The Importance of Scientific Literacy: Reflecting on Our Conference

This post is a bit more academic than I have written in the past, but I wanted to be able to include some of the influences that I have had during my coursework on innovative science education, and in particular the importance of including literacy in science education. First a little background about the conference that the cohort put on. This conference oriented around a transition in how scientific literacy is defined by educators through a professional learning conference focused on this shift within the context of the new New York state science standards. We provided professional educators with to opportunity to experience this new definition of science literacy through direct instruction and learning experiences supportive of our new definition. The primary mode through which this occurred was the professional learning conference conducted on April 24th. This was a two hour professional development for pre- and in-service science educators. The event began with a keynote presentation of our new definition for science literacy, given by 4 members of the GRS 2017 Cohort. The presenters made the argument that this new definition was needed within the context of social justice and the shifting role that science is playing in our society. Check out the website we made for the conference here.

As we attempted to shift the definition of what qualifies as a scientifically literate person towards our more expansive, inclusive, and student-as-agent definition I was able to reflect on a number of the influences that critical literacy has had on my own thoughts and values related to science education. Coiro (2008) reminds us that what we are preparing students for now, in our technologically advanced society, is not longer dependent on fluency within a single static media format. What students need to develop is the, “ Larger mindset and the ability to continuously adapt to the new literacies required by the new technologies that rapidly and continuously spread…” (Coiro, 2008). In a disciplinary specific literacy, science for instance, this means we are no longer providing students with information, but rather providing them with the skill set and opportunity to acquire and synthesize new information (experiment, collect data). Students construct understandings using these skills (argue claims, apply conceptual models of phenomena to new phenomena). How then do we create these opportunities for students that our new definition of scientific literacy calls for?

Gee (2015) and Moje (2008) had a great influence on my own thoughts regarding how to extend effective critical literacy education to students. I was surprised at Gee’s assertion that the best forms of education, that are immersive, sandboxed, exciting, and constructivist are found in games (2015). After some consideration, I totally agree. When we look at the types of learning experiences that we want our students to engage in; to become a part of the scientific workbench community; to con-construction language and knowledge being used; to act as scientists using scientific practices -what we are doing is creating a “game like” simulation for the students to take part in. Moje (2008) emphasizes then that we can effectively create these simulated environments for students through the use of multiple forms of representation of content and ideas to create a more “real to life” experience for the student. When we consider the types of work and career paths that current students will be experiencing in the future what our concern becomes or should be is the appropriate preparation of our students for those paths. Reminded by Coiro (2008) of how quickly technology is changing our world, it becomes irrelevant to have students be able to memorize fact and be able to take tests. What we need to prepare them for is a world that changes drastically and rapidly day to day. Moje (2008) and Gee (2015) demonstrate some ways we can mimic these experiences.

So what might one of these experiences look like? What I came to realize throughout the course was how much of what is called for by researchers like Moje, Gee, and Coiro is provided for and created within classrooms and experiences truly influenced and motivated by social constructivism. What I am immediately reminded of is my experience with Project-Based Learning.  PBL can be most simply defined as  a model of education that orients student learning around a project or complex problem (Thomas, 2000). Foundational features for a PBL are: projects are complex tasks, based on challenging questions or problems; students are involved in the design, problem-solving, decision making, and investigative activities; students are given the opportunity to work autonomously over extended periods; project culminate in realistic products and presentations (Thomas, 2000). Upon this base a number of other experiences and learning opportunities can also be incorporated. In effective PBL students gain knowledge and skills through a wide variety of activities and within varying domains of knowledge (Tamim, 2013). In such a learner focused environment, students display a great deal of agency in the direction of their education. By taking part in the planning of, design of, and implementation of solutions to the various project they work on student engagement is an inherent part of the PBL process. Consider the Buck Institute’s “Essential Design Elements for Gold Standard PBL”(What is PBL, 2016). Three of these elements speak directly to increasing levels of student engagement, namely: Sustained Inquiry, Authenticity, and Student Voice and Choice (What is PBL, 2016).

PBL creates the immersion, authenticity, and sandboxed atmosphere called for by Gee (2015). Integrates the multimodality emphasized by Moje (2008), and relies on authenticity and the interaction between adaptation and larger mindset that Coiro (2014) describes. When students are working on “real” problems, especially with a local context or product (Comber & Nixon, 2014), or with “real” tools and processes this authenticity creates a motivating environment in which students have a role within the actual world outside of the classroom. When students wonder why they are learning something or investigating a certain technique it has a direct relationship to the world around them. Moving forward in my own practice I will continue to integrate PBL further into my own pedagogical practice as  mode through which to engage students in critical literacy and disciplinary specific literacy.

References

Coiro, J., Knobel, M., Lankshear, C., & Leu, D.J. (2008). Central issues in new literacies and  new literacies research. In J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear, & D.J. Leu (Eds.)  Handbook of research on new literacies (pp. 1-21). New York, NY: Routledg.

Comber, B. & Nixon, H. (2014). Critical literacy across the curriculum: Learning to read,question, and rewrite designs. Chapter 7 in J. Z. Pandya & J. Avila (Eds.), Moving critical literacies forward: A new look at praxis across contexts. (pp. 83-97). New York:Routledge.

Gee, J. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling, pp. 21-54.  New York: Routledge. Chapters 3 &4.

Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96-107.

Tamim, S. R., & Grant, M. M. (2013). Definitions and Uses: Case Study of Teachers Implementing Project-based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based  Learning, 7(2). doi:10.7771/1541-5015.1323.

Thomas, J. W. (n.d.). A Review of Research on Project Based Learning (Rep.).

What is Project Based Learning (PBL)? (n.d.). Retrieved August 03, 2016, from http://bie.org/about/what_pbl.

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