Our approach

The project centres around the theme of ‘Socio-scientific Inquiry-based Learning’ (SSIBL)

Socio-Scientific Inquiry-Based Learning (SSIBL) is a novel pedagogical framework which connects the following pedagogical concepts with Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI):

a) Inquiry-based Science Education (IBSE)
b) Socio-scientific Issues (SSI)
c) Citizenship Education (CE)

The connections between these components are represented in the figure. Click on the text in the SSIBL diagram to see an explanatory text below the figure.

SSIBL approach
Stage 1: Raising authentic questions (‘ask’) Socio-scientific issues Stage 2: Enaction (‘find out’) Inquiry-based science education (IBSE) Stage 3: Action (‘act’) Citizenship education RRI: Responsible research and innovation

Stage 1: Raising authentic questions (‘ask’)

Is cycling to school healthy for us? What are the problems with nanotechnologies? Are the products in our cell phones ethically sourced? How can we make our school more fuel efficient? These are examples of authentic questions.

Authentic questions include the following features. They:

  • proceed from questions which interest and engage students (personal authenticity) and through which they express a wish, and choose, to find collective answers (social authenticity);
  • involve real-world, complex, ‘wicked problems’;
  • are sometimes controversial in nature when there is no overall agreement about solutions or even ways to frame the question;
  • are gender inclusive and gender-sensitive;
  • are questions or issues that emerge from young people spontaneously or, more likely, with sensitive support from teachers;
  • presuppose change in that questions are asked about matters or issues which can be improved, e.g. made more socially and ethically desirable.

These features have implications. A mutually agreed purpose may go beyond the bounds of the school walls for participants, particularly where in finding the answers to questions, students might work with scientists, policy-makers, or other people with expertise. SSIBL might involve interaction either in informal education contexts and/or working with agencies outside the school.

How such questions are raised is central to effective pedagogy in SSIBL. It is important to notice at this stage that all the conditions for authentic questions are unlikely to be satisfied. Students can, however, be taught to generate authentic questions themselves.

Socio-scientific issues

Authentic questions often involve socio-scientific issues (SSIs). SSIs use scientific knowledge to address a social issue. For example, with energy use, young people need to understand the relationship between fuels and energy to appreciate that conservation of fuels is the real cost in economic and social terms. A biological understanding of the importance of oxygen diffusion to the cells that prompts concern about the personal and social harms through smoking, and what might be done about it, exemplifies the relationship between science and social issues. For eco-friendly clothing, the particular chemical and physical properties of titanium dioxide (catalytic, nano-size) make understanding about its global distribution and social justice in production so urgent.

Sometimes SSIs can be in the form of a dilemma or controversy but this need not always be the case. For example, all the participants might recognise a non-controversial problem and work together to find the best way to solve it. However, in other cases there may be real differences between participants. Controversies are deemed to occur when different parties have opposing arguments but where the arguments are bolstered by good reasons . People might agree that climate change is an urgent issue but disagree about the best way to tackle the problem.

SSIs: types of controversy. In SSIs there can be different types of controversy. For example, all stakeholders might agree that action should be taken to clean a local watercourse but they might disagree about the factors responsible for the pollution because the evidence is complex. Stakeholders might also disagree if action should be taken at all because the cost of cleaning up the watercourse might affect the livelihoods of people who work in an industry that contributes to the problem. Such differences of interest are evident in the positions taken by many farmers over cattle tuberculosis in the UK as opposed to those of environmentalists. The UK National Union of Farmers, for example, explain that wild badgers carry the tubercular bacterium and transmit it to cattle, hence the badgers must be controlled through culling. Many conservationists argue that farmers need better husbandry and that badgers are such an important part of the countryside that they must be protected. But there are also uncertainties in the science. Some scientists argue that culling badgers is an effective means of controlling cattle tuberculosis; others that not only is culling ineffective but that in some cases it spreads transmission. There is no single solution to the problem. Core values and preferences also play a role in decision-making.

So, socio-scientific issues are about establishing scenarios which provide a background for raising research questions.

In terms of socio-scientific issues, the examples in Chapter 3 involve:

  • Aspects of disagreement or controversy (Given there are different ways to reduce heat loss in the school, what is the best way? Should novel ways of reducing pollution be used when the social costs of production are so high?).
  • Reasoning. Usually discussion of SSIs are likely to involve both informal and formal reasoning. When students talk about their perspectives on an issue from their everyday experiences they are often using informal reasoning. Drawing on scientific knowledge through consistent logic to justify an opinion is an example of formal reasoning. Both types of reasoning are valid depending on the context and students should be encouraged to distinguish between the two forms of reasoning. Sadler et al. (2011) show that there is some evidence that engaging in SSIs can support learning of science content although the learning is sharper if students are interested in the issue, and it therefore has some authenticity.
  • Uncertainty and risk. Many SSIs involve an appreciation of uncertainty and risk. Students should be encouraged to distinguish between different types of uncertainty. Taking measurements with a thermometer, for example in checking the temperature in different areas of the school (Chapter 3), involve a degree of uncertainty depending on the precision of the measuring instrument. Predicting social impacts, such as whether young people will give up smoking even knowing the biological hazards, or whether people would wear clothing which purifies the air, are examples of social uncertainty. Risk is related to the chances of a hazard occurring. Older students should be able to distinguish between relative and absolute risk, and also understand that factors other than probability effect estimation of risk.

Sometimes, students come along with issues or questions they are keen to address. But it is more likely the teacher will help to stimulate interest in a particular theme using pictures, video clips, cuttings from newspaper reports, social media, which connect to students’ lives and concerns. More information about SSIs is provided in annex 1.

Stage 2: Enaction (‘find out’)

To move from question to solutions to actions, research and development for and with people needs to be participative and inclusive, involving inquiry-based learning and an understanding of the links between science and society. These include three perspectives:

  • Personal (What does it mean to me?);
  • Social (What does it mean to my family, friends, community?) and
  • Global (What does it mean more broadly?).

These enactions, constituted through the SSIBL pedagogic framework will be explained below using the pedagogical approach of inquiry-based science education.

Inquiry-based science education (IBSE)

Inquiry-based science education (or inquiry-based learning) is at the stage of ‘enaction’. Students need skills and knowledge to provide the necessary evidence to find solutions to an authentic question. These skills are multi-faceted because they involve collaboration with others, finding out the viewpoints of stakeholders as well as doing experiments.

Doing experiments might involve coming up with ideas and testing them, collecting and evaluating data, an awareness of uncertainty in the data collected and its interpretation, and possibly asking new questions as a result of reflecting on the data. Having collected evidence, students need to explain how the evidence helps them to answer their questions.

Teachers might want to scaffold student learning, particularly when they are new to inquiry learning. At first the teachers could set a particular question for students to explore. For example, the teacher referring to the example in section x, the teachers could ask students to find out the sites of the school’s greatest energy losses in winter so that they can make a case for action for better insulation. Some of the possible approaches are given in Table 1 where the teacher could have a prepared set of prompts for the students.

Table 1. Example of scaffolded inquiry

Question How to organise Things to think about Collecting data Interpretation
How can we cut down the school’s energy losses in winter? How do we ensure everyone has a say?
What do my friends think we should do?
How do we decide on the best way of going about this?
Where are the best areas in the school to investigate?
When should we take measurements?
What equipment should we use?
Should we take measurements at different times of the day?
How will we record the data?
How can we make sure our data is accurate?
What does the data tell us?
Where are the greatest energy losses taking place?
What can we do about it?

One of the distinctive features of IBSE within SSIBL is that the inquiries are open and not predetermined and can involve a range of approaches including experiments, surveys and debates.

Approaching SSIBL through IBSE

Once students have explored a scenario for an issue they need a good research question for their inquiry. Finding a good research question is not an easy task and will need support from the teacher.

First the question has to be researchable and have the following characteristics:

  • the question fits the theme or scenario;
  • the question is open and the answer not known;
  • there is only one question (e.g. what are the main reasons year 9 students in our school give for smoking?) (Note that groups of students in an inquiry can pursue different research questions, as long as each group is only following one question);
  • the question is clear and focused;
  • the question is feasible: it is answerable and can be addressed in a fixed time;
  • data can be collected to answer the question.

Stage 3: Action (‘act’)

The solutions to authentic questions must involve a form of action. By action we mean outcomes which address the original question and result in some kind of change, or in gaining relevant knowledge, or understanding reasons why change might not be desirable.

Actions can be of different kinds such as:

  • making an artefact,
  • lobbying powerful institutions,
  • generating instructional materials,
  • promoting institutional change, e.g. school policies,
  • holding a forum for a discussion,
  • staging drama to an audience to illustrate a dilemma,
  • influential writing,
  • poster displays to promote further discussion.

Finding a solution may lead to other questions, hence the process is circular in nature rather than linear. Actions may themselves raise further questions so that the process should be seen as spiral and reflexive rather than linear.

How does the action we take generate new questions?

Seeking further evidence

Acting on the evidence

Does the research evidence influence the initial question?

Operationalizing the question

Citizenship education

SSIBL supports young people in acting as knowledgeable social agents through citizenship education (CE). SSIBL involves young people making value-laden decisions together, which they then can enact.

In a democratic society all stakeholders should be able to contribute and therefore SSIBL activities should encourage participation and dialogue throughout the activity from raising questions, through carrying out an inquiry, proposing solutions and taking action.

RRI: Responsible research and innovation

This is a term that is primarily used in science and innovation. The aims of RRI reflect the importance of public and stakeholder participation and mutual responsiveness - working with and for people - to product development in science and technology. In other words, how can science and industry develop knowledge and technology that is socially desirable, ethically acceptable and sustainable? e.g.: are genetic testing kits that can be bought via the internet socially desirable? How can we limit the exploitation of poor people in the mining industry (what is ethically acceptable)? And how do we ensure that new processes and products are sustainable from the environmental and political/social point of view?

The term RRI has been coined in recent years. It is a crucial element of the European Union’s recent science and technology policies. The PARRISE project has operationalized the concept of RRI in education.

In combining the educational value of the four concepts described above, SSIBL deploys the following pedagogical and learning characteristics:


  1. An understanding of how scientific principles can be transformed and operationalized in social and ethical contexts;
  2. An understanding of the uncertainty of the scientific endeavour and its applications in various contexts;
  3. An awareness that experts disagree both on scientific and ethical grounds;
  4. An ability to distinguish between scientific, social and ethical propositions;
  5. An ability to draw on the skills and procedures of dialogue, reasoned discussion and argumentation in articulating and persuading for and against certain points of view to confer RRI;
  6. A recognition of the social and political context in which decisions arising from SSI are made;
  7. An awareness of the complexity of SSIs and that few solutions are straightforward; and
  8. A recognition that there are diverse ways of negotiating SSIs which depend on the evidence available, the personal, political and social consequences of any decision, and the extent to which the issue divides diverse sectors in society.

European Commission

PARRISE (grant agreement 612438) is a four year programme (2014-2017) funded by the European Commission.

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