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Opinion - Assessing science literacy: A measure toward competitiveness

2020-07-03  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Assessing science literacy: A measure toward competitiveness
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In the preceding article by this writer, “The ‘Perquisite’ of a Science-literate Society”, the concept and benefits of science/scientific literacy, or public science literacy (PSL), were briefly explored. The article summarised the utilitarian value of PSL in innovation and competitiveness, and in civic engagement, by enabling people to both engage in the construction of new knowledge as well as to use scientific information in decision-making to achieve desired goals. To recap, scientific literacy is defined as “an individual’s understanding of scientific concepts, phenomena and processes, and their ability to apply this knowledge to new and, at times, non-scientific situations” (Program for International Student Assessment, PISA, 2018).

In the age of infodemic, it is essential to sophisticate the citizenry to discern fake news (inaccurate information) from reality (accurate information or facts). This requires a certain level of familiarity with the enterprise and practice of science and research, essential for comfortable, meaningful and consequential civic engagement – at individual, community and societal levels. Science literacy as a concept can be found in 17th century England history, and today it is delivered through curricula (generic and specialized) and general or public education (e.g. citizen science), which lay the foundation for basic knowledge and skills of communication in science and science-based technologies. In these processes, we acquire content knowledge, and develop an understanding of scientific practices and also of science as a social process. Today, it is well understood that achieving knowledge-based society status (driven by industry and innovation) requires scientific development and complementary public understanding and support.

 For any nation, strengthening scientific skills is important to becoming more competitive (‘future-ready’) in the global marketplace. Scientific literacy underpins economic productivity because of the emergence of knowledge industries driven by technological advancements, i.e. those industries defined by their intensive use of technology and human capital, and which tend to produce, process and distribute information goods and services. (See Scientific Literacy and Economic Productivity in International Perspective, 1983, Herbert J. Walberg). 
Once we appreciate the value of PSL, it becomes imperative to assess its current level in our society and move to the next stage of prioritizing, promoting and regularizing PSL. This is about embedding policy, content, processes and mechanisms to raise the level of PSL and entails a variety of activities. These include, for example, taking science classes; improving STEM teaching; reading science literature, textbooks or magazines; watching television science shows; and exploring the history and philosophy of scientific principles through experiments.

How well do know we are doing in PSL? This calls for assessments which require periodic national surveys of public knowledge and attitudes toward science; measuring correct responses to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences; and student achievement in mathematics and science. As for student achievement, the predominant global measurement instruments are: i) PISA (Program for International Student Assessment, since 2000), which is the latest and most comprehensive international test of student achievement, and ii) TIMMS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, since 1995), which provides multiple perspectives on how the performance of students compare (it originated with the First International Mathematics Study, FIMS, 1964).

These standard tools are considered devoid of idiosyncrasies of a particular (national) testing regime and measure how well schools prepare young people for life and work. The learning assessments and use of resulting data inform national policies and evidence-based decision-making, and assist in setting national targets for improvement for the purpose of institutional capacity building and monitoring international educational standards (United Nation’s Education 2030 framework).

TIMSS and PISA use different approaches: On the one hand, TIMSS ensures that the content of its tests is closely aligned to the mathematics and science curricula of participating countries – it’s a measure of how countries are effective in teaching mathematics and science. On the other hand, PISA evaluates students against its own definitions of literacy in math, science, and reading - it emphasizes items designed to measure students’ ability to apply knowledge of these subjects in real-world settings (preparedness for the future). Despite the difference in testing philosophies, the tools provide multiple perspectives on student performance, and over time have shown a high correlation of the scores of participating countries in both assessments.

Although these tests are regularised in many developed countries, Namibia’s participation in PISA can be benchmarked against participating low- and middle-income countries, such as Bhutan, Cambodia, Equador, Guatemala, Senegal and Zambia through PISA for Development (est. 2013) overseen by National Project Managers (NPMs).

These conventional tools work from the basis that most scientific literacy originates in the classroom, but also recognize that much learning does take place beyond the classroom. For instance, TIMMS also provides a broader view of learning contexts for mathematics and science by assessing students’ parents, teachers and school principals, as well as about home and school learning experiences and instruction.
Beyond the classroom, there is, in addition, the Arck Interactive framework (since 2008), a new science literacy tool suitable for the broad public (including teachers and students) within a multitude of learning contexts. Its ScienceVine digital science literacy tool is created to measure and improve scientific literacy and to explore the potential for self-measured scientific experimentation and learning.

The lesson we take from the assessments is that countries well-grounded in mathematics and science are more competitive economically. The measurement tools can provide an overview of the needs for necessary curricular and policy reforms, as well as the effectiveness of practices and reforms. Namibia’s desire to transition from resource-based to innovation-driven status takes more than magical thinking. It requires a clear understanding of its current PSL status and an assured policy and growth projection of its science education and literacy. These require measured investments in the appropriate tools and means and regular review. We have to lay the foundation for a futuristic Namibia and now’s the time!

2020-07-03  Staff Reporter

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