WWW Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor, Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto
Teaching & learning strategies for promoting critical & activist science education

A major goal of the STEPWISE project is to learn - through action research - about the nature and extent of students' self-directed (SD/OE) 'RiNA' (research-informed & negotiated action) projects to address harms they perceive in STSE relationships. As illustrated at right, a student RiNA project may involve secondary and primary research to learn more about climate change and, based on findings, negotiated development and implementation of various actions to try to combat it.

Often, however, students struggle to self-direct high quality RiNA projects - often because they lack, more or less, expertise, confidence and motivation to do so. Accordingly, in working with teachers, we developed teaching & learning strategies and resources that appear to help students to gain sufficient expertise, confidence and motivation to autonomously conduct RiNA projects. Here, we provide some such strategies and resources.

Teaching/learning schema for promoting civic actions to address STSE harms
Although we recognize that there are likely many ways to promote student-led social actions through school science, we have found the schema described below to have worked well for many teachers:

Very broadly, the above pedagogy involves having teachers provide students with one or more sets of
constructivism-informed, 3-phase, pedagogical lessons and activities before asking students to self-direct RiNA projects to address harms students perceive in STSE relationships. Brief descriptions, with some examples, of each phase of the pedagogical cycles are provided below:
  • Students Reflect: Generally, the teacher should provide stimuli (e.g., pictures of STEM products) to get students to reflect on and express their existing ‘ASK’ (attitudes, skills & knowledge) about STSE relationships, STEM knowledge and actions that may be necessary to address problems;

e.g., For a curriculum unit relating to human physiological systems (respiration, digestion, etc.), students are shown pictures of various foods, including fast foods. Students are asked to state what they like and dislike about some such foods and for what reasons. They also may be asked to name people or organizations that would promote or criticize such foods and for what reasons. For problems or harms they identify, they could/should also be asked to describe some better possible solutions and how to promote them. Note that, although the teacher would provide some stimuli and directions/questions for such activities, they should be mostly student-directed and open-ended.

e.g., Generally, students should be taught all aspects of the science curriculum for the particular unit - which, in Ontario, where STEPWISE was developed, includes learning in three broad domains. With a STEPWISE focus, though, these can be taught in coordination with teaching students certain issues (controversies) or harms in particular STSE relationships and RiNA projects that people have undertaken to address them. In terms of the schema here for understanding RiNA projects, the greater the depth and comlexity of student understanding of relevant 'Signs' (Representations) as STSE relationships and others' RiNA projects, which can be enhanced by direct teacher instruction, the deeper and more complex will be students' RiNA projects. Often STSE relationships can be taught in connection with particular citizen actions. For example, in the context of teaching students about various food nutrients (e.g., carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, vitamins, minerals) and human digestion and cellular respiration, teachers could share with students a video developed by a citizen (health enthusiast) about 'trans-fats' (highly saturated fatty acids) found in many manufactured foods. Although the teacher is likely to have to supplement student knowledge, the video does contain quite a lot of information about STSE relationships (e.g., government laws about food labelling), research (here, relating to trans-fats) and actions (i.e., this educational video). Such lessons should be mainly teacher-directed and closed-ended, to ensure less advantaged students gain useful ASK. Elaboration of what should be taught is provided here. After the teacher has taught students about a particular RiNA project to overcome a particular harm in STSE relationships, students should be asked  to evaluate ASK that have been presented - in activities that are somewhat more student-directed and open-ended. A good example of such an evaluative activity is to engage students in one or more STSE-RiNA Case Methods.

  • Students Practise: To deepen students’ expertise, confidence and motivation for them, students are asked to develop and implement practise RiNA projects to address harms they determine in STSE relationships — obtaining help from the teacher, as needed and/or requested by them.
e.g., Although some students may be able to develop relatively sophisticated RiNA projects with little teacher support, it is common for many students - especially younger ones and those who have had little exposure to such projects - to need and benefit from some suggestions and support for such projects. To give students (often in small groups) ideas about issues and/or problems they might address, the teacher can provide various 'stimuli.' A simple approach would be to, again, have students consider a range of commerical products and services relating to the unit topic. A much more perhaps generous approach would be to have students consider some of the so-called 'multi-actant documentaries' (MADs), here. These have considerable information, but students would still need to conduct considerable secondary and primary research prior to developing their actions. Regarding students' research to learn more about STSE relationships, they often also can benefit from being taught in this phase some more ideas about particular skills to which they may not have been exposed - such as in terms of uses of correlational studies, as opposed to experiments, as often more ethical ways of investigating STSE relationships. Similarly, students often may benefit by being taught abourt a range of possible actions they might take, such as those described here. Again, though, after such teaching, students' practice with RiNA projects should mostly be student-directed and open-ended, only being slightly teacher-directed, as teachers provide some support as requested by students.
Eventually, after one or more sets of 3-phase lessons and activities like those above, the teacher may feel students are ready to self-direct (SD/OE) RiNA projects to address STSE problems of their interest/concern. We have found that, without such teacher-supported lessons and activites like those above, students' RiNA projects - perhaps set in the context of inquiry-based learning only - are likely to be quite limited.

Although the above brief outline of STEPWISE pedagogy may be helpful, some educators may appreciate elaborations of this pedagogy, with classroom-tested resources, available via: STEPWISE Pedagogy Annotations; EcoJust STEM Actions slides; STEPWISE Overview & AR Findings; RiNA Projects: Pedagogy Tips; and, STEPWISE Summary for Teachers.

Examples of specific teacher-developed lessons and students activities for this pedagogy are provided here.

STEPWISE aligns with official curricula
In developing the STEPWISE frameworks, I tried to build in 'Expectations,' 'Objectives,' 'Outcomes,' etc. of different official curricula. The goals for science education in Ontario curricula (indicated and linked at right), where I work, seem common to many curricula around the world. This set of three overall educational goals seems quite reasonable - perhaps leading to a relatively broad and deep kind of literacy in science education. Research suggests that school systems tend, however, to over-emphasize teaching and learning of 'Products' (e.g., laws & theories) of science and technology/engineering. [Note: Ontario calls these 'Concepts.'] STEPWISE, on the other hand, encourages teachers to provide students with a better balance of the three teaching/learning goals - with special emphases on encouraging students to use at least some of their education literacy to develop research-informed and negotiated (and networked) actions to address harms they perceive in relationships among fields of science and technology and societies and environments (STSE). Such citizen action projects involve application of all three of the curriculum goals in the Ontario curriculum. They also appear to broadly support ecojustice goals/concerns, which involve concerns about and promotion of increased social justice and environmental sustainability.