Adult scientific and technological literacy: A review

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    Research In Science Education, 1988, 18, 244--250.



    R.A. Sohibeci


    "Science education in crisis" is currently a popular eatchcry. Western polit icians

    urge industry to be more technologically eff icient. The pace of change, ineludng

    technological change, is increasing. "Cit izens need to be scientifieaUy and technological ly

    l i terate", we are told (see, for example, the special issues of the Bulletin of Science,

    Technology and Society (1986, 6 [2 & 3] and 1987, 7 [1 & 2]).

    What is "scientif ic and technological l i teracy"? Are they two concepts or one? How

    do people in the community beeome more 'qiterate" in science and technology? What is

    the role of the school and non-school agencies (such as the media) in raising the scienti f ic

    and technological l i teracy level of the corn m unity?

    It is useful for this discussion, f irst, to provide a framework for the various sources

    of learning in science and technology. These sources may be categorised as "school" or

    "out-of-school". In each of these two categories, the provision of learning may be

    "formal" or "informal". Formal sources of learning are those which set out intentionally to

    educate; informal sources are those which educate "accidentally" (Lueas, 1982). Thus, the

    school provides "formal" learning opportunities in a science class, and "informal"

    opportunities in a seience club. The "formal" classroom provision of science learning tends

    to be tightly structured, with the specif ic intent (generally) of achieving pre-determined

    objectives. The "informaP' source of learning (the science elub) is generally much less

    structured and often has a much greater emphasis on enjoyment as an important

    objective. In a similar way, an "out-of-school" source of learning may be "formal", as in a

    museum (in which there is a del iberate attempt to educate), or "informal", as in a play, a

    novel, a film or a television programme. The framework for the various categories of

    sourees of learning are sum marised in Table 1.

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    TABLE 1

    A Classification of Sources of Learning

    With Examples


    School science class science club

    Out-of-School m useum novel/play

    Let's now consider some of the meanings given to 'scientific and technological


    Scientific and technological literacy: What are they?

    The concept of "scientific literacy" has been around quite a while, so let us examine

    it first. It has been defined in many different ways: a sample of views is as follows.

    gaining scientific literacy is a matter not merely of evolving from primitive ideas to complex ones, but of tearing out and replacing a whole, originally functional world picture, with all its concepts, hypotheses and metaphors.

    (Holton, 1984, p. 6)

    These two dimension together - an understanding of the norms of science and knowledge of major scientific constructs - constitute the traditional meaning of scientific literacy as applied to broader populations. But if scientific literacy is to become truly relevant to our contemporary situation, one additional dimension must be added: awareness of the impact of science and technology on society and the policy choices that must inevitably emerge.

    (Miller, 1983, p. 31)

    We may define science literacy as an acquaintance with science, technology, and medicine, popularized to various degrees, on the part of the general public and special sectors of the public through information in the mass media and education in and out of schools.

    (Shen, 1975, pp. 45-46)

    Clearly, a wide range of elements is included in the concept of various authors. How

    are we to make sense of this bewildering range of views of "scientific l iteracy"? Some,

    like Maarschalk (1986), have abandoned the attempt, and instead have ehosen to focus on

    selected apsects of scientific l iteracy. We must bear in mind, however, the consequences

    of illiteracy; in the words of the Australian Minister for Science,

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    those who have no understanding of the ideas and practices of science...are as effectively cut off from the wider culture as those who have not yet learned to read or write. (Jones, 1986, p. 20)

    Literacy in the natural sciences and technology are obviously important areas of concern.

    This concern is not new. Pella, O'I learn and Gale (1966) a t tempted twenty years ago

    to unpack the concept of scienti f ic l i teracy. They began by identifying what they saw as

    three basic reasons for teaching science from kindergarten to university: "to prepare

    scientists'W; "to prepare technologists"; and, "to provide a background in science as a part

    of the general education of the individual for effect ive citizenship" (po 199). Achievement

    of this third purpose of science education, they believed, would result in a "scientif ical ly

    l i terate" person, They systematical ly reviewed the science and science education

    l i terature (for the period 1946-1964) for "referents" to scientif ic l i teracy. Analysis of 100

    doeuments led them to identify six such referents: science and society; ethics of science;

    nature of science; conceptual knowledge; science and technology; and, science and

    humanities. They summarised their findings in this way:

    The scientif ical ly l i terate individual presently is eharacter ised as one with an understanding of the Ca) basic concepts in science, (b) nature of seience, (c) ethies that control the seientist in his work, (d) interrelationships of science and society, (e) interrelationships of science and the humanities, and, (0 dif ferences between science and technology. (p. 206)

    Further, they claimed that the l i terature indicated that the first three were "more

    important" than the remaining three referents. Those with all these qualit ies would be

    more than "scientif ical ly l i terate"; they would be Renaissance persons, par excellence!

    A somewhat different view is provided by Shen (1975). He divided scienti f ic l i teracy

    into three categories: praetical, civic and eultural. He defined pract ical science l i teraey

    as "the possession of the kind of scientif ic knowledge that can be used to help solve

    praetical problems" (p. 46). Sueh knowledge, he claimed, ran mean the dif ference between

    health and disease or l ife and death for many people. In his view, the delivery of pract ical

    seienee l i teracy would require a large mass communication effort l inked perhaps, with

    "alphabetic l i teracy (reading and writing)", although the latter is not a prerequisite for the

    former. In fact, there may be a ease in some instances for giving a higher priority to

    increasing practical seienee l i teracy than to increasing alphabetic l i teracy. (For example,

    in some areas of health or nutrition, a basic knowledg is essential for a healthy life).

    Shen's second category is civic scienee l i teracy, the purpose of which is "to enable

    the eit izen to become more aware of science and seienee-related issues so that he and his

    representat ives would not shy away from bringing their com monsense to bear upon such

    issues" (p. 48). Thus, while the experts would decide how a project would be implemented,

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    cit izens would decide whether the project would go ahead. He urged the raising of the

    functional level of civic science l i teracy by two means: first, by increasing the quality of

    quantity and science in the media, and ensuring that school science provides a solid

    foundation for future eitizens; and, secondly, by an analysis ("in plain English"!) of current

    issues which have a science and/or technology dimension.

    The third category Shen labelled cultural science l i teracy, which "is motivated by a

    desire to know something about science as a major human achivement" (p. 49). In Holton's

    (1984) words, the person with cultural science l i teracy has moved from a "somewhat pre-

    Aristotel ian picture of the natural world" to a "post-Darwinian, post-Einsteinian" view.

    Shen's view of practical, civic and cultural scienti f ic l i teracy provides a useful

    start ing point. Raising the level of scientif ic l i teracy is an important aim for a

    community, if only to improve the health of its people. That is, we need (as a first step)

    to raise the level of practical science l i teracy; beyond this, we can try to raise the level of

    civic seienee l i teracy and (most diff icult of all) cultural scienee l i teracy.

    What about "teehnologieal l i teraey"? Is it synonymous with "scientif ic l i teracy"?

    This requires us to examine the two eoncepts, "science" and "technology".

    In a background paper to a SITCO (1986) report in Western Austral ia "science" was

    ~-defined as "the process and the publiely accessible product of our at tempts to describe,

    explain and prediet natural phenomena" (p. A8) while technology is "the systematic

    process, and the product, of designing, developing maintaining and produeing artefaets".

    The author of this background paper argued strongly that technology was not merely

    "applied science". Indeed, much of what is ecru monly regarded as the "history of science"

    is in faet "history of teehnology", he argued.

    Perhaps we can draw a parallel with Shen's categories of seienti f ic l i teracy and

    develop the eategories of praetieal, civic and cultural technological l i teraey. Praetieal

    technological l i teracy would be the possession of teehnological knowledge whieh we need

    to solve pract ical problems. Civic teehnologieal l i teraey would enable citizens to be

    aware of technology and technology-related issues so that they can help decision-makers

    to make rational, informed decisions. Cultural teehnologieal l i teracy would be

    eharacter ised by a desire to know something of technology as a major human aehivement.

    Scientif ic and technological l iteracy: Who provides for them ?

    Lueas (1983) argued that scientif ic l i teracy could develop from a variety of sources,

    both "school" and "out-of-school". That is, while it is reasonable for a corn m unity to look

    to its schools as a mechanism for improving the level of scientif ic and technological

    l i teracy of the young, there are also many sources of out-of-school learning (Table 1

    identif ied the various categories of sources of learning).

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    Unfortunately, there is much evidence which shows that school science generally

    presents a view of science which is distorted and vague. Gordon (1984) eharaeterised this

    view as a "bucket image" of science, which does not correspond with actual science

    practice. Some of the elements of this "bucket image" are:

    Scientific truth exists "out there". It consists of a eolleetion of farts* We today know some of them. At one time, fewer were known and in the future, more will be known. Scientific knowledge accumulates steadily. Generally there are no revolutions in science. It rarely occurs that a statement believed to be true is discovered afterwards to be untrue... With regard to farts as yet unknown to us, the reason they are unknown is that scientists havenVt gotten around to diseovering them. When they have the time, they will discover them, because discovering these farts isnTt problematic, at least not for scientists, who are clever people. (p. 372)

    If Gordon's analysis is correct, then mueh work remains to be done to improve

    scientific l i terary among school age children. Technological l iterary also needs to be

    improved. In Australia, the attempt to introduce a "technology studies" for all students is

    a recent phenomenon. In Western Australia, for example, a 'Technology Studies ~ unit (a 40

    hour unit) has recently been trialled. It emphasises the difference between science and

    technology, and stresses the accessibility of much teehnology to all, not just to a group of


    For those who have left sehool, we must turn to other sources, some formal, and

    some informal. Of these, television is potentially the most powerful. In an interesting

    article "Marcus Welby, MD ~ as Medical Communication", OtConnell (1975) discussed the

    impart of this show on viewers. He began by pointing out the enormous impart of

    television as

    an awesome tool of eommunieation...this plaees a tremendous responsibility on the producers of...medieal program rues to be authentic medically, while supplying stories dramatic or entertaining enough to attraet a continuing audience (p. 165).

    He emphasised the value of sueh a program me as "a public service". A documentary

    on any of the issues which have formed the basis of tWelby' stories (abortion, enthanasia,

    teenage pregnaney, sexual assault, to name but a few) would, he pointed out, attraet

    limited audiences, wWelbyT, on the other hand, reached a weekly audience of 40 million in

    North Ameriea. Thus, it provided a very powerful medium for medieal science education

    outside the school. Part of its attraction, of course, is that it deals with medicine, which

    interests all of us. (In a recent analysis of seienee on television in Australia [Sehibeei et.

    el., 1986], we noted that medical stories constitute by far the largest group of stories in

    each show, presumably because of the publiels interest in matters medical). As OtConnell

    pointed out, a "medical show such as Marcus Welby, MD is inherently instructional as well

    as dramatic entertainment" (p. 170).

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    Schools must continue to work hard to produce scientif ical ly and technologically

    l i terate graduates. Both school and out-of-school sources of learning have the potential to

    raise the level of scientif ic and technological l i teracy of our corn munity. Educators must

    try harder to make both sources of learning work.

    Adult scientif ic and technological l i teracy

    How can we raise the level of adult scientif ic and technological l i teracy? One

    approach is to identify a variety of adult needs. We can try to show adults that science

    and technology are of direct relevance to everyday life. In the longer term, hopefully,

    these adults will be able to part ic ipate more effectively than they currently do in

    decision-making processes on issues involving science and technology.

    One research strategy that is relevant here has a focus which has been labeled

    "science-for-specif ic-social-purposes (SSSP)" as outlined by Layton et. al. (1986). That is,

    the focus here is on specif ic aspects of science and technology which impinge on adults'

    out-of-work activit ies, as a way of narrowing the gap between adults and science and

    technology. This approach can be contrasted with the "general survey of knowledge and

    perceptions of science and technology" approach which has been used, part icularly

    overseas (for example by Miller, 1983).

    Research in adult scientif ic and technological l i teracy is clearly needed because, as a

    review by Eckersley (1987) has shown, no systematic work in this area in Australia has

    been done.


    ECKERSLEY, R. (1987) Australian attitudes to science and techno...


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