Issue Selection Guide
One of the initial steps in planning for issue-based teaching is selecting an issue. The selection of the issue should be made in conjunction with identifying 1) science ideas to incorporate and 2) science practices to support. As you consider which issue to use as a context for instruction, we encourage you to consider the following questions.
The questions are organized in three groups:
- Is the issue an SSI?
- Is the issue a productive SSI for the intended audience?
- What instructional moves should be considered in presenting the issue?
Questions in the first two sets (I & II) focus on selecting a productive issue for your students’ learning needs. A “NO” response to questions in the first set (I) means that you ought to consider a different context for [RI]2 teaching. A “NO” response to questions in the second set (II) indicates that the issue you have selected is probably not going to work well in your teaching situation. Questions in the third set (III) prompt some thinking about instructional moves that you may need to make to refine the issue you’ve selected to ensure successful development and enactment of an [RI]2 unit.
I. Is the issue actually a socio-scientific issue (SSI)?
The issues featured in [RI]2 teaching should be complex and contentious societal issues with substantive connections to science—these are the defining characteristics of socio-scientific issues (SSI). In selecting an issue, teachers and designers should think about the how the issue highlights science questions or themes and societal considerations. Societal considerations associated with an issue may focus on social, political, economic and/or ethical implications. The figure below highlights the fact that SSI can be found at the intersection of science questions/themes and societal issues.
Other approaches to science teaching and learning share similarities with [RI]2 teaching but do not necessarily feature SSI. For example, context based chemistry presents students with everyday situations to anchor chemistry learning—students may be challenged to explore the chemical makeup of household products. This may be the basis for an interesting chemistry lesson, but it does not feature a societal issue. Another example is project-based or problem-based learning. Some [RI]2 modules may be similar to project/problem based learning, but not all project/problem based learning experiences feature SSI. Learners might be asked to learn about condensation through analysis of the real-world phenomenon of water droplets forming on the outside of a soda can. This may help students understand condensation, but there is no societal issue for learners to consider.
II. Is the issue a productive SSI for the intended audience?
Not all SSI will be ideally suited for all student audiences. Teachers and designers need to consider the learning needs, background experiences, learning potential, and interests of their students in order to select issues that will likely support the intended learning outcomes.
II.1. Is the issue aligned to state and/or national science standards (or other content expectations for the class)?
It may be difficult to situate [RI]2 teaching in science classrooms if the substance of that instruction does not align with state and/or national standards (depending on the priorities of the teacher and school). For example, a biology teacher wanted to try [RI]2 teaching in his classroom and selected the issue of using animals for product testing. The students were very engaged in discourse, but the unit did not align with content standards and the teacher struggled to document ways in which the students learned science.
II.2. Are there relevant and accessible social, political, economic and/or ethical considerations related to the issue?
Promoting student understanding of science content and practices is critical to the [RI]2 approach, but equally important goals relate to the support of student reasoning and development as informed citizens. It is critical for students to have opportunities to confront real science as it is situated within societal contexts—this provides students with opportunities to connect knowledge and practices across domains (e.g., classroom science, political perspectives, etc.). In an earlier project, members of our team worked on an issues-based unit related to invasive species (pythons establishing themselves as top predators in South Florida). The issue was of interest to many of our high school students (who happened to live in Florida), but we struggled to connect the issue to meaningful societal considerations to which students could relate. There may be some esoteric ethical issues associated with removal of organisms or governmental intervention in pet ownership, but for the students, this was a straightforward issue with little controversy: every effort should be made to remove the pythons.
II.3. To what extent will the intended student audience relate to the issue?
Intended audience, that is, the students who will be engaged in [RI]2 learning experiences, should be an important consideration in the selection of a focal issue. In planning the antibiotic resistance unit, we discussed several different examples of evolution of resistance including antibiotic use in livestock and evolution of resistance to herbicides and pesticides. Ultimately, our unit focused on the evolution of resistance among disease causing bacteria in humans and the use of antibiotics in human healthcare. We made the decision to explore the evolution of resistance in healthcare contexts as opposed to agricultural contexts because of the student population we planned to work with. We were working at a suburban school, in a middle class neighborhood, and the unit would be delivered in an honors biology class with a large number of students who had indicated an interest in healthcare professions. If we had been working in a rural school where our students may have been more familiar with agricultural practices, we likely would have featured a different focal issue.
III. What instructional moves need to be made to promote successful implementation of [RI]2 teaching?
A defining characteristic and important strength of the [RI]2 teaching is the fact that the approach helps to engage students in relevant issues that matter to society (as opposed to questions or themes that matter in textbooks and within the walls of a school). However, this dimension of the [RI]2 approach can also make the work challenging because real issues are often complex, ill-defined, and ambiguous. It is often necessary to make instructional moves in order to anticipate or ameliorate problems that might emerge because of the complex, ill-defined and ambiguous nature of SSI.
III.1. Is the issue being framed with an appropriate focus?
Framing the issue so that it is both significant and manageable in scope is critical to the success of [RI]2 teaching. If the issue is too small, then it may not help students make the kinds of connections to real life decision-making that the approach is based on. If the issue is too large or diffuse, then it may be difficult to create meaningful learning opportunities. This was an important consideration for our team as we designed the “Vanishing Prairie” unit related to climate change and ecology. Climate change is arguably the most important socio-scientific issue of our time, but it is an enormous issue—far too immense to address completely in a single unit. Therefore, we had to focus on a specific aspect of climate change so that the issue fit within the context of a unit that could be successfully featured in a biology classroom. In this case, we chose to focus on the ways in which climate changes impact a local ecosystem.
III.2. Are there aspects of the underlying science that may need to simplified or backgrounded?
It is critical for a focal issue to connect to science themes, and teachers may also need to explore the extent to which the science ideas central to the issue are appropriate for the intended student audience. When designing an [RI]2 unit on antibiotic resistance, we had to deal with this challenge. We selected the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria as an issue to explore because it featured evolution and natural selection. As we worked through unit planning, we came to realize that the problem of antibiotic resistance is due more to lateral gene transfer than natural selection, and lateral gene transfer was a topic that went beyond our goals for student understanding. In this case, we had to work carefully around the idea of lateral gene transfer as a causal mechanism for the phenomenon being observed.
III.3. Should authentic or hypothetical scenarios be featured?
Most of our work has focused on authentic cases, but in a few cases we have created hypothetical scenarios to help simplify an issue and as a means of highlighting a particular dimension of a broader issue that helps address our learning goals. When we have used hypothetical scenarios, we have been sure to relate them as much as possible to the actual ways that the broader issue has unfolded in society.
III.4. Are local, national, or global themes emphasized?
[RI]2 units may be framed around issues with impacts at varying levels. Some teachers and students prefer to draw connections to local contexts (e.g., a proposal to introduce a new power plant to a particular community). In other cases, a national focus (e.g., whether national policies should be enacted around the labeling of genetically modified foods) may be preferred. Finally, some issues like the use of genetic technologies may transcend local and national boundaries.