As California faces the daunting realities of mid-year budget cuts, our San Diego schools, at every level, are faced with tough choices about which programs to eliminate, where to cut spending, and how to stretch already thin resources. And yet, jobless rates remain high and many people are looking to education as a recipe for future employment. In San Diego especially, which is at the forefront of biotech research, we need adult citizens educated and trained to fill local jobs in science and technology.
More than this though, we have a responsibility to prepare San Diegans to be well-informed, engaged and reflective citizens, ready to grapple with the multiple questions raised by the cutting edge work happening in our own community, and to participate in conversations with scientists and policy makers about new discoveries and applications. It’s worth examining how we can better meet these responsibilities.
Inevitably, the discussion of the public’s lack of scientific knowledge and the breakdown of communication between scientists and the rest of the population leads to a cry for better science education. Too often, though, those who make this cry imagine the problem too narrowly, as a content problem, rather than more broadly as a literacy issue. Simply put, many students don’t comprehend their science textbooks because they lack the critical literacy tools required for decoding the information. In other words, the problem is not students’ inability to understand scientific ideas; it is their inability even to access them in the textbooks they are reading.
The logic of this claim works like this: Many students have never directly encountered lessons on high-level reading strategies (activation of prior knowledge, making predictions, genre recognition). Some have picked them up along the way, but most have not. Even those who have learned strategies for complex reading have usually done so in the context of their language arts/english courses. However, content areas such as science have different rules, different structures, and different modes of communicating ideas (for example, science text books tend to be much more multi-modal, incorporating text, image, graphs, and data sets all on a single page) which require that students incorporate different reading strategies. Without these strategies, students struggle to access the information. As a result, they perform poorly and fail to grasp what, to trained readers of science, are relatively simple ideas. The result is both teacher and student frustration and a cycle of failure that leads to an ever widening gap between scientists and the vast majority of the public.