Climate science, genetically modified foods, public health and safety concerns, all of these topics of public discourse have vast amounts of scientific research and documentation behind them, yet time and again the conversations around them are dominated by political pundits and knee-jerk opinion. Why the scientific silence? Perhaps its because we as science educators have emphasized scientific content mastery at the expense of practicing communication of our scientific understanding to the world.
Marlene Thier makes a charge for change in her Science & Children article, “Developing Persuasive Voices in the Science Classroom
.” Marlene identifies language out of the gate as “the framework within which tomorrow’s science-based public issues will be structured and decided as various factions use language artfully to persuade others to their points of view.” She pointedly notes that “at first glance, the skills of science might not seem similar to those of language, but when we look deeper, we see that the two disciplines are based on a foundation of parallel or reciprocal processes: comparing and contrasting, predicting, linking cause and effect, distinguishing fact from opinion, making inferences, drawing conclusions, and using language to communicate a practical understanding of their work so that others can understand and replicate.
What science educator can argue with that? Cause and effect, inference, drawing conclusions, and communication are all practices and concepts that are emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards. The connections are clear and charges us as educators concerned not only with developing a scientifically literate population, but a population whose voice will be heard over the clamour of unsubstantiated opinion in generations to come. So what is a teacher to do? Integrating the practice of evidence-based persuasion into our lesson planning is a start. Thier’s example of a “mystery spill” near school grounds is masterful, integrating the scientific practice of keeping diligent data records while carrying out of an investigation that aligns with NGSS topic 5-PS1-3: “Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.” The culminating socio-environmental debate surrounding hazardous materials and their transportation requires students to follow outlined guidelines on persuasive strategies that strengthen student communication of the major, evidence-based scientific points.
Naturally I’m energized to connect with fellow educators and ask what similar lessons have already been crafted that can integrate practice, content, and articulate verbal communication so well? Are the guidelines presented by Thier in her article appropriate for our students? If not, how do they need to be revised to suit learners at different levels? What other strategies have we found effective in improving our students verbal communication of their scientific knowledge? The importance of this work can not be understated as Thier notes almost poetically, “an idea that is unexpressed is a lost thought that cannot be commented on, considered, or negotiated.”