Teaching for understanding is about the pursuit of science literacy for our students. This is embedded in critical literacy. A scientifically literate person is perceptive about the world around them and also empowered to make decisions. If you consider that education has the broad purpose of producing an educated populous to govern and lead a country the need to pursue scientific literacy is apparent and urgent. Our students cannot be effective stewards of this planet if they do not have to the tools to engage with the knowledge that is available to them. They must be able to think critically about the issues that shape our planet, such as climate change, disease, and technology to name a few.
Maria Grant and Diane Lapp offer four actions to foster critical thinking in the classroom (Grant & Lapp, Teaching Science Literacy, 2011). Grant and Lapp argue that teachers must identify science topics of interest, engage students in reading the research, teach students to read like scientists, and guide learners to evaluate data.
Teaching Through Topics of Interest
Teaching through topics of interest is about captivating students’ attention by delivering necessary standards through application of those standards within the context of a relevant issue. If students are interested in the issue the relevance of the content and skills associated with understanding the issue are important to the student. Increased interest in a topic will inherently interest classroom engagement. Often we struggle with students that think that science has nothing to do with their everyday lives when the truth is there are connections with almost everything. We are also confronted with students that feel as if science involves some sort of unobtainable un-accessible skill set, when the truth couldn’t be further from this belief. Science is merely the pursuit of answers, driven by curiosity or necessity. The problem for our students is that the skills to effectively discover answers are skills that need to be directly taught. These skills can seem daunting but the trepidation that students have can be overcome when they realize that the skills used allow them to answer the questions that they have.
This unit will discuss the emergent properties of water. If such content is taught as an isolated phenomenon it is merely a list of facts. Conversely to work towards the goal of teaching scientific literacy one can deliver the content from the angle that water is essential to life. It is likely common knowledge for students that water is essential, but when probed for reasons why our high school freshmen only have cursory reasons such as we will dehydrate without it. Teaching students about the unique properties of water and how these properties allow for life helps to engage them in the learning process. A student will must be able to understand the actions and interactions of molecules to understand the emergent properties of water. They are then able to apply that understanding to the bigger question of why water is essential to life.
Engaging Students in the Research
Students require a base of knowledge to understand a concept effectively. It is important that students understand that research is always necessary to understand a concept. The issue is that science textbooks, and of course journal articles, are laden with vocabulary that our students are not normally exposed to. The vocabulary is often content specific and cannot be unmarried from the literature if descriptions are going to be left intact and complete. The necessary texts are flush with “multisyllabic words and sentences that require extensive background knowledge.” (Grant & Lapp, Teaching Science Literacy, 2011) We must be conscious of the barrier vocabulary may present and utilize appropriate level texts while teaching students how approach a reading that has new words. We must also take into consideration the amount of new words needed to understand a concept and keep it to a manageable level. Using articles focused on relevant ideas is helpful because students will want to understand the new words.
Students Reading Like Scientists
It is not enough to just offer or assign readings. To help students become scientifically literate we must instruct them on how to read like a scientist. If a student is to be learning while reading a science textbook they must know that thinking while reading is key. Direct instruction may be necessary for our students wherein the teacher can model the method. If a scientist is reading a text he/she is constantly trying to connect the new information with previous information. He/she is also trying to understand every graph, image, or table by using clues in the images and text. Furthermore, he/she will check for understanding by forming statements and arguments in thought.
Generating conclusions is pivotal to science and students need help understanding what a conclusion in science is. Nuanced within the formation of a conclusion is the correct evaluation of data. Scientific study offers seemingly endless ways to label and quantify data. It is important that teachers do not overlook all the labels and units that may be relevant to data that we use during lessons. In order for our students to make accurate conclusions they need to understand the meaning and relevance of the data presented. For example many of my freshmen struggle with the concept of concentration or that of rate. I find that I have to intentionally teach what I assume is background knowledge, but if not addressed their ability to formulate an accurate conclusion is hampered.