Studying science through critical thinking


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Striking a balance between ‘science for scientists’ and ‘science for society’ remains a challenge for education systems, not to mention teachers themselves. While only a small proportion of youngsters continue to study science post-16, all students need the skills to make sense of the science encountered in the media and other aspects of everyday life. In addition, studying science in the media can boost motivation, providing contexts that bring the subject to life for students who struggle to see its relevance. In a recent article, Nadja Belova and Ingo Eilks outline the evaluation of a teaching sequence based on the role of science in advertising for cosmetic products.

Cosmetics advertising often includes terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘chemical free’, with the absence of ingredients such as silicones, parabens and palm oil being cited as positive. The authors note there is typically little evidence to back up scientific claims made in advertising, and youngsters lack the ability to interpret such claims. So they designed a teaching unit to promote critical thinking by encouraging reflection on science-related information in advertising, helping students develop those missing skills.

The unit was taught over a sequence of four lessons, and activities included the discussion of the credibility of advertising slogans, the assessment of risk associated with different ingredients, and the creation of a body cream. Students then designed their own advertisements, which were evaluated by peers prior to a final discussion about how their views had changed over the course of the unit.

The study involved five classes and included 102 students aged 13–17 who completed questionnaires at the end of the unit. Younger students tended to focus on environmental issues in their responses, while older students remarked on advertising aspects and generally showed more reflection. Data showed that students were overwhelmingly positive about talking about advertising, and also the teaching had the desired impact on their understanding of the role of science in advertising and their ability to critically reflect on this. The authors conclude that cosmetics advertising provided a highly authentic and attractive teaching context that could, with further research, lead to exciting and innovative pedagogies that will greatly enhance students’ scientific media literacy skills.