Viral Ignorance: Why Australia’s teachers need to become scientifically literate

With fact and fiction pervading media and everyday conversation in equal measure, Jordan Michael makes the case for our teachers to have greater scientific literacy.

A couple of days ago I was having a conversation with a dear friend of mine about the topic that has been eclipsing everyone’s minds right now… the coronavirus. Like many of us right now, this friend of mine was worried and anxious, but also had so many so many questions about what the science behind what has been going on. Whilst I am currently studying a Masters of Teaching, in a past life I had worked in an immunology lab and had done an honours degree in molecular biology, so I was more than happy to try and answer her questions where I could. I realised quickly however, that a lot of the science that my friend had learnt during her school years was lost, and I fear this may have been the case for a lot of people. If you are someone from a non-science background, take a moment to ask yourself, what do you remember from science class? Can you tell me what a cell is? What about a gene? Bacteria? A virus?  Yet here we are, the year 2020, and our screens flooded with biology, yet most people are lacking the conceptual framework to decode it.

Society is being battered by a giant swell of information and misinformation, and many citizens do not have the tools to part the seas and find truth.

In Australia, this continues to be a problem as a recent national survey of youth showed an alarming downward trend in scientific literacy. The United States National Science Education Standards defines scientific literacy as

The knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has exposed a great deficit in this. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization noted that in addition to fighting a pandemic, we are also fighting an infodemic. Society is being battered by a giant swell of information and misinformation, and many citizens do not have the tools to part the seas and find truth. Xenophobia is fuelled by rumours that the virus is a bioweapon in a lab in Wuhan, a claim which has no scientific backing. Whilst companies advertising false remedies take advantage of those who lack the scientific capital to know otherwise.

A scientifically literate population knows that there are only one group of people we should be listening to right now about the science of the viruses, and those are the scientists working on the frontlines. Heck, a scientifically literate world may not even be going through what we are right now. Scientists have been warning us for years that a pandemic is our greatest threat to humanity. As an educator however, I look to the future and see this moment in history as an important lesson. We need to prepare our youth to be more scientifically literate. This is a call to arms for universities to lead this charge, and I envision a swift action in how we educate pre-service science teachers to drive this change.

As an educator however, I look to the future and see this moment in history as an important lesson. We need to prepare our youth to be more scientifically literate.

I have always loved science, and especially biology. As a curious adolescent I was captivated by the wonder and elegant beauty of how science could be used to describe natural phenomena. I loved how questions only led to more questions, and there were no limits to how far the mind could go. Questions like how do trillions of cells in your body work together to make you, you? Or what lie out there amongst the vast cosmic ocean above? Science is the transcendental story of the Universe, the stars, the Earth, the cells and the atoms that make up you. Yet in schools is all too often conveyed as what does the mitochondria do? What is the likelihood that this mouse will have brown hair? These are all important to know, but taught with a recognition to the beautiful surrounding context, then even these questions can engage and excite. My experiences in pre-service science teacher education perpetuates the blandness as opposed to the wonder, with a focus mostly on maximising our students VCE results. I say, why not both.

If we awaken an energy and fervour in our youth for science, not only will their scores improve but we can hopefully generate lifelong science learners who seek knowledge along their lives out of passion.

Learners who don’t forget what a cell is when their adults, because their early experiences in the science classroom was emotionally powerful. And when they interact with such material in the media, they can engage and understand concepts intellectually and accurately.

In mainstream science education, science is often portrayed as a disciplinary island, and inter-disciplinary connections to other areas of knowledge are ignored or mentioned in a tokenistic way. The coronavirus pandemic is a clear counter-point to this, as although a virus must be understood at a biological level, there are clear implications and connections to the social sciences, economics, mathematics and information technology.

It’s time to end such artificial borders between subjects, and demonstrate to students how scientific knowledge is relevant themselves, their families, friends and society as a whole.

People need to be able interrogate biological information in an inter-disciplinary context, and opportunities to develop these skills must be presented in classrooms. After all, an important aspect of scientific literacy is “personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” Educational approaches such as Science, Technology, Society and Environment (STSE) or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) work toward this, but are highly underused. These measures, however, are essential as they mirror the real-world but they also can engage students who may be more inclined towards other disciplines. It’s time to end such artificial borders between subjects, and demonstrate to students how scientific knowledge is relevant themselves, their families, friends and society as a whole. 

As someone passionate about science, I’m slightly disheartened that it seemingly took a pandemic for people to finally wake up and be interested in science and realise how important it is. But here we are, and there can be important lessons from this. Science education needs a re-shift which emphasises the nurture of wonder and exploring science’s connectedness with humanity. This can improve our scientific literacy, which will allow us to be more capable of discerning information from misinformation and drive more informed political stances which can prevent future disasters.

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