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The Effective Teaching of Controversial Scientific Topics

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Controversial Issues in the Science Classroom” by David Owens, Troy Sadler, and Dana Zeidler in Phi Delta Kappan, December 2017/January 2018 (Vol. 99, #4, p. 45–49); the authors can be reached at,, and
“Traditional science education has generally focused on dispensing established and secure knowledge while relegating controversial or ethical topics to the sidelines,” say David Owens (University of Missouri), Troy Sadler (University of North Carolina/Greensboro), and Dana Zeidler (University of South Florida/Tampa) in this article in Phi Delta Kappan. But issues like climate change, vaccinating children, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are on students’ minds and have great pedagogical potential. These are socio-scientific issues, say the authors, requiring people “to make arguments that draw upon scientific evidence while also addressing morality, ethics, economics, and the like.” The good news, they contend, is that teaching about them “does not have to be a difficult or risky business for teachers.” Here is their three-step process:
• Encounter the issue. Students study the relevant scientific content and the social and political conflicts associated with it. With GMOs, for example, students might look at items from the supermarket to see which contain genetically modified ingredients, view a video about a resource-deprived area where drought-resistant crops are desirable, and study statements from partisans on both sides of the issue.
• Study the science and engage in reasoning. Students are immersed in the technical aspects of the issue – for example, the inheritance and variation of traits and the differences between genetic engineering and traditional breeding – as well as the perspectives of farmers, corporations, and individuals.
• Synthesize key ideas and practices. Students reflect on how their own perspectives have changed by engaging in the science and the socio-scientific arguments. This phase might involve a culminating activity like a debate about the safety of GMOs or creating a policy statement.
When discussing hot topics in science classrooms, it’s important that “teachers and students together establish and maintain a learning environment in which all individuals involved feel safe and demonstrate respect for one another,” say Owens, Sadler, and Zeidler. “Learning should be active and defined by interaction and collaboration, so that oppositional ideas can be discussed in light of supporting science and include the multiplicity of perspectives that inform the complex nature of socio-scientific issues. Most important, the teacher and students must toe a fine line between productive, revealing discussion and statements that might be perceived as hurtful.” Some hallmarks of good pedagogy:
- Less emphasis on discussing science in isolation; more emphasis on discussing concepts in the context of personal and social issues;
- Less emphasis on working alone; more emphasis on group work that simulates real-world science and political work;
- Less emphasis on acquiring scientific information; more emphasis on conceptual understanding applied to personal, social, and global decisions;
- Less emphasis on questions with one correct answer; more emphasis on open-ended questions that get students explaining phenomena and taking positions backed by evidence;
- Fewer multiple-choice assessments; more authentic assessments.

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