Cultural Studies of Science Education

, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp 697–703

Socioscientific issues in science education: labels, reasoning, and transfer


    • College of EducationUniversity of Florida

DOI: 10.1007/s11422-008-9133-x

Cite this article as:
Sadler, T.D. Cult Stud of Sci Educ (2009) 4: 697. doi:10.1007/s11422-008-9133-x


This paper provides a critical analysis of some of the issues raised in Simonneaux and Simonneaux’s analysis of socioscientific reasoning among a group of university level students negotiating three socioscientific issues. I first discuss the labels used to reference approaches in science education that prioritize socially relevant issues and the science related to these issues. I draw distinctions between approaches labeled science-technology-society (STS), the socioscientific issues framework, and les questions socialement vives (socially acute questions), which Simonneaux and Simonneaux introduce. Next, I discuss ways in which Simonneaux and Simonneaux’s use socioscientific reasoning as an analytic construct varies with respect to its initial conceptualization. The primary distinctions include linguistic inconsistencies and the conceptual differences these language choices confer, expansion of the construct to subsume a broader range of practices, and issues related to unit of analysis (i.e., applying socioscientific reasoning as an analytic resource for assessing individual practice vs. group patterns). Finally, the issue of transfer of socioscientific reasoning is addressed. When considering the extent to which and how students leverage experiences and practice relative to the exploration of one socioscientific issue to inform their negotiation of another, I suggest that researchers and practitioners consider the distinction between the content of arguments advanced and underlying reasoning patterns. The tension between embedding science in meaningful, specific contexts and promoting forms of scientific literacy applicable to diverse, socially-relevant issues emerges as an important point of emphasis for educators interested in the socioscientific issues (or socially acute questions) movement.


Socioscientific issuesScience-technology-society (STS)ReasoningTransferScientific literacy

Simonneaux and Simonneaux present an exploration of university level learners’ socioscientific reasoning in response to three socioscientific issues or socially acute questions (SAQ). They examine reasoning patterns expressed by a group of twelve university students negotiating issues related to the reintroduction of bears in the French Pyrenees, the reintroduction of wolves in the Mercantour, and global climate change. They undertake this investigation by drawing from three theoretical frameworks: education for sustainable development, socioscientific reasoning, and social representations. The integration of multiple frameworks can provide new insights and directions for the field, and I applaud the authors’ efforts to undertake this work. However, in my opinion, they missed an opportunity to provide a true synthesis of these perspectives. Instead, the frameworks were presented and used primarily in parallel without critical discussion of how the unique perspectives might be integrated more substantively to afford new sets of understandings. In this response to Simonneaux and Simonneaux’s work, I discuss the labels used to reference work like this, which prioritizes student negotiation of complex social issues with conceptual links to science, as well as the use of “socioscientific reasoning” as an analytic construct and questions of transfer relative to socioscientific reasoning.


It could very reasonably be argued that the labels used to denote efforts to infuse socially relevant issues into science classrooms are of far less consequence than the efforts themselves and the effects of these efforts on student learning. At some levels, the distinctions between labels are altogether unimportant. Consider the case of a science teacher engaging her classes in explorations of genetic engineering such that students have opportunities to develop understandings of science content in relevant settings as well as to exercise thoughtful practices which integrate student expressions of personal values, contemplation of social implications, and analyses of scientific evidence. Whether the teacher calls this experience a science-technology-society (STS), a socioscientific issues (SSI), or a socially acute questions (SAQ) exercise does not really matter. However, as the attention to these issues moves outward beyond individual classrooms, and we look to labels as representations of the frameworks, which undergird a particular approach, labels become increasingly significant.

Simonneaux and Simonneaux draw reference to the STS movement of the 1970s as the historical lineage of modern movements, which prioritize the contextualization of science learning in social issues and controversies. While STS has certainly been the most widespread and recognizable movement within science education for prioritizing the social significance of science, efforts consistent with this basic theme have existed at least as long as the existence of a formal discipline of science education (Deboer 1991). The STS movement has been very popular and successful in terms of exerting influence within the international science education community. This has been positive relative to the promotion of social issues as important contexts for science learning, but it has also created problems associated with using STS as a meaningful label. STS has become so widespread and widely-used that it has come to represent a very broad collection of activities and approaches not particularly well unified by appropriate theoretical frameworks. My colleagues and I more fully justify this critique in a recent analysis of STS and SSI approaches (Zeidler et al. 2005). With this critique, we certainly are not suggesting that any approaches labeled STS are not robust in terms of their effects on learning. On the contrary, many STS approaches and activities serve as exemplary models of what can be accomplished in the pursuit of progressive aims in science education (Tal and Kedmi 2006). However, because the STS label has been so widely used, its meaning has become diffuse and activities and approaches labeled STS often do not share a common framework. For example, many textbook publishers include text boxes labeled STS that do little more than reveal a connection between science content that had been covered and a social application. This diverges significantly from STS-based learning experiences that use socially relevant issues for contexts to explore science and provide opportunities to develop competencies and practices important in their development as citizens.

My colleagues and I have argued that the SSI movement represents an evolution of the progressive agenda for science education (over STS) in that a framework that explicitly considers the psychological and sociological development of learners is central to SSI-based education (Zeidler et al. 2005). One of the strengths of work completed under the banner of SSI has been the explicit focus on learner negotiation of the ethical aspects of controversial science issues (e.g., Sadler and Zeidler 2004) and the attention paid to character development (e.g., Berkowitz and Simmons 2003).

Simonneaux and Simonneaux offer another label to describe work in this area: les questions socialement vives or socially acute questions (SAQ). For me, this manuscript is my first introduction to the phrase, and my inability to read French publications limits my ability to explore further. Based on the limited description presented, the SAQ approach is very consistent with the SSI framework. Analyzing the source and social implications of controversy seems to be foregrounded in this approach. I encourage and look forward to fuller descriptions of les questions socialement vives as a means of expanding and sharpening the discourse around STS and SSI. This label and, more importantly, the framework it represents can contribute a more nuanced understanding of the work being done in this area (i.e., embedding social issues within science education) in much the same way that the phrase la culture scientifique has strengthened discussions of scientific literacy (Roberts 2007).

Socioscientific reasoning

I would like to turn my attention to the authors’ use of socioscientific reasoning as a framework for analyzing learner reactions to and negotiation of SSI. As one of the authors, who suggested socioscientific reasoning as a new analytic construct (Sadler et al. 2007), I was pleased to learn that other researchers had found it to be a useful resource and interested to see how it had been applied. There are definite differences in the way that Simonneaux and Simonneaux apply socioscientific reasoning as compared to the way in which it was first conceived and used. An initial difference is the language used in conjunction with the construct. Some of the differences in language use may not be indicative of much substantively and merely reflect the fact that the primary language of the two research groups is different (Sadler et al.: English; Simonneaux and Simonneaux: French). However, some of the differences in use of language may denote important, conceptual distinctions.

Simonneaux and Simonneaux introduce socioscientific reasoning as a “theoretical framework,” which is an elevation of sorts from its initial description. When we first introduced socioscientific reasoning, it was positioned as an analytic construct to help understand student practice relative to SSI. Given the widely varying use of “theory,” “theoretical framework,” and “theoretical perspective,” it has become difficult to ascertain what exactly authors mean when they reference one of these terms (Abd-El-Khalick and Akerson 2007). If Simonneaux and Simonneaux’s reference to socioscientific reasoning as a theoretical framework is an attempt to ascribe properties of a scientific theory (broadly explanatory and robustly supported by empirical evidence), then they have probably overreached. Socioscientific reasoning is a conceptual resource developed to better understand how socioscientific issues-based learning experiences can affect students’ thinking and development of scientific literacy.

Other examples of differences in language use include Simonneaux and Simonneaux’s reference to “socioscientific reasoning operations” as opposed to “aspects of socioscientific reasoning” as presented in the original report. This very likely is just a minor semantic difference; although, it could be substantive if the use of “operations” is meant to imply mental operations as in Piagetian operations. The authors also discuss using the “model of socio-scientific reasoning” as an organizing principle for the course that serves as the context for the research reported. Because socioscientific reasoning was originally positioned as a conceptual resource and analytic tool, I am not exactly sure what the authors mean here. I can certainly imagine ways in which socioscientific reasoning could be explicitly featured in instruction, but it is not clear to me from the text what this looked like in Simonneaux and Simonneaux’s context. Later in their discussion of course activities, they report having “applied socio-scientific reasoning…to the case of GMOs.” Here again, based on the original notion of socioscientific reasoning, it is unclear to me what exactly it means to “apply socioscientific reasoning.” Socioscientific reasoning was originally conceptualized as a means of understanding how individuals negotiate different aspects of complex, social issues and not something that would be “applied.”

These comments relate to a more general reaction that I had toward the manuscript concerning the degree of detail offered relative to the instructional treatment. Simonneaux and Simonneaux provide very nicely detailed overviews of the local SSI that students considered (the reintroduction of bears and wolves), which provides excellent contextualization of the issues with which students grappled. However, the authors do not provide the same level of detail regarding the learning treatment. They provide an overview of the sequence of lessons, but as I read the analyses, I continually wondered about aspects of the course that could have been detailed more fully. For example, the discussions that students held with shepherds concerned about the reintroduction of bears in the Pyrenees was a very significant aspect of the experience, but it was not clear from the course description when this occurred, the form that it took, or the rationale for students meeting with only this one group. Given the significant effect this experience had on the reasoning patterns displayed, fuller descriptions of this part of the course would have been helpful.

When my colleagues and I first introduced socioscientific reasoning, we suggested that the four aspects constituted some, certainly not all of the defining aspects of socioscientific reasoning. I was encouraged to see Simonneaux and Simonneaux’s discussion of ways to expand socioscientific reasoning to account for more diverse forms of practice. They suggested two additions to the framework: (a) identifying risks and uncertainties and (b) expressing values. They also briefly discussed analysis of the “modes of governance” and the “place given to politics” as important for negotiating SSI for sustainable development, but neither was positioned as a unique aspect of socioscientific reasoning. As I examined their discussion of student identification of risks and uncertainties, it struck me that much of what they were describing was originally intended to be captured within the original socioscientific reasoning aspects. Simonneaux and Simonneaux provide examples of student identification of risk (e.g., “If bears come back then that’s the end of pastoralism, the countryside returns to the wild and the danger of fire increases”). Based on these examples, I would argue that the original “complexities” category could have captured these ideas. In the particular example provided above, the student demonstrates causal reasoning with no evidence to suggest that s/he appreciates other factors that could affect the evolution of pastoralism and wildfire. In discussing student identification of uncertainty, the authors provide examples of student comments that could have aligned with the original inquiry aspect. In the original grouping scheme, the inquiry aspect captured a range of practices including the ability to identify aspects of the knowledge base that were underdeveloped and formulate strategies for addressing gaps in the knowledge base. Identification of uncertainties can be seen as an initial stage within the inquiries aspect.

The idea of positioning the expression of values as a fundamental aspect of socioscientific reasoning is appealing especially considering the emphasis on ethical perspectives provided by the SSI frameworks discussed above. Conceptually, I see this as a nice addition to socioscientific reasoning, but the manner in which the authors position this new aspect highlights another difference between the construct as it was originally developed and as it is used in this manuscript. My colleagues and I were interested in developing a tool that could help us to distinguish among levels of performance relative to specific aspects of socioscientific reasoning for individual students. Simonneaux and Simonneaux use socioscientific reasoning as a means of describing reasoning patterns that emerge from a group of students engaged in the negotiation of SSI. Because we were interested in distinguishing between performance levels with an ultimate goal of documenting change in performance as a result of learning experiences, we created a hierarchical scheme with ordinal categories. In contrast, Simonneaux and Simonneaux use the socioscientific reasoning aspects as categories for describing group trends. As such, practices within an aspect are not differentiated in terms of more and less desired practices. This use of socioscientific reasoning makes it possible to postulate an aspect like expression of values without the demand for distinguishing among levels of this practice, which can be very challenging in a case related to the expression of values.

Transfer of socioscientific reasoning

I found the authors’ discussion of the transfer of socioscientific reasoning particularly interesting as this is a critical issue for all of us interested in progressive notions of scientific literacy. An assumption underlying the work of many of us in this area suggests that student experiences with one SSI will confer knowledge, attitudes, and practices that will better position the student for dealing with other SSI that s/he will confront in the future. Simonneaux and Simonneaux contribute to this dialogue by examining the extent to which socioscientific reasoning patterns that emerge in the context of one issue (reintroduction of bears) are transferred to a closely related context (reintroduction of wolves) and a more distal context (global warming). The authors conclude that the students ultimately adopt different positions relative to the two closely related SSI, but the students demonstrate very similar reasoning patterns (see table 1). Based on the comments I made above, I would claim that the Simonneaux and Simonneaux analysis reveals that students apply many of the same arguments across these two contexts (certainly not all of the same arguments), but the analysis does not provide much evidence in terms of the transfer of socioscientific reasoning. Because Simonneaux and Simonneaux use socioscientific reasoning as a means of describing group patterns which remain relatively general, the analysis does not indicate how students transfer processes and practices developed in one context to another. We can see the transfer of arguments, but this does not necessarily reveal transfer of practice.

I would like to address one other point related to the notion of transfer in the context of SSI. In the last section of the manuscript, the authors highlight concerns relative to the contextualization of specific issues:

Although contextualization is supposed to improve situated cognition and encourage scientific learning by giving a meaning to scientific knowledge, we have seen here the limits of a local contextualization that involves students too much.

It therefore is clear that an authentic local issue entailing ‘too much’ involvement can limit learning and critical thought…

I am not convinced that involvement in local issues necessarily limited learning and critical thought, but this trend of so fully embedding students in the context of a particular issue that they have difficulty drawing connections beyond the particular context has been noted elsewhere (e.g., Barab et al. 2007). An important goal for the SSI movement must be to inform how we as educators may be able to facilitate student recognition of the invariant features of SSI and opportunities to apply common reasoning practices across multiple contexts. The issue is made more difficult by the fact that the range of SSI is so diverse, a point which is nicely demonstrated in Simonneaux and Simonneaux’s focus on local wildlife issues as well as global warming. This issue was part of our rationale for putting forth socioscientific reasoning as a series of practices applicable to widely varying issues. Therefore, as the field looks forward to the evolution of socioscientific reasoning, SAQs, and related constructs, we have to constantly return to the tension between embedding science in meaningful, specific contexts and promoting forms of scientific literacy applicable to diverse, socially-relevant issues, some of which have yet to even emerge.

Simonneaux and Simonneaux provide an interesting analysis of student ideas regarding socioscientific issues or socially acute questions. They draw from diverse perspectives including education for sustainable development, socioscientific reasoning, and social representations. They have provided an extension and rearticulation of socioscientific reasoning. Having thought about socioscientific reasoning in a manner that is not always consistent with these authors’ version, I do not necessarily fully endorse their particular use of the construct, but the continued dialogue can only serve to improve this conceptual resource as the field moves toward enhancing research and practice relative to the promotion of scientific literacy.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008