Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 18, Issue 2, Article 15 (Dec., 2017)
Runaaz SHARMA and Lalesh Ram SHARMA
Scientific literacy education: Reflections from Fiji

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Why Scientific Literacy Education?

Low levels of scientific literacy is a concern all over the world. The general interest in science appears to be diminishing as we speak. Australia, our Pacific neighbour for instance was ranked 54th out of 57 countries with respect to ‘general interest in science’ in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Lindsay, 2011). Since Fiji does not participate in such international assessments and no research has been conducted on assessing scientific literacy of citizens in Fiji thus far, scientific literacy levels and/or disposition of citizens towards science is unknown.

However, after the study of statistics on the number of students pursuing science subjects in year 13, it can be inferred that Fiji’s standing may be very poor if not the worst. The Minister of Education at the launching of the National Science and Technology Competition expressed concern that Fijian students had lost interest in science subjects referring to statistics that showed a significant decline in students’ progression into science subjects in Year 13 (Vucago, 2017). This may be due to the way science is perpetuated in schools and by policy makers of science education.

Literature is replete with concerns that science education fails to meet the needs of the society and science continues to be taught in traditional didactic manner creating a dichotomy between the true nature of science and the science portrayed in schools (Duit & Treagust, 2003; Eshach, 2006; Skamp, 2004). A study on chemical literacy of Basic Science teachers in primary and secondary schools in Fiji showed significantly low levels of literacy on chemical management practices (Shah & Sharma, 2014).This is possibly due to the lack of importance given to scientific literacy in the Fiji education curriculum

The Fiji Islands National Curriculum Framework (NCF) (MOE, 2013) for instance, gives a lip service to scientific literacy as one of the many types of literacy under literacy education. It neither overtly defines scientific literacy nor elaborates on how this can be achieved in the curriculum. However, the definition of literacy does capture, albeit subtly, some elements of scientific literacy. The NCF defines literacy as the “ability to understand, use and reflect on language so as to: read and write; achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential; and participate effectively in society” (MOE, 2013, p. 35).

Scientific literacy is defined in various ways; however, the meaning for scientific literacy that is important: is to develop in students a desire to engage in the science that is happening around them on a daily basis. Implying students after completion of their compulsory years of science education become “reflective citizens” (Grace, 2011, p. 22) capturing the “participate effectively in society” from the NCF definition of literacy (MOE, 2013, p. 35). Scientific literacy simply means that even if you are not involved in scientific research or have a career in science, the skills you develop while learning science can benefit you in other aspects of your life.

There are many other important forms of literacy such as digital literacy, financial literacy, mathematical literacy and social literacy. However, we argue that scientific literacy needs to be given more explicit attention from as early as pre-school because science education consciously begins only when students enter formal education compared to other forms of literacy. The curriculum and school leaders including teachers need to re-think and plan holistically to incorporate scientific literacy in their instructional practices. Since science has a unique set of language conventions, it is often left to schools to harness where as other forms of literacy get opportunities to develop from home. One simple example, in support of the argument above is little children learning to count numbers, using computers and mobile phones, handling and developing a value for money in their families’ way before beginning formal education. Conversely, one rarely sees children learning about simple observable phenomenon like causes of thunder and lightning or the blueness of the ocean, or why roots do not grow upwards like leaves. Often adults satisfy children’s curiosity with superficial answers that satisfy the children’s curiosity but later can become a source of misconception and an obstacle in the learning and teaching of science in schools (Skamp, 2004).

Moreover, it is not an over emphasis to say that scientific literacy is an important 21st century life skill because the “society itself has moved on from the “industrial” era through the “knowledge “era and arguably into an era of design and innovation” (McCann, 2006, p. 40), demanding a re-focus on the push for improving scientific literacy. The 21st century society is facing many socio-environmental issues including climate change, extreme weather events, non-communicable diseases, carcinogenic, genetically modified foods and the list can go on.

In addition, in this digital era we are bombarded with information from numerous sources that disseminate data related to science and scientific developments of public interest. Hence, individuals continuously need to use this information to make important decisions in life.

Furthermore, the National Research Council (NRC, 1996) emphasizes that scientific literacy is a need of every citizen in order to make choices and express thoughts about everyday events, especially about environmental issues and technology. It further states that a good understanding of basic science concepts help develop awareness of many issues confronting society such as climate change. Thus, scientific literacy becomes critical in order to understand the world in which one lives and to make informed decisions.

Reflecting on the aftermath of severe tropical cyclone Winston which had struck Tonga, and Fiji in 2016, many citizens in Fiji were caught unprepared. Informal conversations with victims of the disaster indicated a lack of knowledge about the basic structure of a cyclone and the precautions to take when cyclones make land fall despite massive mass media awareness. Many citizens thought that the cyclone had passed when the eye was over them and moved outdoors to inspect, while some thought that the cyclone returned (to mean the strongest wind outside the eye) and caused havoc almost giving it a demonic illusion. Thinking critically, Fiji and many Pacific Island Countries are cyclone prone nations. Consequently, cyclones and hurricanes have been a part of the Pacific climate system for centuries and yet some people or may be much more still lack basic information to act safely in times of such a disaster, is a reflection of poor scientific literacy.

Interestingly however, in the National Review Report on Education for All 2015, adult literacy rates were well above 90%, signifying all is well in terms of literacy development. The document definition for literacy rate “is the percentage of people aged 15-24 who can, with understanding; both read and write” (MOE, 2015, pp. 27-28). The basis of measuring literacy rates on ability to read and write undermines the true meaning of literacy. Perhaps this narrow definition of literacy translates into classroom pedagogy and it is our belief and fear that much of literacy development is at the mercy of English subject lessons.

The report of the Fiji Islands Education Commission 2000 recommends that literacy education best flourishes through an integrated approach in primary schools. It further suggests that literacy best develops using a thematic approach to teaching where subjects are not compartmentalized (MOE, 2000). Despite the lower primary in Fiji using a thematic approach in Foundation Areas of Learning and Development (FALD), learning is still compartmentalized and literacy development mainly confines to the realms of English subject lessons.



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