Scholarly article on topic 'How do 15–16 year old students use scientific knowledge to justify their reasoning about human sexuality and relationships?'

How do 15–16 year old students use scientific knowledge to justify their reasoning about human sexuality and relationships? Academic research paper on "Computer and information sciences"

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Teaching and Teacher Education
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{Agency / Decision-making / "Reasoning skills" / "Scientific literacy" / "Socioscientific issues" / Trust}

Abstract of research paper on Computer and information sciences, author of scientific article — Mats G. Lindahl, Mattias Lundin

Abstract In order to advance our understanding about the roles students assign to expert knowledge, the present study addresses how 32 Swedish secondary-school students use their knowledge of scientific disciplines in their reasoning on socioscientific issues (SSI) concerning human sexuality. By analyzing group discussions, students were found to use science either as a sole justification or integrated with other kinds of knowledge. Using expert knowledge to lift problems out of the limited local contexts and find solutions, the students access the freedom to make personal choices. It was concluded that scientific knowledge provides possibilities for decisions that can support students' agency.

Academic research paper on topic "How do 15–16 year old students use scientific knowledge to justify their reasoning about human sexuality and relationships?"

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Teaching and Teacher Education

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How do 15—16 year old students use scientific knowledge to justify their reasoning about human sexuality and relationships?

Mats G. Lindahl a' *, Mattias Lundin b

a Department of Chemistry and Biomedical Sciences, Linnaeus University, 39182, Kalmar, Sweden b Department of Education, Linnaeus University, 39182, Kalmar, Sweden



• Science is combined with other rationales to support stances on complex dilemmas.

• Students use scientific knowledge for advocating freedom of personal choice.

• Students appear to assume a mutual understanding of scientific knowledge.

• Students' rationale including scientific knowledge reflects uncritical trust in experts.


Article history:

Received 10 February 2016

Received in revised form

3 August 2016

Accepted 8 August 2016

Available online 26 August 2016

Keywords: Agency

Decision-making Reasoning skills Scientific literacy Socioscientific issues Trust


In order to advance our understanding about the roles students assign to expert knowledge, the present study addresses how 32 Swedish secondary-school students use their knowledge of scientific disciplines in their reasoning on socioscientific issues (SSI) concerning human sexuality. By analyzing group discussions, students were found to use science either as a sole justification or integrated with other kinds of knowledge. Using expert knowledge to lift problems out of the limited local contexts and find solutions, the students access the freedom to make personal choices. It was concluded that scientific knowledge provides possibilities for decisions that can support students' agency.

© 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND

license (

1. Introduction

In the last decades, school has changed from a place where students are the recipients of ready-made knowledge (Gaskell, 1992) to a place where they learn how to use knowledge to develop their reasoning skills. When relying less on the essentialist metaphor for teaching, another way of understanding the teacher's assignments is needed (Pouliot, 2009; Zeidler & Sadler, 2008). To interpret assignments in a new way, developments in contemporary society must be taken into account (Kalantzis, 2006). For example, as information becomes easier for the wider majority to access, its application becomes more important for science

* Corresponding author. E-mail addresses: (M.G. Lindahl), (M. Lundin).


Thus, the importance for science educators to address the application of knowledge and information (Roth, 2003) cannot be underestimated. Different proficiencies, such as science content knowledge and reasoning skills, contribute to collective actions and agency to solve a societal multidimensional problem, whose solution depends on scientific knowledge among other things. Roth stresses the importance of collective action or joint work to find a solution, rather than a blind trust in experts; a problem also described by Kolst0 (2001b). In science education today, students are expected to develop different proficiencies to utilize rationales related to solutions of societal problems (Driver, Newton, & Osborne, 2000; Solomon, 1992; Zeidler & Sadler, 2008). To explain the importance of different proficiencies working together, Roth (2003) uses the metaphor of a thread. He suggests that the proficiencies related to scientific literacy could be viewed as a thread made up of fibers. The different properties of the fibers

0742-051X/© 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

could, for example, represent proficiencies such as scientific knowledge and reasoning skills — skills that can facilitate students' collective contribution to issues and problems in society to which scientific knowledge can play a part.

The research project presented in this article addresses the new prerequisites for science education, where students collectively contribute to issues and problems in society by applying scientific knowledge. We hope to elucidate how students integrate science with other rationales on subjects related to both science and societal practices, through a close examination of students' discussions on topics concerning choices or conflicting interests, which may have an impact on people's lives. Specifically, the project aims at furthering our knowledge on how students integrate scientific knowledge into their reasoning with respect to students' potential trust in experts, and their agency to participate in societal discussions about problems where science may play a role.

2. Background

The above-mentioned topics, related both to science and society, fit well with what has been written about socioscientific issues (SSI). SSI are open-ended, ill-structured, debatable problems that are susceptible to multiple perspectives and solutions. Previous researches on attitudes to science and technology and views on SSI have focused on students as individuals with a range of different views. Students have not been considered an intrinsic part of society in the sense that they lack mature ideas and the kind of societal development needed for participation in democratic decisions, such as elections and referendums. The focus has been on the here-and-now learning of knowledge, developing morals and acquiring communication skills aimed towards their future participation in society as adults.

This provides a meaningful context to conceptualize and apply scientific knowledge, and in turn, qualitatively improve students' moral reasoning and reflective judgment (Sadler & Zeidler, 2004, 2005a; Zeidler, Sadler, Applebaum, & Callahan, 2009). Furthermore, SSI stimulate students to consider how decisions concerning the societal use of scientific knowledge are made, and to reflect on science both as a practice and as a challenge to the values and moral principles in societal practice (Driver et al., 2000; Kolsto, 2001a; Zeidler & Sadler, 2008; Zeidler, Sadler, Simmons, & Howes, 2005). In addition, SSI are valuable starting points for students' development of empowerment to participate in action based in informed decisions (Bencze, Sperling, & Carter, 2012; Hodson, 2003). Science education research has provided a number of examples of suitable issues for educational purposes, such as contraceptives and human reproduction (Dawson, 2011), gene technology, human health and lifestyles, animal rights, wildlife management (Zeidler et al., 2009) and environmental issues (Pedretti, 1997; Yang & Anderson, 2003).

Research on SSI has highlighted students' use of morals and values as well as scientific knowledge when making decisions about controversial issues (Driver et al., 2000; Ratcliffe, 1997; Solomon, 1992; Zeidler, Lederman, & Taylor, 1992). Introducing SSI into science education has enabled the development of knowledge about students' reasoning and how to promote learning through their use. For example, SSI have been shown to be beneficial not only in the development of students' formal and informal socioscientific reasoning (Grace & Ratcliffe, 2002; Osborne, Erduran, & Simon, 2004; Sadler & Zeidler, 2004; Sadler, Barab, & Scott, 2007; Zeidler et al. 2009; Zohar & Nemet, 2002), but also for their understanding of scientific content (Klosterman & Sadler, 2010; Zeidler et al., 2005). In addition, this vein of research has shown that the quality of students' socioscientific arguments appears to depend on the students' scientific content knowledge

(Sadler & Donnelly, 2006; Sadler & Zeidler, 2005a; Wu & Tsai, 2007). Hence, it appears that the synthesis between content knowledge and decision-making skills, made possible through SSI, is beneficial in the sense that a broader range of educational goals is attainable (Sadler, 2009).

SSI involve scaffolding students' discussions to allow for a multitude of perspectives and solutions to problems (Aikenhead, 2006; Klosterman & Sadler, 2010; Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b; Sadler, 2004; Taylor, Lee, & Tal, 2006; Zeidler & Sadler, 2008). For example, Sadler and Donnelly (2006) showed that students use knowledge, morals or the right to make personal choices to justify their stance. In a study by Sadler and Zeidler (2005b), the authors showed how college students relied on scientific facts within rational informal reasoning patterns. They also showed that emotive informal reasoning patterns indicate that students incorporate consideration for people's emotions in relation to an SSI. Within that process, students' informal reasoning patterns must be recognized as encompassing emotional, moral and rational reasoning to allow for open and constructive discussions (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b; Zeidler & Sadler, 2008). In a similar way upper secondary school students were found to use scientific facts together with values in manners that blur the fact-value distinction in their group discussions (Nielsen, 2012). In that process, the students seemed to give science the role to authorize their value position, but the complexity by which science apparently can be used in students' group discussions implies the need for further research.

In their discussions, students are believed to gain experiences that support their ability to participate in democratic decisions about SSI (Driver et al., 2000; Kolsto, 2000, 2001a). However, there are problems that need to be addressed. For example, Kolsto (2001a) pointed out the necessity of addressing the normativity as well as the trustworthiness of knowledge claims when engaging in SSI. He also showed (Kolsto, 2001b) how upper secondary school students, although with some ambiguity, were prone to uncritically trust scientists and what appeared to be scientific facts. Possibly, scientific facts stood out as true since they came from scientists or that the facts were given as exact figures (Kolsto, 2006). Over the years, several investigations have shown that students from secondary school to university have a naïve view of science and are prone to trust scientists (Lederman, 1992; Liu & Lin, 2014). This can be partially explained in the light of the history of teaching "ready-made-science" instead of "science-in-the-making" (Bingle & Gaskell, 1994; Kolsto, 2001a). Interestingly, a study using an SSI regarding animal testing showed that the naïve view of science was abandoned for a naïve relativistic view of science when secondary school students learnt that scientists were culturally biased (Zeidler, Walker, Ackett, & Simmons, 2002). Hence, it appears that reaching a nuanced position regarding trust in science is challenging for students when the idea of "ready-made-science" is abandoned. This is particularly problematic when there is an assumed risk at hand (Kolsto, 2006). Hence, students' decision-making processes seem to be caught between trust and risk.

3. Aim

This study aims to further our knowledge on how students integrate scientific knowledge into their reasoning on SSI to justify their stances. The purpose is to advance our understanding on the roles students assign to scientific and other forms of knowledge in their reasoning, with respect to students' potential trust in experts and agency to participate in societal discussions on problems where science may play a role. In order to pursue our aim, we pose the following research questions:

1 What ways do students use scientific justifications in their reasoning?

2. What significance do scientific and other forms of knowledge contribute to the students' reasoning?

4. Theoretical framework

Society can be described as social relations between people organized and reproduced in social practices that are subject to change (Giddens, 1984). The introduction of new technology changes societal practices and subsequently social relations. The transformation of social relations is possible through acts by individual agents that reproduce a societal structure. Such a societal structure consists of a system's rules and resources, for example, norms, moral codes, established practices, authorities and institutions. These allow or constrain individual agents to participate in the transformation of social relations. Human agents reinforce or transform social relations and societal practices, thereby slowly changing the structure of the system to provide new conditions for societal relations. This iterative process is known as 'structuration' (Giddens, 1984). In our study, Giddens' structuration theory is chosen for the purpose of relating the students' views on and attempts to negotiate the value of scientific knowledge and practices, as well as the habits and rules embedded in social contexts.

Social systems have three types of structures (Giddens, 1984), each of which has modalities: 'Signification', which can be described as the interpretive schemes and discursive practices used by agents; 'Domination', which describes how resources are controlled and how power is used, and includes the two modalities 'authorities' and 'knowledge claims'; and 'Legitimation', which is the process of reinforcing moral rules and other norms, i.e. morals and norms are modalities of 'Legitimation'. These three structures constrain the potential for societal transformations that more or less reinforce societal practices. Social practices can be described as belonging to a local and concrete context, wherein social relations are possible, or belonging to a more abstract context that depends on abstract principles instead of social relations. Feelings, values and norms are typically associated with the local context, whereas abstract principles such as expert knowledge and symbolic tokens, e.g. money, are associated with abstract contexts. Expert knowledge can be described as knowledge that laymen do not have. Examples can be different forms of disciplinary knowledge, such as medicine, polytechnics or natural sciences. Such knowledge can be viewed as promising new possibilities as well as risks. The risks can be seen as threats to the norms and values of the local context. However, the different norms and values within the local context constantly conflict. The habits and social rules, such as norms, embedded in social contexts constrain human actions. However, expert knowledge can have a transformative power in society by disembedding human actions from the constraints of social contexts (Giddens, 1990). Disembedding means that actions are lifted out from the local contexts where social relations and norms constrain human actions and rational choices.

An anticipated risk of societal transformation due to, for example, changes in societal practices may induce anxiety, but anxiety can be reduced by trust (Giddens, 1990). Hence, risk and trust are intertwined; for example, a dialogue between experts and laymen can, by inducing trust, reduce the anxiety connected to the anticipated risk. Public information and science education each play a role in enabling personal and public decisions concerning expert knowledge. Thus, science education can be seen as bridging the gap between embedded and disembedded practices in two different ways: firstly, by inducing trust in expert knowledge, by

conferring knowledge, norms and values; and secondly, by providing possibilities for constructing knowledge and the understanding of personal values and norms, as well as the reasoning skills that empower students to engage in negotiating social practices relating to science and technology (cf. SSIs). The ability to monitor and understand human actions in society can produce a sense of security, which in turn affects intended and well as unintended actions for the reproduction or the transformation of societal practices (Giddens, 1990). Personal experiences, usually in local practices, can support the ability to monitor societal practices, although to a limited extent. However, when it comes to expert knowledge, such as medicine, for example, monitoring is usually not possible for laymen, but scientific literacy has the potential to reduce this problem. The ability to judge the effectiveness of practices to achieve the desired objectives can promote a sense of agency through confidence in the ability of situated human actions to obtain desirable outcomes (Giddens, 1984). Hence, the development of knowledge enabling reflection on power relations, societal norms and scientific discourse supports agency, which is necessary for making informed decisions, free from the constraints of local contexts. Agency includes having access to alternative ways of thinking and acting, thus allowing rational choices for personal action. Knowledge and the ability to monitor actions provide possibilities to understand the world and to consider risks associated with further actions. This, in turn, is essential for building trust and taking responsibility. The ability to judge the effectiveness of practices to achieve desired objectives can also promote a sense of agency through the attainment of confidence in the ability of situated human actions to obtain desirable outcomes.

5. Method

5.1. Participants

The participants in this study were thirty-two 15—16-year-old students (14 male and 18 female) enrolled in the "Social Science Program" (preparation for higher education). The setting was a public upper secondary school with approximately 900 students in a small Swedish city. They participated in "Science Studies", a compulsory course for all non-science-bound students in upper secondary school in Sweden.

All participants were informed about the purpose of the study as well as how the material was to be handled and used, in accordance with the codex of the Swedish Research Council Good research practice, 2011. The students were given information concerning the project, data collection and data handling, and all were given the opportunity to decline from participating. In addition to a written description of the purpose of the project and the data collection procedure for the students' and parents' reference, each student was given a consent form to indicate whether or not they wished to participate. The consent forms, which were signed by both the students and parents, were then returned to the school.

5.2. Context

In Sweden occasional reluctance to use scientific knowledge might be seen, for example as a result of alarm studies regarding nutrition. Nevertheless, reluctance to use expert knowledge, emanating from scientists, can hardly be seen as problem, neither in society nor in science class. Sweden is a secular society and religion has very little impact on debates concerning SSI topics. However, traditionally, science education in Sweden has not drawn on SSI as content or method, and despite that history the interest in SSI seems to increase. This development can for example be seen in the policy documents.

The cluster of courses labeled "Science Studies" in the policy documents (Science studies, 2012) covers aspects of sustainable development, human sexuality and relationships, individual health and lifestyle, and biotechnology and its implications. A fundamental goal of the course is to develop proficiency in making informed decisions. That stance, expressed in the policy document, implies not only profitable setting for the teacher's endeavor, but also an important rationale for pursuing the task. During the school year preceding this study, the teacher had implemented the use of SSI in "Science Studies" throughout the academic year (approximately 90 h of instructional time). Preceding the time for the present study, the students had had the opportunity work with two SSI: Health and lifestyle (8 weeks) and Genetics (4 weeks). Both of which was organized as introductory lectures by the teacher followed by student-centered work in groups of four students. The student groups were during about half the time allotted for each SSI engaged in teacher-independent work. During that time, the teacher functioned as a supervisor to the groups. The groups wrote a digital log-book that was available for each group member and the teacher. Thus, they could follow the progress of the work and the teacher could approach groups that seemed to need help. At the time of data collection for this study, the course was in its 24th week. Prior to the data collection, the students had had the opportunity to discuss their views on masculinity and femininity. The discussion had been introduced by having single sex lessons for boys and girls respectively during which they discussed what questions they wanted to pose to the opposite sex. During the subsequent whole-class lesson the students posed their questions and discussed their different views on masculinity and femininity. The teacher helped them to engage in the discussion by questioning their suggestions while taking an understanding attitude in order to maintain an open attitude to different ways of doing gender. They were also given a lecture on the sex spectrum for the purpose of getting a broader idea of the biology of sex. After that introduction, the students formed their groups for the subsequent student-centered activities that were of the focus for the present study.

5.3. Students' activities

The student-centered assignment in focus for this investigation was formulated by the teacher. It began when the teacher gave the students the task of choosing a subject relating to human sexuality and relationships that they found interesting. They were given Internet addresses to websites (home pages) providing information on human sexuality as texts ("", "", ""), TV programs ("") or radio programs (""). The tasks for the students were to: 1) gather information from three internet sources, critically review them and make a presentation free of choice (a paper, a video- or audio POD), 2) to formulate a dilemma based on what they reviewed or just personal interest, 3) to form groups of four students for two group discussion sessions, based on what dilemma they wanted to engage in, to discuss chosen dilemma in order to present their understanding and their stance on the dilemma. To assist the students in their formulating a dilemma, the teacher gave them a short text describing what is meant by a dilemma. Then the students formulated dilemmas regarding human sexuality and relationships. When their dilemmas were presented in class there appeared to be six different dilemmas, from which the students could choose from for their group discussion assignment. The students formed groups of four depending on their interests, resulting in eight groups. Two groups chose 'Abortion' and 'HIV-positive persons having children', respectively. One group each chose 'Prostitution', 'Promiscuity', 'Sexual harassment' and 'Homosexuals adopting children'. The

student groups followed a well-known approach to deal with their tasks. They started by posing questions they needed to answer before engaging in their viewpoints and possible solution(s) to the ethical dilemma. The questions posed were used as guidelines for their work regarding what information they needed to gather and make meaning of. The subsequent group discussions actualized topics such as contraceptives, medical treatments and conditions, as well as AIDS. The teacher was present to assist the groups on their demand.

5.4. Data collection

The students were allotted two lessons (60 min each) to discuss chosen dilemmas in order to prepare for the presentation to the whole class. The two lessons of group work and the discussions within each group were recorded using a digital recorder for each group. It was possible to record seven of the eight groups, and each group was recorded for a total of 105 min. The recordings were transcribed verbatim into a text of approximately 29,000 words. Short vocal signs of consent or agreement deemed insignificant to the conversation were excluded from the transcript.

5.5. Coding and analysis

The transcript was read through several times in order to become familiar with how the students addressed their chosen dilemmas. Then the process can be summarized by these three steps: independent coding of passages referring to scientific knowledge, negotiation of differences in coding, independent creation of preliminary categories of students' justifications, negotiation of preliminary categorization. This process was iterative in order to achieve precision regarding the definition of scientific knowledge as well as the category system. A broad definition of science was chosen for this purpose. All students had previously studied science, and it could be assumed that they were familiar with some basic science concepts. Consequently, a student mentioning a basic medical term or biological term or function was considered a reference to a science concept. This means that biological functions and their applications, such as contraceptives, medical treatments and conditions (mental conditions included), and illnesses were coded. As previously explained, the students chose dilemmas of interest. Those dilemmas can be seen as overarching, i.e. belonging to a macro level and forming a basis for their conversation in general. Nevertheless, it was necessary to identify how dilemmas on a macro level imply dilemmas on a micro level in their ongoing discussions. A dilemma on a micro level is identified as a student describing or relating to a problem that involves or implicates two different parties/interests or two different rationales.

Two main categories emerged when the coded transcripts were compared. First, in some of the coded passages, only science (as defined above) was used to justify a point of view regarding the dilemma. Second, in a majority of the passages, both science and non-science were used for justification. Categorized passages could be further categorized into sub-categories (see Table 1). Excerpts that were rich enough for further analysis (see below) were chosen. These were again coded independently by the researchers. One of twenty-one excerpts was coded differently. After negotiation the categorization of all excerpts could be agreed on.

The analysis was based on rich samples from the categories that were chosen for the presentation of findings. The analysis to understand the excerpts and present each category was accomplished by two steps. First, the dilemma in focus and its conflicting perspectives were identified. Second, the justifications used by the students were then interpreted and categorized as belonging to a

Table 1

Overview of identified justifications.

Science-only justifications Combining science with other rationales

Providing a scientific Combining science with other facts

solution to a problem Combining science with morals

Evading a dilemma Combining science with personal

using science experiences

Combining science with feelings

modality of the structures Legitimation or Domination, i.e. morals, norms, authorities and knowledge claims. Students' references to either the local context or the societal context were noted. In their discussions towards a temporary or final decision, the different justifications and counter justifications were followed to elucidate which appeared to be important for the group discussion, and whether they belonged to a local or societal context. For example, a justification that was contradicted could be further strengthened by an additional justification. If the discussion was then temporarily stalled, the additional justification could be seen as a necessary support for a previous justification. Students' use of justifications in 'support' of freedom of personal choice in situations where they can be expected to have at least second-hand experience was considered indicative of an attempt to infuse agency in relation to the limiting material, i.e. natural, medical or economical, or immaterial possibilities, i.e. laws and social rules. To identify students' reasoning on natural science topics, we used a broad definition of natural sciences that corresponds to the content of the Swedish syllabus for this discipline. Hence, the definition of natural science used here includes natural phenomena as well as human biology, including medical topics. For convenience, natural sciences in our text are denoted as science.

In the results, we will explain how students justified their points of view while referring to science. For the purpose of this study, dilemmas that did not fit with the broad above-mentioned definition of science were excluded.

6. Results

The students used a variety of ways to justify their claims in the dilemma discussions. One expected way of justifying was by using science. Hence, science-only justifications in students' reasoning are exemplified in the first part of the results section. However, a combination of justifications where science was combined with other rationales to support a stance in the students' discussion was even more prominent. In the second part of these results, we will focus on the students' manner of combining science with other rationales.

The table below presents an overview of the students' different justifications, along with the content of the different kinds of justifications.

Table 1 illustrates the kinds of justifications the students made. On the right-hand side, the table illustrates that science (natural science, in accordance with the definition) was included in the discussions in combination with other rationales, such as other facts, morals, personal experiences and feelings. Non-science justifications were found and could be categorized in the same way as 'combining science with other rationales'. However, those justifications were beyond the scope of the project. This descriptive division of rationales is explained in the paragraphs below.

6.1. Understanding the significance of scientific knowledge in the students' reasoning

We first present two examples in which only science was used to suggest a solution to a problem. In the subsequent part of results,

we provide examples of four different ways students used a combination of science and other grounds of knowing to strengthen their stance.

6.1.1. Science-only justifications in students' reasoning

Students could make use of scientific knowledge as a justification in their reasoning. In such cases, science was used as a trusted source of knowledge that can be used for a solution or a way to define a problem. Providing a scientific solution to a problem. The dilemma addressed below occurred as a result of the students' newly gained knowledge that there is a risk that HIV can be transferred from an HIV-positive mother to her child. The students were concerned about the suffering that an HIV-infected child would have to endure. Based on their caring for HIV-infected children, it was contested that HIV-positive women should have the right to have a child of their own. However, the desire to be a biological mother is at odds with the risk of giving birth to an HIV-positive child. As a possible solution, one student suggested surrogacy.

- Yeah, you could have a surrogate mother

- then you take the baby later/ ... /

- I don't know if I'd want to have a baby and then give it away

- Yeah

- ButitisgoodforHIV-parents 'cause they can take ... a child from a surrogacy-parents then ... if that's the case

The caring for a child suffering from HIV infection is in conflict with the desire to have a biological child. Both concerns belong to a social context, and the same is true for the anticipated wish of a surrogate mother to keep her child. The suggestion to solve the dilemma by using a surrogate mother (by means of in vitro fertilization) implies trust in medical science, i.e. expert knowledge. The suggestion to use surrogate mothers is a rational solution to the problem of transmitting HIV to the embryo. By referring to a scientific context, the problem is disembedded from the social context and its normative constraints on HIV-positive persons to have a biological child of their own. The students' conversation exemplifies how they embrace scientific knowledge to provide a foundation for the right to make personal choices, thus breaking free from the enclosing norms of the social contexts. Evading a dilemma using science. One of the student groups discussing the conflict between the liberal and conservative views surrounding abortion brought up the possible circumstances that would make abortion acceptable, and turned their discussion towards definitions of abortion. In the excerpt below, it is possible to see how the anticipated problem with the use of emergency contraceptive pills, which emanates from the social constraints regarding abortions in society, is evaded by lifting the problem out of its context.

- If it still is an egg and a sperm, then it is kind of .

- It's a bit hard to do an abortion if it's just an egg and a sperm (giggling)

- But morning-after pills, some say that's an abortion

By referring to scientific knowledge as facts, explaining that the emergency contraceptive pill acts prior to conception, the student disembeds the action from the social context, thus dissolving the tension with social rules derived from norms in favor of the prevention of abortion. The use of scientific knowledge is here used to justify actions that otherwise would have been socially unacceptable. Although not unchallenged, one of the students seem to

buttress her agency by justifying the use of an emergency contraceptive pill.

6.1.2. Combining science with other rationales

There were many instances when students used multiple arguments for or against anticipated or expressed stances on the issues. In such cases, the students were found to justify their claims with a combination of science and other grounds of knowledge: 1) other facts; 2) morals; 3) personal experiences; and 4) feelings. Combining science with other facts. For the students, a central issue was that children should be protected from suffering, and in the case of HIV-positive women, the risk of transmitting HIV is a scientific fact. Preceding the excerpt below, the possible solutions for HIV-positive persons to have children, such as adopting a child or medicating their child in the event that HIV is transmitted, were questioned since both options are inaccessible for parents under high economic strain. In the beginning of the excerpt, one student argues against HIV persons having a child due the risk of infecting the child.

- Nah but, then I still think that you should, you know, you can, I mean, I actually think you can understand why you can't do it

- Yeah

- But I still think there should be, you know, like exist, so you can choose so to say ...

- Yeah well... because there are medications and they still have to be aware of what it costs and everything

- Yeah, well, but I don't know, yeah, well alright

In the beginning of the excerpt, the student stresses that there are no rights endorsing anyone having a child considering the risks involved. This normative stance is contradicted by another norm proclaiming the freedom to make personal choices. The freedom of personal choice is justified by referring to the possibility of available medicine, thus implying trust in the products of science. Hence, through disembedding, expert knowledge provides additional opportunities for making personal decisions. Other facts such as economic considerations are added to further distantiate the problem from social contexts, and praised values from social contexts (awareness and responsibility) are stressed to further advocate the right to make personal choices. Combining science with morals. Medical science has provided insights into the risk of HIV-positive women transmitting HIV to the embryo. During the discussion, it is suggested that a pregnant HIV-positive woman should have an abortion since a child should be protected from the suffering of being HIV positive. However, in the excerpt below, this is contested by one student by referring to another social rule.

- Yeah, but, you know, think about it for yourself... in the third month and the baby . take it away . then you'll kill . .

- What did you say . the third month a . HIV, then you know . remove the child but you'll kill.

- Then you kill, then you kill a life, you know, a life you know

- Yeah, yeah

- But what I mean (. it doesn't have to) get infected at once, right?

Initially, one student opposes abortion as a solution by referring to a social context wherein norms indicate that it is wrong to take a life. However, she seeks a solution by removing the action from the social context. This can be seen at the end of the excerpt when the uncertainties that are tied to the scientific claims about the risks are used to pave the way for a solution that could support the moral

right for HIV-positive women to make personal choices regarding giving birth to a child. Combining science with personal experiences. In their discussions regarding the acceptance towards abortion, the students discussed how to avoid getting into the situation of having to decide on an abortion. They made use of the experiences of friends and relatives concerning birth control and the risks of pregnancy, while touching on values in a discussion enriched with medical science.

- There's someone, you know, Jamie, she took pills but she still got a child.

- No there isn't such a limit

- Yeah, but, you know, such things happens.

- Yeah precisely, it isn't 100%/ ... /

- Nah, but for mum, it has been pretty easy [to conceive], you know, so there is a risk that I will, too, so I don't want to take the risk because I can take the pill, too, but he doesn't have to know that.

The students agree that the function of contraceptives, i.e. medical science, should not be trusted blindly. This knowledge is given in a social context by referring to the experiences of both a fellow student and one of the students' mothers. Hence, scientific knowledge as well as personal experiences are used in concert to build the basis for a standpoint. Supported by their conversation, one of the girls sets aside another restraining social rule, i.e. joint decision regarding the use of contraceptives. She claims to be the sole judge of which contraceptive should be used based on scientific as well as personal knowledge that she is taking a considerable risk of becoming pregnant, signifying agency. Combining science with feelings. Some students sympathized with people, such as HIV-positive women, who are at risk of being denied having a biological child. Although medical science has provided information concerning the risks of transmitting HIV to the embryo, medical science has also provided practices for monitoring risks as well as potential treatments. In the excerpt below, the students find and make use of information about such practices.

- Did they run tests on the child during the pregnancy .

- I don't know, they just say when it has come out. [Reads out loud]: The child is treated with HIV drugs for about six weeks afterbirth ...

- So, actually they can keep an eye on it .

- So you could say that, you know, if there is anyone who really, really, really would want a child, then you can, you know, as it is now, that you have an eye on it, so actually it could work

Here, the risk of transmitting HIV to the embryo together with the social rule that a child should be protected from suffering, prevent the students from giving HIV-positive persons their consent to give birth to a child. However, the students learn that medical science also provides the possibility of monitoring and treating the embryo in order to prevent the disease. By trusting the added expert knowledge, the students lift the issue out of the constraints of the social context, thus bypassing the social rule to protect the child from suffering. As a result, another socially contextualized value (the wish to have a child), to which one of the students has strong feelings, can be sustained.

7. Discussion

7.1. Methodological discussion

Two issues need being mentioned as methodologically important to explain the results. The first issue refers to the definition of science and non-science: It is possible that scientific knowledge was more relevant to the students than we were able to note since we only included examples when scientific knowledge was used explicitly in the students' reasoning. Therefore, the interpretation that students used non-scientific knowledge without additional scientific knowledge in their reasoning could be slightly erroneous. The reason being that students could refrain from explicitly using scientific knowledge if such knowledge is self-evident in the context. Their discussions are open-ended, ill-structured and debatable problems to which it is possible to apply different perspectives and solutions, in accordance with previous studies on SSI (Sadler & Zeidler, 2004, 2005a; Zeidler et al., 2009).

The second methodological issue refers to how the findings are presented. Students' ways of combining different reasons are presented irrespectively of what dilemma their reasoning belongs to. This choice is justified as the reasoning constitute the foreground whereas the dilemmas are regarded contextual. That is, dilemmas are not in focus for the analysis, only providing different backgrounds to the examples given in the findings.

Before turning to the discussion of findings, we would like to point out that the results should be interpreted as possible key elements to occur in a SSI setting. The relevance of the results need to be interpreted in terms of usefulness, which means that other categories still may be found in other settings. Nevertheless, the results can be useful for strengthening desired trajectories in the classroom.

7.2. Discussion of findings

The students were found to make use of scientific knowledge with or without the support of other forms of knowledge, morals, personal experiences or feelings in their discussions on dilemmas regarding human sexuality and relationships. In the majority of cases when science was used, scientific knowledge seemed to be crucial for the decision. However, when the students referred to personal experiences, science seemed to be somewhat less important as a justification. The role scientific knowledge plays seems to depend on the complexity of the dilemma discussion at hand; the more complex, the more additional rationalities are used to support the students' stance. The students appeared to trust expert knowledge, and they refrained from explaining or engaging in deeper discussions on the understanding or trustworthiness of scientific knowledge. In general, the students advocated for the freedom to make a personal choice. In some cases, their support for personal choice also seemed to provide agency, at least for actions that could be interpreted as belonging to their own lives.

7.2.1. How students use expert knowledge depending on the complexity of the discussion

The students used expert knowledge in different ways depending on the complexity of the dilemmas. For dilemmas with limited complexity, i.e. involving merely two seemingly contradictory perspectives, the students used scientific knowledge as the sole justification in their reasoning. Hence, it appears that, in such instances, they trust expert knowledge. For example, students seek the support of expert knowledge when it becomes apparent that science in itself can provide a solution, as illustrated in the excerpt concerning surrogacy, or as exemplified when science is used to evade a dilemma. In the latter example, the dilemma is reframed in

a way that morals become irrelevant. In both cases, the discussion is interrupted as expert knowledge is referred to. Hence, when science alone is used as justification, there is apparently less need for further discussion. This could be due to the fact that these dilemmas are simple in the sense that they only concern two contradictory norms or values.

When complex dilemmas are dealt with, i.e. dilemmas with more than two contradictory perspectives, there seems to be a need to use science in concert with other norms/values to produce arguments that include or relate to many aspects or perspectives. For example, when morals concerning the unacceptable risks of having an HIV-infected child are combined with norms concerning inequality regarding the access to medications, expert knowledge such as medicine is combined with other facts, such as economics, to support an opposing stance. In doing so, the students use a rational reasoning pattern (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b), which is made possible here by disembedding the problem by means of expert knowledge. When the students dealt with complex dilemmas, science could also be used in combination with personal experiences, using a rational reasoning pattern, and emotions, using an emotive reasoning pattern (see Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b). Although rationalities other than scientific knowledge are used, expert knowledge may well be given credibility. Our interpretation is that students are compelled to construct more complex arguments when the complexity of their discussion emerges through the inclusion of more conflicting perspectives.

7.2.2. Students' use of expert knowledge in their discussions on dilemmas indicates trust in experts

The students referred to expert knowledge both with and without the support of other rationalities. However, they never discussed their understanding of the scientific concepts. Instead, they used scientific terms as if they were well understood by their peers and as assumed knowledge within the context of the problem. Lacking to critically examine experts' claims indicates a trust in experts. The students' use of expert knowledge in their justifications also suggests its usefulness for supporting their stances. It is unlikely that this would have happened without the students having trust in expert knowledge, because without trust, a discussion focused on risks would be expected (Lindahl & Linder, 2013; Giddens, 1990). When risks are anticipated, the sense of being safe, i.e. ontological security (see Giddens, 1990), can be threatened. In such situations, students can choose to trust experts uncritically (Kolst0, 2006). In SSI discussions, uncritical trust has been put forward as a considerable problem, and something that can jeopardize students' development of reasoning skills (Kolst0, 2001b). When science is used as an authority, the SSI discussion is limited since expert knowledge can be difficult to contradict. Hence, it could be interpreted that the students in our study used science as an authority to empower them, thus closing the discussion drawing on the 'domination' structure (Giddens, 1984). In that process, the aspect of critical reasoning on scientific knowledge appears to be lost. Although it was found that the students gave more credibility to expert knowledge than to other rationalities, there was an exception. This was observed when the students made use of their personal experiences. In their reasoning, they showed an awareness of the limitations associated with social practices that utilise scientific knowledge, such as contraceptives. Hence, their discussion on contraceptives exemplifies their critical thinking wherein they made use of personal experiences in combination with their knowledge on the limits of the different contraceptives.

7.2.3. Students' manners of promoting agency

The presented excerpts reflect the students' use of natural

science knowledge to advocate the freedom of personal choice in that they try to find ways to escape the material or normative constraints implied in the social context. When the students use science in their justifications, they reframe the problem in a manner that lifts it out (disembeds it) from the social context that supports the limiting norms. In doing so, solving the problem is facilitated since the limiting norms are given less relevance; the most apparent example is the students' evading dilemmas with the aid of science. Although expert knowledge can be used to evade dilemmas, it can also be used to facilitate the legitimation of human actions, since science can reinforce certain moral rules or norms, while implying that others are less relevant. For example, in the case of simple dilemmas, the referred expert knowledge provides an uncomplicated solution. However, when the students' discussion brings about complex dilemmas, there appears to be a need for further support to give strength to the argument. The additional argument not only strengthens the proposition, but also provides the means to re-embed the suggested human action, such as a solution, into the social context. This interpretation is based on the observation that the additional rationalities strongly relate to norms embedded in social practices.

7.2.4. The contribution of students' reasoning on SSI to agency

In these cases, the use of science can be interpreted as the students' attempts to advocate the freedom of personal choice since the students' reasoning appears to result in further opportunities for human action. Hence, the students appear to find support in scientific knowledge to promote human agency. The students' use of natural science knowledge also seems to be related to social contexts in which they have experience. Thus, when students refer to their experiences and reflect upon them in order to make decisions, they give examples of reflective activities that can give them a sense of what Giddens (1984) calls agency. As in many other school situations, the connection between the learning environment and the setting where the knowledge (or proficiency) could be used in an out-of-school context, can be disputed. Our point of departure is that it is highly difficult to argue for a specific outcome of a learning process in another setting. Rather, we regard learning in terms of Dewey's definition of experience (Dewey, 1934), which means experiencing as a transformation of previous experiences that provides new possibilities for the next experience and the possible actions that can be relevant at that point.

According to Giddens (1984), reflective participation within a social practice can be seen as a profound form of agency. Typically, a sense of agency can be expected when it is possible to monitor and understand personal actions to produce desirable outcomes. Among the examples provided in the results section, it is conspicuous how science facilitates decision-making regarding topics that relate to personal experiences in general and, in particular, regarding students' own bodies, as in the case of using contraceptives. In these cases, scientific knowledge, with skepticism towards technology, combined with personal experiences can be seen as a facilitating factor for the students when they formulate arguments and decide on actions in which they can anticipate a desired outcome. The contextual basis for students' discussions implies that the nature of each discussion is very much dependent on the topic; different dilemmas are consequently likely to generate different ways of providing and combining reasons in the SSI discussions. The different outcome with respect to the chosen dilemma implies strength to the results as it suggests that a certain variety can be found in the findings. As the results do not constitute of a variety of topics, but of how the different reasons are combined, the specific combined topics constitute the illustrative examples of how the combinations can be made. Furthermore, the combinations that are relevant for the study involve science (according to

the presented definition) and reasons that only draw on non-science are not part of the analysis (see method section).

The findings in this study suggest how students contribute to their SSI discussions (see Roth, 2003), as they draw on or combine different rationalities with scientific knowledge. The students' contributions can be understood as collective actions in which they share experiences in socioscientific reasoning (Sadler et al., 2007) and actualize different perspectives, embedded in or disembedded from societal contexts (Giddens, 1990). Therefore, we would like to emphasize students' various contributions in their collective work addressing SSI in terms of their experiences, feelings and different moral perspectives by making use of different informal reasoning patterns (Sadler & Zeidler, 2005b). Furthermore, this science education approach seems to be one way that students can become active knowledge-constructors in society, an approach we regard as a possibility to design transformative science education as described by Kalantzis (2006). The manifestation of agency that is interpreted in the students' discussions strengthens the importance of involving students in these kinds of assignments where reasoning skills are developed. Agency, in this sense, can be related to Kalantzis (2006) description of active participants in a knowledge-generating society where critical inquiry and discourse are core features. Nevertheless, there are areas for development and we suggest some possibilities for improvements, expressed as pedagogical implications.

8. Conclusions

In the present study, SSI regarding human sexuality and relationships facilitated students' participation in classroom discussions, thus contributing to their understanding and agency for action. The students' interactions can contribute to scientific literacy, understood as a collective phenomenon in which different talents meet, such as science content knowledge and reasoning skills (Kalantzis, 2006; Roth, 2003; Zeidler & Sadler, 2008). The students' justifications, when dealing with complex dilemmas, can be used to illustrate the fibers of Roth's thread metaphor. That is, the different kinds of justifications based on expert knowledge, non-scientific facts, morals, personal experiences and feelings can be regarded as the threads in Roth's metaphor. In order to make the thread reliable, the fibers have to have certain qualities. For example, the students in the present study gave little relevance to the evidence and rational explanations used as justifications. They appeared to take the meaning of scientific concepts, as well as other rationales referred to, for granted, something that has also been shown by others (Kolst0, 2001b; Nielsen, 2012). In that process, the students in our study appear to assume that their peers shared their understanding. Although this can facilitate students' covering a multitude of perspectives, it can also hamper their development of understanding and critical reasoning. Based on this observation, and in support of previous studies (Lindahl & Folkesson, 2016), we suggest that teachers design SSI tasks in which students are prompted to make sure that all participants in the group not only understand any concept or other rationale actualized in the discussion, but can also grasp the consequences of making use of them when put in a societal context.

Although most of the SSIs discussed by the students in the present study concerned situations in which they had little or no experience, there were instances where personal experiences (regarding contraceptives) were actualized. It became apparent that the students were able to use both expert knowledge and personal experience in concert. This appeared to facilitate students' critical reasoning as well as build agency for personal action. Such opportunities are most valuable for becoming a participant in a knowledge-generating society. Subsequently, when developing SSI

tasks as well as classroom practices, teachers can further buttress students' participation in societal practices by tying the controversial issues to what is likely to be the students' personal experiences.

Students' trust in experts is a double-edged sword. The development of scientific literacy that enables students to consider expert knowledge with skepticism is necessary for participating in democratic discussions, but such skepticism can also reduce the possibility of using expert knowledge to break free from limiting social contexts, thus preventing agency. Hence, in accordance with Sadler (2009), we suggest that science education should foster skepticism and critical reasoning, with the additional purpose of enabling students to build trust in expert knowledge on a sound basis, at least temporarily. The reason being that trust in expert knowledge seems to be crucial for the manifestation of agency. Subsequently, the design of SSI can preferably support decision-making that focuses on the use of expert knowledge for personal agency, thus enabling students' participation in societal activities.

Our suggestions are based on the observation that explanations of scientific content seem to have potential. For example, the explanations make it possible to question the basis for claims, instead of merely trusting the scientific knowledge claims made by experts. This view concurs with Roth (2003), who asserts that our collective scientific literacy needs to comprise expert knowledge that is critically examined in terms of relevance and accuracy. Subsequently, it seems that an important role for teachers is to deepen the dialogue on science concepts in the work on SSI, thus facilitating the use of explanations in the students' discussions and providing better opportunities for them to develop their reasoning skills.


We wish to express our gratitude to the teacher and students who welcomed us to their classroom and supplied us with the necessary data for this study. We also want to acknowledge the work of Dr. Anne-Mari Folkesson, who made a first transcription of the students' group discussions. The study was financially supported by the Swedish Research Council (2011-34409-85898-21), The Faculty Of Health And Life Sciences, and The Faculty Of Social Sciences At Linnaeus University.


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