Implementing the Module (continued)
Dealing with Values and Controversial Topics
Instructors sometimes feel that the discussion of values is inappropriate
in the science classroom or that it "detracts" from the learning of "real"
science. The activities in this module, however, are based upon the conviction
that there is much to be gained by involving students in analyzing issues
of science, technology, and society. Society expects all citizens to participate
in the democratic process, and our educational system must provide opportunities
for students to learn to deal with contentious issues with civility, objectivity,
and fairness. Likewise, students need to learn that science intersects with
life in many ways. Opportunities to encounter and consider carefully some
of these ways will reinforce and enrich those scientific principles that we
desire to teach.
The activities provide a variety of opportunities for students to discuss,
interpret, and evaluate basic science and public health issues in the light
of values and ethics. Many issues that students will encounter—especially
those having to do with individual susceptibility to disease and personal
decisions that various people might make about genetic testing and medical
treatment—are potentially controversial. How much controversy develops
will depend on many factors, such as how similar your students are with respect
to socioeconomic status, perspectives, value systems, and religious preferences.
It will also depend on how you handle your role as facilitator of the discussion.
Your language and attitude may be the factors that influence most the flow
of ideas and the quality of exchange among the students.
Neutrality may be the single most important characteristic of a successful
discussion facilitator. The following suggestions may help you think about
how to guide your students in discussions that balance factual information
- Encourage your students to discover as much information about the issue
as possible. Ask questions that help your students distinguish between those
components of an idea or issue that scientific research can answer and those
components that are a matter of values. Maintaining this distinction is
particularly important as students discuss the issues about genetic testing
that are raised in Activity 5. Students should understand the importance
of accurate information to any discussion and should recognize the importance
of distinguishing factual information from opinions.
- Keep the discussion relevant and moving forward by questioning or posing
appropriate problems or hypothetical situations. Invite your students to
respond to or build on each other's ideas. Avoid asking questions that have
exact answers unless the facts are important to the integrity of the discussion.
Encourage everyone to contribute, but do not force reluctant students into
- Emphasize that everyone must be open to hearing and considering diverse
views. Point out that we cannot make intelligent decisions if we close ourselves
off from some viewpoints. Even if we cannot agree with or are offended by
a viewpoint, we still must hear it so that we know it exists and can consider
it as we shape our own views.
- Use unbiased questioning to help the students critically examine all
views presented. Help your students consider different points of view thoroughly
by asking them to define the relevant arguments and counterarguments. Let
the students help you promote the expression of alternative points of view.
- Allow for the discussion of all feelings and opinions. Avoid becoming
a censor of views that are radical or shocking (as long as these views are
consistent with the facts). When a student seems to be saying something
for its shock value, see whether other students recognize the inappropriate
comment and invite them to respond.
- Avoid seeking consensus on all issues. This is particularly important
in Activity 5. The multifaceted issues that the students discuss result
in the presentation of divergent views, and students should learn that this
- Keep your own views out of the discussion. Experts in science education
recommend that teachers withhold their personal opinions from students.
The position of teacher carries with it an authority that might influence
students. The danger also exists that the discussion might slip into indoctrination
into a particular value position, rather than an exploration of divergent
positions. Either result misses the point of the discussion. If your students
ask what you think, you may wish to respond with a statement such as, "My
personal opinion is not important here. We want to consider your views."
- Acknowledge all contributions in the same evenhanded manner. If the class
senses that you favor one idea over another, you will inhibit open debate
and discussion. For example, avoid praising the substance or content of
comments. Instead, acknowledge the willingness of students to contribute
by making such comments as, "Thanks for that idea" or "Thanks for those
comments. "As you display an open attitude, a similarly accepting climate
will begin to develop within the class.
- Create a sense of freedom in the classroom. Remind students, however,
that freedom implies the responsibility to exercise that freedom in ways
that generate positive results for all. If necessary, remind them that there
is a fine line between freedom and license. In general, freedom is a positive
influence, whereas license usually generates negative results.
- Insist upon a nonhostile environment in the classroom. Do not allow your
students to make ad hominem arguments (arguments that attack the
person instead of the idea). Help your students learn to respond to ideas
instead of to the individuals presenting those ideas.
- Respect silence. Reflective discussions are often slow. If you break
the silence, your students may allow you to dominate the discussion.
- Finally, at the end of the discussion, ask your students to summarize
the points that they and their classmates have made. Let your students know
that your respect for them does not depend on their opinion about any controversial
issue. If students feel that they must respond in particular ways to gain
your approval, your class will not discuss issues openly and with forthrightness.
Following these general suggestions should help you stimulate meaningful
student-to-student interaction with as little direct involvement by you as
possible. Initially, some students may have difficulty responding without
specific direction. It is important, however, that you resist the temptation
to intervene extensively in the initial, sometimes uncomfortable phase of
long silences and faltering responses. Unless students are given opportunities
to evaluate ideas and values in the context of a larger problem, they may
never learn to do so.
Assessing Student Progress
Because we expect this module to be used in a variety of ways and at a variety
of points in an individual teacher's curriculum, we believe the most appropriate
mechanism for assessing student learning is one that occurs informally at
various points within the activities, rather than something that happens more
formally, just once at the end of the module. Accordingly, we have integrated
a variety of specific assessment components throughout the activities within
the module. These "embedded assessment" opportunities include one or more
of the following strategies:
- performance-based activities (for example, structured discussions of
potentially controversial issues);
- presentations to the class (for example, role playing); and
- written assignments (for example, answering questions or writing magazine
or newspaper articles, letters, and short reports).
These strategies allow you to assess a variety of aspects of the learning
process, such as students' prior knowledge and current understanding, problem-solving
and critical-thinking skills, level of understanding of new information, communication
skills, and ability to synthesize ideas and apply understanding to a new situation.
An assessment icon and an annotation that describes the aspect of learning
you can assess using a particular strategy appear in the margin beside the
step in which each embedded assessment occurs.