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Point and Counter-Point: Teachers, Schools and the Scientific Literacy of the Nation

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BNTU convention (Belize City)

Posted: Tuesday, October 19, 2021. 2:55 pm CST.

Тhе vіеwѕ ехрrеѕѕеd іn this аrtісlе аrе those оf the writer аnd nоt nесеѕѕаrіlу those оf Вrеаkіng Веlіzе Nеwѕ.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: The Ministry of Education spends over one hundred million dollars ($100,000,000) per year on schools and schooling in Belize, most of it on paying the 6,000 or so teachers working in our school system. The country spends this much money on education (about 30% of its GDP) in part because education is one of the most significant public good and is a much-needed component of the country’s national sustainable development strategy. One of the major goals of schooling in Belize is to produce Scientifically Literate or Scientifically Capable students, that is, citizens who can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experience, a person who has the ability to describe, explain and predict natural phenomenon, but most importantly, a person who is able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press, or on social media, and to engage in social conversations about the validity of the conclusions. In short, Scientific Literacy provides the context for addressing societal problems, since a scientifically literate populace make intelligent and informed decisions that will affect the quality of their lives and that of their children.

The question them is why aren’t our schools producing more scientifically literate citizens, that is, more citizens with the critical thinking skills to think and to function as responsible citizens in a world increasingly affected by science and technology? My thesis is that most of our teachers, especially our primary school teachers who have to teach science, have not been adequately trained in how to promote scientific literacy among our students in our schools. It is parallel to the fact that most of our teachers do not know how to provide the “unconditional positive regard” to our least advantaged students in our schools, especially those students who come from house-holds and communities where they experience trauma twenty-four-seven. Our teachers have been doing a relatively poor job in not only providing trauma-responsive instruction, but also in producing scientifically literate Belizean Citizens. But what is scientific literacy and what are the characteristics of a scientifically literate citizen?

Scientific literacy, or Science Literacy, encompasses written, numerical and digital literacy as they pertain to understanding science, its methodology, observations and theories. It is knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. For example, the personal decision as to whether or not to take a COVID-19 vaccine could be better informed if you have the knowledge and understanding of how vaccines are made, how they become approved for use, and the purposes they serve.

Scientific literacy is also the ability to make sense of the knowledge and understandings derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national or local decisions and expressed positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.

What then are the characteristics of a scientifically literate Citizen? Using the criteria outlined above, a scientifically literate person can be defined as one who has the capacity to understand, experiment, and reason as well as interpret scientific facts and their meaning. They should be a person who can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences and who is able to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. For example, on the subject of climate change, a scientifically literate person would be someone who is knowledgeable on basic Earth Science and natural history facts; understands atmospheric, geological, and biological processes pertaining to climate; and understands how climate research is conducted. Hence the scientific literate person is the person who has an understanding of scientific concepts, phenomena and processes, and has the ability to apply this knowledge to new and at times, non-scientific situations.

In our schools, especially in our primary schools, we teach science as ‘a rhetoric of conclusions’ (Chiapetha, Sethna, and Fillman, 2013). Students are taught the facts and encouraged to memorize those facts through drill and practice, in time to sit the PSE, CSEC or BJAT examinations to get good grades on these examinations. Instead our science classrooms can nourish scientific literacy through a variety of ways, but three best practices in particular can accelerate the process. These include using a variety of science textbooks, sparking much more debate, discussions and presentations and driving learning through inquiry. Our teachers need to teach critical literacy as a form of personal empowerment of our students, to identify science topics that they are interested in and to spend more time guiding our learners to evaluate data.

Our teachers must remember that scientific literacy is important because it provides a context for addressing societal problems and because a science literate populace will be much better able to solve many of the country’s problems. It will better enable the Belizean Citizen to make intelligent and informed decisions that will not only affect the quality of their lives, but also those of their children. Scientific literacy and critical thinking are key components of any science education program aiming to prepare students to think and to function as responsible citizens in a world increasingly affected by science and technology. At this point in our history, our education system and our teachers need to focus much more on how to produce more scientifically literate Belizean Citizens.

Please feel free to use the column below to challenge any or all of the issues raised above and let’s see what we can do to increase the scientific literacy of the Belizean Citizen.

Dr. Dorian Barrow is currently working at Galen University as the Dean of the Department of Education. He has a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.

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