Building Scientific Literacy

The Common Core State Standards, the lightning rod for every parents’ concerns about the education system, places more emphasis on reading informational texts than previous educational policies. In a lesson plan published by the New York Times (I didn’t previously know that the New York Times published lesson plans at all, so let’s take a moment to be excited about that!), a few teachers imagine their students reflecting on a “fiction vs. nonfiction smackdown” in education, one in which the new focus on informational texts detracts from students’ reading of fiction. The lesson plan is a remarkable because it asks students how they’d like to be taught, and what their opinions are on curriculum redesign. Too often, students are not consulted about these kinds of decisions, and I think involving students in a class discussion is a brilliant way to make them feel more engaged with pedagogy.

As I’ve been thinking about the Common Core State Standards, and about the emphasis on informational texts specifically, it’s become clear to me that this is one of the best things to come from the Common Core. I’m trained as a social scientist, and the lack of scientific literacy among so many people in this country is alarming. How many people that you know have shared a scientifically dubious “study” on Facebook? Quantitative skills are more important than ever in this day and age, and it can’t just be up to math teachers to make sure that kids are equipped to navigate this brave new world.

By making sure that kids read informational texts in English class, we’re preparing them to be responsible consumers of news and data. Misinformation abounds when anyone can publish online, and it’s the duty of educators to make sure that tomorrow’s citizens can read non-fiction texts and be able to interpret them.

Indeed, American schools are somewhat notorious for their lack of emphasis on quantitative skills. I would venture to say that many children graduate high school with only the barest knowledge of algebra, which they promptly disregard. If we’re going to stay competitive as a country, we’re going to need some scientists. We ought to expect more scientific engagement from our students.

Personally, I read little information texts in grade school. My English teachers focused on relatively unchallenging fiction stories, probably because the state tests always focused on those. As a result, most of my peers who didn’t keep up with the news had a difficult time forming arguments based on non-fiction information, understanding scientific texts, and generally evaluating the validity of non-fiction sources.

The more I think about this difficult political environment, the more convinced I am that the antidote to polarization is rational discourse, and rational discourse is made very difficult when non-fiction is not taught in schools. Fairy tales are nice, but we’re training citizens, so why not teach something that will improve civic engagement? Yes, even if it weren’t required by the Common Core State Standards, I would think that every teacher should be drawing from non-fiction sources. Everyone is better off in this country when people are more prepared to evaluate non-fiction information. For that reason, I’m strongly supportive of teaching kids non-fiction literature in schools as part of the Common Core.

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