As individuals and members of society, we encounter societal issues that require us to relate to a range of choices.Scientific knowledge is vitally important in some of these issues. One important task for schools is to properly equip students for reasoning and adopting standpoints on issues such as health, the environment, energy provision and technological development. Teachers require a broad educational repertoire if they are to succeed.
This systematic mapping review describes teaching about societal issues with a scientific content – socio-scientific issues – as it is addressed in research. The aim is to provide teachers with knowledge and inspiration for classroom practice. By describing the repertoire of teaching practices that are highlighted in the research, the review provides a rich toolbox of opportunities for teachers. The included research was conducted with students in the equivalent of Swedish compulsory and upper secondary education.
The review’s overarching question is:
What characterises teaching on socio-scientific issues where students can encounter and use knowledge and values?
This question is answered using three questions about teaching and learning:
- What is taught – which socio-scientific issues are addressed?
- How is teaching designed – what methods and approaches are used?
- What aims and purposes emerge from the teaching being studied?
We have used four criteria to define socio-scientific issues:
- The issue is relevant to societal development.
- The issue is interdisciplinary and complex, i.e. the different aspects and potential approaches to be reasoned about are linked in a way that cannot be easily overviewed.
- Scientific knowledge is of central importance for reasoning about the issue.
- Ethical perspectives and values are relevant to the issue, how it can be reasoned about and approaches taken in relation to it.
Results of the review
The review includes 157 studies that were published in scientific journals between 1997 and 2021, conducted with students in around 30 countries. Around one fifth of the studies were conducted in Sweden, but the educational content of all studies corresponds well to the tasks stated in the Swedish curricula.
The primary results of the review consist of categories created based on the educational content described in the studies, and the purposes and educational aims that emerge. The categories represent the variety of issues, methods and activities that are used. In order to provide deeper understanding, each category has a brief summary of the content of one or two of the studies included in the review.
The review shows that teaching deals with socio-scientific issues in two general knowledge areas: the environment and sustainable development and health and technological development. Educational content in all the included studies relates to these knowledge areas. Even if most of the studies are based upon one area, there are those that relate to teaching about several different socio-scientific issues and which may fall within both areas. There are also examples where the starting point is a particular type of technology or societal challenge and, in these cases, the societal issue may be examined from the perspectives of both the environment and of health.
The environment and sustainable development is an area that addresses issues about climate change and the amplified greenhouse effect in relation to human activities and energy use. Teaching in the environment and sustainable development also includes issues relating to species protection and biodiversity, emissions of environmentally harmful substances and issues that can arise in relation to the use of land and water.
Health and technological development is an area that addresses issues about medical treatments and biotech, including in relation to potential ethical challenges. Teaching in this knowledge area also includes food issues, such as the effect of dietary habits on health and health aspects linked to the use of genetically modified food. It also includes teaching on the use of chemical substances in products and materials, and the health risks associated with various forms of radiation found in society.
How is teaching designed – what methods and approaches are used?
The review shows that teaching often includes several types of activities and materials. Because teaching must deal with values, perspectives, potential trade-offs and scientific uncertainties, it often uses methods in which the students participate actively and are given opportunities to reason with each other. Group discussions, debates and role plays are examples of methods that aim to help students orally exchange ideas and arguments, listen to each other’s reactions and explore a socio-scientific issue together. Role play can be a way of highlighting opportunities for adopting a certain standpoint, in that students – in a set role – are either for or against something, or represent a particular stakeholder on an issue.
In the teaching described in the studies, it is common for students to engage in scientific inquiry by taking responsibility for finding, selecting and assessing information. Inquiry-based approaches may entail both theoretical and practical activities, such as students using various types of texts using source criticism, or conducting laboratory experiments.
Other methods identified in the review are project work, the use of digital learning resources and teaching that utilises the world outside the classroom. Project-based teaching can highlight how students work with a particular themed educational content for a significant period of time to achieve a concrete result. This concrete result could be that the students will create things such as models, posters or opinion pieces. Digital learning resources in the classroom could be specific supporting materials, visualisation tools or learning games that have been produced to support students’ work with a specific topic. Methods that emphasise students expressly relating to the world around them include study visits or fieldwork. They could also include students meeting people outside the school who have a particular expertise, or a link to or interest in a specific socio-scientific issue.
What aims and purposes emerge from the teaching being studied?
A wide variety of aims and purposes emerge from the studies in the review. These may emphasise that students should have the right conditions for acquiring knowledge and for developing particular skills or abilities. In our work on the review, we focused on identifying the aims and purposes that are expressed to the students participating in the classroom situation, i.e. what the students are informed they are expected to learn or develop.
Learning outcomes that are clearly apparent in the review’s studies include students’ opportunities for informed decision making and developing understanding for the importance of an argument in proper reasoning. As regards subject knowledge, the issues’ natural science considerations are primarily foregrounded, although the issues themselves are interdisciplinary and include knowledge from the social sciences.
Additional aims and purposes identified by this systematic mapping review are students’ communication, understanding of the nature of science and creating conditions conducive to democratic participation. Developing student dialogue may involve classroom dialogue, that students are given circumstances that allow them to interact in a purposeful and respectful manner, or that they will communicate with parties outside the classroom. The nature of science focuses on the characteristics of scientific knowledge and how it is developed, but also how the production of scientific knowledge is a result of human activity that is embedded in societal and cultural contexts. Teaching that creates conditions conducive to students’ participation by democracy can be shaped by highlighting how society is organised and individuals’ opportunities for influencing processes and decisions. This may also involve developing students’ confidence and willingness to reach out to various societal stakeholders, both to learn from their knowledge, interests and perspectives, as well as to drive opinion or place pressure in a particular direction.
Selection of research
The studies included in this review were selected because they address teaching on socio-scientific issues. This approach has allowed us to include a large number of studies and a rich variety of teaching opportunities. However, it does not allow a synthesis of research results as regards students’ learning and development.
The included studies cover students in the equivalent of Swedish compulsory and upper secondary education, as part of or in association with their normal schooling. Most of the studies focus on students in secondary education, but there are also examples of studies conducted with students in younger age groups.
The project is carried out by a project team consisting of external researchers (specialists in the field) and employees at the Swedish Institute for Educational Research.
- Niklas Gericke, Professor, Karlstads University
- Per Högström, Senior lecturer, Halmstad University
From the institute
- Johan Wallin, PhD (project manager)
- Eva Bergman (assistant project manager and information specialist)
- Catarina Melin (project assistant)