Scientific Literacy: A Humanistic Perspective

A Web Paper on Humanizing Science Teaching with a Research Basis

Yesterday, I wrote about how science teacher education needs to embrace a humanistic perspective, and work with teachers at their highest level.  Today there is a dismissive language that runs across the political spectrum condemning public schools, and teachers.  This is fairly well documented in Diane Ravitch’s recent book,The Death and Life or the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.  Throughout my writing on this blog I have advocated a humanistic perspective, and the need to embrace  a humanistic view in teaching and learning.  About a year ago I wrote a post that seems apropos today.  Here it is as published last year:

I could have titled this “Is science teaching political?: A Humanistic Question.” In an article (Scientific literacy: A Freirean perspective as a radical view of humanistic science education) recently published in Science Education, Wildson L.P. dos Santos, of the Instituto de Quimica, Universidade de Brasilia, describes a rationale for advancing a new idea in humanistic science education developed from a Paulo Freire perspective. It relates to many discussions about humanistic science educationthat have been posted on this weblog, and I want to talk about the implications of dos Santos’ research.

Firstly, this is an important contribution to the field of science teaching, and to those science teachers who advocate a humanistic science education paradigm. Dos Santos bases his research on the perspective of teaching advanced by Paulo Freire, an early advocate of humanistic ideas in education. Freire’s, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, describes the pedagogy that forms the foundation of dos Santos’ analyses of humanistic science education. The core of Dos Santos’ ideas are reflected in this passage from the abstract of his paper:

From Freirean educational principles, the idea unfolds that a Freirean humanistic scienceeducationperspective is apolitical commitmentto sociopolitical action, considering conditions of oppression in society. Although some humanistic science education approaches to school science have incorporated a sociopolitical perspective, it is showed that not all of them necessarily focus on the political purpose of transforming oppressive conditions in society as stressed by Paulo Freire. From this Freirean humanistic perspective, an approach to science education is then highlighted, which implies the introduction of socially relevant themes and socioscienti?c issues, the establishment of a dialogical process inclassroom, and the development of sociopolitical action (Italics mine).

This paper is a call to action for science educators—teachers, professors of science education, and developers of science curriculum—to rethink how STS (science, technology & society) and STL (scientific and technological literacy) might be used to advance Dos Santos’ ideas.

In the view developed by Dos Santos, we are challenged not to be neutral politically, and at the same time not to impose our own values. This has always been a serious issue for science teachers who supported an STS approach to teaching. The very fact of involving students in science-related issues begs the question, why this issue? Is it important to the teacher? Or is it an issue that students should deal with? What will it teach the students?  In whose interest is studying this issue?  According to dos Santos, teaching is directive and political in itself, and teachers who choose to bring STS in the classroom will have to reveal their own views, but at the same time must enable every student to express his or her ideas, and indeed to develop and take action on their own choices. dos Santos puts it this way:

The challenge of humanistic education is therefore not to give the answer but to prepare students to refect on, and select their own destiny. The role of the teacher is not to reveal the reality to their students but to help them discover the reality for themselves; not to impose their values or to give their solutions to SSI, but to help students understand the different values and alternatives available so they can select their own.

A humanistic science education approach to teaching would involve students in debates about the issues they are exploring, and to go deeper into the implications of the issues they are studying to incorporate the contradictions related to the issues around the world. As stated by Dos Santos:

If the course is for students who have a good social condition, the prompt could lead to a comparison of their situation to that of students incontrasting contexts in their country or in another country they relate to—for instance, a country that was colonized in the past by their own country; or a country from which their own country imports food. The role of the teacher is to facilitate this debate, to ponder students’ opinions as well as his own, but never to impose it.

Wildson dos Santos presents intriguing ideas for us as science teachers not only to ponder, but to consider how we might incorporate his ideas into our own practice.  These pedigogical ideas bring us into unsafe territory, but in fact it might be the territory that would attract many of our students. What do you think? Would enjoy hearing your ideas.