Research Summary

‘Should we kill the grey squirrels?’A study exploring students’ justifications and decision-making

Students With Different Backgrounds Reason Differently

International Journal of Science Education

The exploration of socio-scientific issues (SSIs) is becoming an important part of science education. With the discussion of SSIs, students merge moral and scientific reasoning, using scientific information to support their moral judgments on controversial topics. The approach is often promoted for its ability to help students learn science concepts, connect science concepts to everyday life, think critically, develop citizenship skills, and build their scientific literacy.

Science education researchers have been investigating the ways that students engage in discussions around SSIs, but most of the research to date has focused on students in high school or college and has not dealt much with the ways that different students approach the same issue. The authors of this study explain, “A problem that is still unexplored in our field is how different students (e.g. from different cultural backgrounds, with different experiences, different levels of familiarity with the subject, different levels of achievement in the class) decide about the same SSI, how they justify their decisions, and how they use (or not) the evidence provided.”

To begin to address this gap, the researchers administered the same SSI learning activity in two different classrooms to compare how students made judgments and used evidence. The SSI program consisted of four 50-minute lessons related to a controversy surrounding red and grey squirrels in the United Kingdom. The program explained that grey squirrels were introduced to the U.K. in the 19th century. The grey squirrels have adapted well to their new home and flourished, while the native red squirrel is on the decline due to habitat loss and susceptibility to disease.

The students were asked to offer their opinion of the government’s position, which was that the grey squirrels should be trapped and killed in areas where red squirrels live. The students were asked to give their opinion, along with justification, at the beginning of the program and then again after the program.

The program was administered in two different classes in different parts of the U.K. Class A included 28 students, 12 to 13 years old, in a private school in the south of England. Test scores revealed that these students were high achievers. In addition, the students were white Anglo-Saxon and lived in an area of high socioeconomic status.

In contrast, Class B included 29 students of the same age in a public school in London. The students were average achievers, as measured by their test scores, and included a majority of students from an Indian background, with three quarters speaking English as a second language. Teachers in the two classes also differed in the way they administered the curriculum. Class A’s teacher placed more emphasis on facilitating class discussion and helping the students structure arguments. On the other hand, Class B’s teacher focused more on presenting the evidence, and spent almost no time modeling argumentation. In addition, the students in Class A spent far more time working in groups to write their arguments than the students in Class B.

The researchers found that “Class A and Class B, two different classes in terms of students’ characteristics, have very different patterns of decisions even though they are using the same learning environment.” In the end, students in Class A were more likely to support killing grey squirrels because, the students stated, they are a pest or because they are causing red squirrels to decline. Students in Class B, however, were more likely to protect both types of squirrels because, according to them, it’s inhumane to kill an animal. In both classes, students used evidence that supported their position and ignored evidence to the contrary.

The authors theorized that “the differences between the students in the two classes (either cultural differences, different experiences, or differences in achievement) were responsible for the differences in the decisions and justifications.” Unfortunately, because of the wide variety of variables in this study, the use of different teachers to administer the program, and the very small sample size, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about which factors in particular account for the differences.

The Bottom Line

In this small exploratory study, researchers asked teachers in two very different classrooms to administer the same online curriculum about a socio-scientific issue. Although they received the same information, students in the two classes arrived at different conclusions with different justifications. But because of the nature of this research, it’s not clear if the differences were caused by the way the teachers led the classes, the students’ achievement levels, language differences, cultural differences, socioeconomic factors, or possibly other factors. Teasing out the effects of these different variables would require more controlled studies with larger samples. In the meantime, this study serves as a reminder that when it comes to controversial issues, students with different backgrounds can come to different conclusions based on the same information. Educators have to respect individual differences and work to help students focus on relevant information in order to develop informed opinions and form cogent arguments.