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Rethinking Scientific Literacy

reviewed by Richard Frazier - 2005

coverTitle: Rethinking Scientific Literacy
Author(s): Wolff-Michael Roth and Angela Calabrese Barton
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415948436, Pages: 227, Year: 2004
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In Rethinking Scientific Literacy Wolff-Michael Roth and Angela Calabrese Barton both challenge and transmute the reformer’s rallying cry of ‘science for all’ in science education. An introductory chapter offers theoretical assertions and establishes the moral terrain. The authors admonish that “Science and science education must advocate a free democratic society where all, rather than only a few, have access to basic necessities and resources (p. 19).” The chapters that follow present a series of illustrative cases and sensitive portraits originating from three constellations of setting and situation. The final chapter is entitled “Dangerous teaching” and makes clear that the kind of rethinking being promoted will inevitably threaten and challenge any system or practice that supports injustice.

The initial set of interconnected stories is placed in a watershed in the Pacific Northwest . The portrayals represent the broad range of participants who make up the ecological, political, economic, and educational community. A second group of narratives come from children and adolescents residing in family shelters and taking part in after school programs for the homeless in New York and Texas . Three Pakistani women provide material for the final examples. In the telling of the diverse tales, Roth and Barton supply several intellectual constructs, metaphors, and analogies. The diverse episodes are fixed by such mortar into a mosaic that is critical of a science and science education that serves only the elite and the powerful.

Each of the stories is wonderfully evocative. People are presented with respect and empathy, and the accounts of the children are at the same time delightful and poignant. I suspect that each chronicle could stand alone as a kind of exemplar that in turn could provoke those of us in education to examine what we have taken for granted in both our current situations and our visions for change. I found the stories valuable and appreciated their capacity for engendering reflection. Brief mention of a favorite three follows.

Davie is a seventh grader who features in several of the episodes arising from projects and controversies connected with the watershed. Davie has been diagnosed in his school with a learning disability. His classroom behavior seems consistent with such an assumption, but his performance in the field involving talk, practice, and instruments exhibits what any science teacher would consider good science. Davie even teaches his peers from another class and an adult at a community open house. Davie ’s demonstration of enthusiastic and confident expertise contrasts vividly with his ways of working and being in the classroom.

Latisha is a fourth grader living with her family in a homeless shelter. She is introduced in chapter five through a lovely poem of hers about the moon and about science. She does poorly in school. During a session in the after school program, Latisha completes the construction of a homemade microscope with perfunctory engagement and little enthusiasm. Soon after, however, she embarks on a second project and displays careful attention in the design and fabrication of a purse. She uses some of the same materials that had been gathered for the microscopes. The authors ask:

As science teachers and science educators, we are drawn not only to the question why Latisha invented a purse from the microscope materials, but also to the question of what empowered her to push the regular activity to the side to invent at all (p. 113)?

Haleema is a scientist and science educator in urbanPakistan . Her story is told through descriptions of her teaching and reflective passages where she analyzes the problems facing the education of the poor, of females, of pre-service elementary teachers, and of the community at large. She expresses a remarkable faith in the potential of science and of education to empower. She points to environmental issues, health, and the science of everyday life as the contexts where the poor, women, teachers, and the community can enact a pragmatic scientific literacy. In one of several passages, Haleema explains:

In order to be on the right track, we have to start working in science education at grassroots level. I think if I will be able to create a positive sense toward the environment, they will be able to play toward its betterment and improvement (p. 208).

The chapters in Rethinking Scientific Literacy are mostly reworked conference papers and journal articles by each of the two authors. There are some places where voice, person, and reference are inconsistent. The fault may lie with the challenge of linking disparate pieces and different styles. A couple of endnote references are missing from the Acknowledgements. Such examples are only mildly confusing.

Of greater concern is the question of audience. Who is meant to read the collection--a school principal, perhaps? How should an experienced science teacher react to the stories? I must admit recalling more than a few of my own former seventh grade students when we ventured into neighborhoods, parks, farms, and forests (Frazier, 2002). How would a prospective teacher respond to the arguments, claims, and moral admonitions while being charged with the myriad and oft times contradictory directives from professors, principals, host teachers, parents, children, and policy makers? The moral imperative that underlies much of the theoretical in the book seems at times to belie the call for multiple voices. The promise that scientific literacy will emerge dialectically as a result of collective praxis is undermined by a tacit presumption that the correct moral position is known in advance. In places there almost seems to be an implicit attack on public schools as agents of hegemony.

Interestingly, the authors argue for a scientific literacy that emerges from collective praxis, but they supply few guidelines for implementing such practice. A readable contrast comes from David Sobel’s (2004) Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Sobel’s book is clearly written for teachers, takes an unequivocal moral stand, describes a number of exemplary projects, and offers suggestions, tips, and tricks. In the introductory pages, Sobel writes:

Drops of waters and rootlets unite! Give me your students, yearning to be free! It’s a simple proposition really. Bring education back into the neighborhood. Connect students with adult mentors, conservation commissions, and local businesses. Get teachers and students into the community, into the woods, and on the streets—closer to beauty and true grit. Get the town engineer, the mayor, and the environmental educators onto the schoolyard and inside the four walls of the school. These are the places we all belong (p. 8). 

The final page of Rethinking Scientific Literacy reads:

But we must teach students to become aware of the social, political, and economic forces that shape the ways we know and live. Teaching is a political act when it promotes active participation in citizen science and engagement for social justice.

A practice for social justice is dangerous, for it challenges so many things at one time. Using science as a context and a tool for change opens up spaces (though they may be small in the larger scheme of the lives of these educators and their students) for those teachers who expose normative practices for what they are and offered their students a different view of the world (p. 214).

While I enjoyed tremendously the stories Roth and Barton have presented and greatly admire their work and commitment, I doubt that I would suggest Rethinking Scientific Literacy to my own pre-service elementary teachers (although I am quite attracted to Ms. Haleema’s approach of looking for science in everyday life and her faith in the potential for personal and collective empowerment through science). I would instead point prospective teachers to works in community-based and place-based pedagogy, environmental education, watershed education, and traditional/indigenous/ethno-science. I might share the many wonderful volumes of Foxfire.

I do hope that Rethinking Scientific Literacy has an impact among researchers and policy makers in science education. I would definitely recommend it to such colleagues. We can hope that the stature of Roth and Barton will help nurture more discussion of the various brands of citizen science in that particular community. Better, however, would be even more partnered action among science education researchers and the many other constituencies concerned with science, school, community, environment, and social justice. That is something to work for.


Frazier, R. (2002).

Singapore sensory trail: A nature experience for visually impaired visitors. Legacy, 13(5), 12-17.

Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based education: Connecting classrooms & communities. Great

Barrington , MA : The Orion Society.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 2, 2005, p. 255-258
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11377, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 12:31:46 AM

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