioning, framing, inviting, prompting, responding and positioning. By developing the norms for this kind of talk, they argue that opportunities can be created to afford more student participation and learning of science concepts and processes.
Another study by Moje, Collazo, Carrillo and Marx (2001) examined the discursive demands in an inquiry-based science lesson, and found that although the curriculum provided ample opportunities for students to explore with experiments, many Grade 7 students struggled with the communicative practices of information gathering, dissemination, organization and presentation. Thus, they argue the need for teachers to engage students in these communicative practices and make explicit the language demands that these practices entail.
Science communication is also multimodal in that it comprises other communicative modes, such as images, graphs, symbols, gestures and material objects. Several studies have been carried out to document how teachers and students use multimodal ways of communication in the science classrooms (e.g., Kress, Jewitt, Ogborn, & Tsatsarelis, 2001; Lemke, 1998).
Similar to previous studies focusing on the language of science, it was found that there was little emphasis on teaching the communicative demands of these multimodal practices (Prain & Waldrip, 2006; Tang, Delgado, & Moje, 2014). As such, more needs to be done to help students make sense of multimodal texts as part of their learning of scientific practices.
Science Communication Is the Essence of Scientific Meaning Making
Last but not least, science communication forms the heart of scientific meaning making. The theoretical basis for this argument lies in our epistemological understanding of the nature of language. For many years, people hold a mentalist view that language and thoughts are separated. Thoughts are considered inner and private in the mind of individuals, while language functions as the conveyor that transmits an already formed idea from one mind to another.
However, since the mid-20th century, there has been a greater understanding in the integral relation between language and thought. Vygotsky (1986) first made the claim that thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence with them, and thus all higher mental functions are mediated by language. Similarly, Halliday (1993) argues that language does not simply reflect patterns that are already “out there” as nature. Rather, it imposes the patterns we see in nature by construing a categorical universe of things and relations, which then shape our perception of nature. In other words, language is the building blocks of knowledge.
To illustrate how language forms the building blocks of knowledge, let us suppose a teacher is teaching the Physics concept of energy. The teacher may communicate the concept by saying, “kinetic and potential energy are examples of mechanical energy” or “mechanical energy can be kinetic or potential”. Although these two statements are different forms of expressions, both statements express a similar idea that kinetic and potential energy are types of mechanical energy.
If we assume that students can clearly see that the underlying idea is similar, how that idea is expressed is taken to be non-crucial. Yet, a deeper introspection would reveal that the previous underlying idea (i.e., types of mechanical energy) can only be formed by the semantic relationship of both statements, through words such as “A and B are examples of C” and “C can be A or B”.
In order for any communication to be meaningful, the words and symbols in any expression must form a recognizable relationship. These are what linguists call semantic relationships and they determine how meanings are produced in any communication (for details, see Tang, 2011).
The semantic relationship in the earlier example is one of classification, for example “kinetic energy and potential energy are types of mechanical energy” or “human and whales are subclasses of mammal”. Another common semantic relationship is composition, such as “electrons and protons are parts of an atom”.
These semantic relationships are used to construct the taxonomy of a science concept, such as energy, atom or mammal. Most science teachers are not consciously aware of these semantic relationships in their classroom communication, even though they are using them correctly. It is presumed that students can figure out for themselves the semantic relationships and thus the underlying idea, as long as the teachers are giving the expressions correctly.
On its own, a semantic relationship may not pose significant difficulties for most students. However, what makes science learning challenging is that a complex idea in science is often composed of numerous semantic relationships that are put together simultaneously in a particular way and at an extremely fast pace (Lemke, 1990).
Thus, language and communication are not just forms of expression that “convey” thoughts and ideas, but they are precisely the ingredients from which thoughts and ideas are made of. With this in mind, science communication is more than just speaking and writing fluent English, or focusing on proper pronunciation and spelling. It is really about getting the students to make clear and precise scientific meanings through language. Communication and meaning making are two sides of the same coin – one cannot exist without the other.
In considering the importance of science communication and the gaps identified from previous research, what should we do to improve the teaching and learning of science in this area?
First, we need to know more about students’ abilities to learn and use scientific language (including multiple modes of representation) across all grade and ability levels in Singapore, and how their communicative abilities affect their content learning of science. We need to also examine and develop good pedagogical practices and strategies that can better support students in developing science communication skills such as reading, writing and talking science. Most importantly, greater proficiency in these areas will require knowledgeable teachers who understand the role of science communication in teaching and learning. This will be an area that requires more research and teachers’ professional development.
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Halliday, M. A. K. (1993). On the language of physical science. In M. A. K. Halliday & J. R. Martin (Eds.), Writing science: Literacy and discursive power (pp. 54–68). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
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