Why Teach using Socioscientific Issues?

Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010
When a three-year-old youngster asks, "Why is the sky blue?" we don't give a half hour discourse on the intricacies of the electromagnetic spectrum and earth's atmosphere. In academia, when an 18 year old asks, "Why do I need to know the cellular respiration dynamics?" we do not need to answer, "Because it will be on the test!" As teachers and learners, it is important to focus on the context of science and draw connections for students so that science becomes more relevant. We do not want to lose the wonder of the three-year-old's "why" questions. What we do want to remember is that the process of learning requires "hooking" new knowledge to something already located in our mental databases (National Research Council, 1999) and socioscientific issues-based instruction helps to encourage more effective and independent learning.

What are the benefits?

1. It is an ideal venue for the 5 E Learning process (Bybee et al, 2006).
  • Engage - Students make connections between their past and present learning experiences.
  • Explore - Students are actively investigating through inquiry-based instruction. They are asking questions, analyzing their data, and using their critical thinking skill set.
  • Explain - Students are communicating what they have learned and trying to figure out where their learning fits in the scheme of things.
  • Extend - Students are expanding on what they have learned, making connections to other concepts and applying the new information to their lives in new and different ways.
  • Evaluate - Students demonstrate their true understanding of the learning experiences by means of performance tasks.
2. It requires students to use higher order thinking (Bloom, 1980, and Krathwohl and Anderson, 2001) to evaluate, analyze and synthesize information to address the issue under discussion, rather than a focus on recall of definitions or descriptions of processes. 3. It allows us to more fully explore the context of science in our society (Lewis, 2003, and Herreid, 2005). It is a productive way to add pertinence and relevance to the facts and concepts taught in science classes. As an example, Susan Lewis provides some outstanding science issues in her article, "Issue-Based Teaching in Science Education" and certainly Clyde Freeman Herreid makes a very strong case for relevancy in his article entitled, Using Case Studies to Teach Science.

4. Using a socioscientific issues-based teaching approach helps improve students' understanding (Sadler 2002; Hazen 2005). It causes them to discuss issues in biology with one another, and getting students to talk about science helps them learn (Tanner, 2009).

5. Employers are looking for people with skills such as decisionmaking, negotiating, oral and written communication, self-awareness, and teamwork, which are cultivated as students work through socioscientific issues with their peers. The University of Mary Washington's Career Services Center's publishes a typical list: What Skills and Abilities do Employers Want? and the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills report, commissioned by the United States Secretary of Labor in the early 1990's to determine the skills people need to succeed in the workforce, continues to be referenced today as a benchmark for future student success.

6. Students need to be exposed to multiple perspectives and develop their own position if they are to become prepared to tackle the issues that they will face in the world outside of the formal school environment (Sadler and Zeidler, 2004).

What the Students Say

Perhaps the very best testimonials for the effectiveness of issues-based teaching and learning come from the millenials themselves. As an issues-based practitioner, one of the co-authors of the module posed the following question to seventy-two BIO101 college freshmen in the spring of 2010: "Why is using issues to teach biology an effective teaching methodology?" With time and collaboration this list could grow exponentially, but here is a sampling of answers:

"Using issues when teaching provides real-life examples and ways to support ideas being taught are practical. It allows the students to study a topic more in depth when they have to look at both sides of a moral issue. It also further prepares them for life, if they have already looked at real situations other than concepts and general knowledge."

"It's effective because it gives a context to what we are learning about. By using real-life examples and things we are aware of, it's easier to understand the material. Without using issues, we're just reciting meaningless information."

"Using issues in the teaching of biology is very effective. Not only issues, but ones that are current and up to date, I believe have a better way of intriguing students. Bio in the News due every week was a bit of a hassle, but not only increased my understanding of bio, it also had me watching the news and paying attention to the world around me."