She set teenagers the task of discussing a topical issue. When they had found a solution to the issue through discussion, they were presented with a counter-argument. This confused many of them and made them feel insecure.
‘This illustrates that while there are indeed many solutions, they all have consequences. The lack of a definitive answer makes many of them feel scared and lose hope,’ Eikeland says.
She is a project coordinator in the university school project, where the teacher education programme at NMBU collaborates with four upper secondary schools. She has now taken a PhD in controversy-based education in a science centre. She has done so in cooperation with a group of educators at a science centre, by creating a very specific educational programme where the pupils are tasked with discussing bacterial resistance.
‘This was considered a suitable topical and problematic issue,’ she explains.
The pupils thus had to arrive at a solution through discussion. How can we avoid problems developing as a result of bacteria that are not killed by antibiotics? There is no definitive answer to this question. But the pupils reached agreement on what they believed was the correct answer.
Scared and confused
One example of an answer is ‘we should travel less’. When they gave their answer, they were presented with a counter-argument.
‘This illustrates that topical issues are complex. It’s often unclear what the best solution is,’ says Ingrid Eikeland.
The discussion part of the exercise went well. Everyone was involved in discussing and making decisions. However, things became less straight-forward when the counter-argument was presented.
‘Many of the pupils became scared and confused. They didn’t appear to be prepared for the fact that there are no explicitly right and wrong answers. They were very engaged in the discussion and came to conclusions like ‘yes, but I’ll travel less to save the planet’. They had a real sense of their ability to make an impact. However, as soon as they were presented with a counter-argument, they immediately descended into hopelessness and thought “we’re going to die no matter what we do” and “our contribution isn’t relevant”,’ she says.
A science centre should really be a place that encourages positive feelings and shows pupils how easy the natural sciences can be when they get the chance to test them in practice. ‘Introducing topics that are problematic and don’t have a definitive answer doesn’t conform to the identity of a science centre,’ Eikeland admits. She had expected the educators at the science centre to be sceptical. ‘But they were very engaged and wanted to take it even further and explore the pupils’ feelings even more,’ she says.
She now has a lot of knowledge about how we should look at solutions and create hope, but also about how to handle issues that science does not provide a definitive answer to, and to question what is not foolproof knowledge.
‘We have also gained some understanding of the complexity of this type of issue and that appreciating how things are interconnected represents important competence. What if you decide not to take antibiotics when you’re ill, and you become more seriously ill as a result? Then you’ll have to take even more antibiotics later on. You think you’re doing a good deed, but that may not be the case,’ Eikeland explains.
More form than context
She describes how competence aims in education are more concerned with pupils learning e.g. the structure and reproduction of bacteria. Whether they are round or rod-shaped, and what they are called when they are linked together in chains. There is less focus on the consequences – for example, what happens to you if you are infected with E. coli bacteria. Eikeland placed less emphasis in the educational programme on pupils learning lots of facts about bacteria and bacterial resistance, and more on them recognising how things are interconnected.
‘The teachers whose classes were involved in the project also gave some feedback: They thought it was a good programme, but would have liked it to have more academic content. This is probably partly to do with how the competence aims are structured, in that the pupils are supposed to learn about different types of bacteria. What I think is lacking in what they are taught is the context,’ says Ingrid Eikeland.
Education is catching on
Hedda Huse, Department Director at the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, reports that education is already moving in the direction called for by Ingrid Eikeland:
‘How interesting that this came up. It’s a highly relevant topic in the new curricula that were introduced last autumn,’ she says.
‘The intention is to increase critical thinking and make pupils more active in exploring and understanding how things are interconnected in the subject and in their own learning. We want the pupils to understand that they can come up with different answers and develop that type of competence more than before,’ says Huse, who points out that they will need this type of competence in working life and in their own private lives.
Many people are already placing a lot of emphasis on this in their teaching, while others need to work on it more. Although new curricula have been
introduced, things won’t change in practice overnight.
‘But this is an example of something a professional teacher must be able to handle. Both when it comes to raising issues that don’t have a definitive answer and making the pupils feel confident,’ Hedda Huse concludes.
Ingrid Eikeland and Merethe Frøyland: Pedagogical considerations when educators and researchers design a controversy-based educational programme in a science centre, Nordina, February 2020, doi: 10.5617/nordina.7001
Ingrid Eikeland and Dagny Stuedahl: Co-designing a controversy-based educational program in a science centre. In M. Achiam, J. Dillon, & M. Glackin (Eds.), Addressing Wicked Problems through Science Education: The role of out-of-school experiences: Springer. To be published in 2021.