What is Socioscientific Issues-Based Instruction?

Socioscientific issues-based instruction is an active approach to learning, placing science content within a social context in a way that supplies both motivation and the ownership of learning to the student.

"Socioscientific issues involve the deliberate use of scientific topics that require students to engage in dialogue, discussion and debate. They are usually controversial in nature but have the added element of requiring a degree of moral reasoning or the evaluation of ethical concerns in the process of arriving at decisions regarding possible resolution of those issues. The intent is that such issues are personally meaningful and engaging to students, require the use of evidence-based reasoning, and provide a context for understanding scientific information." (Zeidler and Nicols, 2009)

Characteristics of Socioscientific Issues

Socioscientific issues are controversial, socially relevant, real-world problems that are informed by science and often include an ethical component (Sadler, Barab, and Scott, 2007). Examples include fish farming, genetic testing, global warming, and captive breeding in zoos. "Socioscientific issues are usually value-laden, and the juxtaposition of science and ethics can be uncomfortable for scientists, teachers, and students who define science in terms of objectivity" (Sadler et al, 2006).

Characteristics of a good issue for classroom use are:

  • Connection to course objectives
  • Data-supported
  • Real rather than fabricated
  • Contemporary relevance
  • Controversial
  • Illustrates the nature and process of science
"An issue is a topic with no clearly-defined single outcome or answer, something about which reasonable people might be expected to disagree."
Susan E. Lewis, Carroll College, Waukesha, WI.

Differences Between This Teaching Approach and Traditional Teaching Methods

Because this is a student-active learning approach, there are significant differences between using socioscientific issues and methods which are more traditionally used in the classroom. Wilmes and Howarth (2009) characterize the use of issues in the classroom as opposed to other teaching methods in the table below.

Table: Issues vs other methods

Differences Between Socioscientific Issues-Based Instruction and Similar Teaching Approaches

Socioscientific issues-based instruction is similar in its teaching approach to case-based and problem-based teaching in that they both frame science content within a story. In problem-based or case-based learning, students are given a scenario and asked to find an answer or resolve a problem. A socioscientific issues-based teaching approach is different in that students are challenged to explore the controversy around an issue which is informed by science, integrate the social aspects (moral, ethical, economic, etc) and other individuals' or groups' perspectives, and develop a position based upon their investigations. For example, students will not be able to solve the issue of global warming, however they will be able to develop a position based upon the research they discover as they explore the issue and learn science content (Klosterman and Sadler, 2010).