Uniting the Worlds of Science and Literacy

Two scientists writing a poem on a whiteboard

Too often science and literature are depicted as opposite poles, branches of entirely separate disciplines, but in truth they are two halves of a whole. Science is logic and facts, imagination and fantasy; literature is expression and language, constants and variables. And in the classroom they are inexplicably intertwined in the pursuit of learning and the excitement of new ideas.

Science is logic and facts, imagination and fantasy; literature is expression and language, constants and variables.

Thomas Huxley, in his 1880 address on “Science and Culture,” stated that, 'Science and literature are not two things, but two sides of the same thing.' He was arguing for the entrance of science education to the business world and university leaders in liberal studies and was met with fierce opposition. Scientific education was despised by businessmen, deemed unnecessary and detrimental to industry, and university scholars denied that the sciences were essential to culture. Huxley’s address was one of many battles that led to the significant educational reforms of the nineteenth century which form the foundation of the UK’s education systems today.

Since the Age of Enlightenment, science and literature have never been mutually exclusive areas of study: both are human endeavours and arguably human constructs. As two cultural formations, science and literature take part in a discourse where they are seen to both actively influence the development of our culture and are themselves influenced by different aspects of our culture. However, as research and the Scientific Method have developed, these areas of study have branched out and sprouted new roots. Our growing knowledge has pushed the boundaries and blossomed, with each branch seemingly edging further apart. Yet in a real sense, the branches of science and literature share common roots. 

Science needs written word; not just to record data and results, but to express theories and conclusions with the wider world. Researchers can share their findings within the research community in rich technical detail but must be able to disseminate their work to the public audience.  Public engagement with academic research is critical in ensuring that science and its governance becomes more transparent. Science is our culture, the universal agent of change that drives the social, economic and intellectual landscape and shapes our understanding of who we are and why we are here.

Science needs written word; not just to record data and results, but to express theories and conclusions with the wider world

Bringing Science and Literacy Together in the Classroom

In Curriculum for Excellence science and literacy are presented in two separate areas. While cross-curricular approaches are beneficial in primary schools, embedding systematic links in curriculum planning whilst maintaining the integrity of key elements of each subject is time-consuming and supporting resources to facilitate these connections are often painfully lacking.

When making connections between science and literacy, it is helpful to consider links where pupils can use and apply aspects of learning from one subject into the other. For example, in the application of science understanding in creative writing, learning across both subjects can benefit. Imaginative writing can be utilised to develop a deeper understanding of a scientific concept whilst the pupil is enjoying the process of creating a new piece of writing and possibly even exploring a new genre. Science is full of the kind of conflicts that can fuel great imaginative writing, from apprehension about technology to the wonders and dangers of space exploration. This approach to combining science and literacy forms the basis of the Edinburgh International Science Festival’s Education project, the Sci-Ku Competition, where pupils express a scientific concept by writing haikus.

A second approach in making connections between science and literacy is to use one subject to provide context for learning in the other. This can be a particularly useful tool in engaging pupils who lack confidence in their literacy or communication skills, or who do not enjoy writing- and reading-based activities. By using science to provide context and as a hook for pupil engagement, in effect “literacy by stealth” can be achieved. Pupils from all backgrounds and attainment levels can be excited about science experimentation, inspired by the galaxy around us and motivated by the global challenges we are facing. In practice “literacy by stealth” can be implemented using science- and science-fiction-based texts, or through observation exercises. Encourage pupils to view the world around them as artists and scientists: have them observe and document the world as if they have never seen it before – take notes, collect objects they find on their travels, record findings, notice patterns, copy, trace, focus on one thing at a time and follow the ideas they are drawn to.

For more classroom ideas combining literacy and science, check out our blog post for British Science Week 2015.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is running a Sci-Ku (science haiku) competition at the moment - be quick though, because the closing date is Friday! You can also get some great reading lists from the Reading Experiment section of their website.

Dr Sarah Thomas

Dr Sarah Thomas is an Events Developer at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Sarah is the champion of the Sci-Ku Competition, a nationwide science and literacy project for primary and secondary schools in Scotland, and coordinator of The Reading Experiment, a scientific literacy campaign aimed at adult audiences to foster lifelong learning.