The importance of learning about risk

By Heather King - June 2011


Christensen, C. (2009). Risk and school science education. Studies in Science Education, 45(2), 205–223.

To acquire skills associated with decision-making on socioscientific issues, students need to understand concepts of risk. Teaching about risk involves acknowledging the uncertainty and limitations of scientific knowledge. This study explores the ways in which risk may be addressed in science education.

The researcher of this study argues that to understand the risks inherent in scientific and socioscientific contexts, we need to first understand the nature of uncertainty with respect to scientific knowledge. While scientific interpretations strive to provide the best possible accounts of phenomena, real-world contexts involve complex multiple variables: this complexity brings uncertainty. Second, uncertainty is generated again as the new findings and issues are contested both within and outside the scientific community. Moreover, even though scientific knowledge can be powerful, it has limitations in reaching solutions within social contexts.

To support an understanding of risk, the researcher highlights the need for educators to make room for uncertainty and ambiguity in their teaching and allow for the consideration of different sociocultural perspectives. The educators also need to help students develop skills in discussion and argumentation and provide them with opportunities to address challenging questions with worthwhile answers. It is suggested in the review of the literature that secondary-school students are capable of understanding technical risk. As these students develop their knowledge of the world and themselves, engagement with risk may be an important challenge in life for them.

The study presents content recommendations for teaching risk, which include using probability to calculate risk based on past events, distinguishing between absolute and relative risks, and exploring the relationship between perceived risk and perceived benefit. There is the need to also address the qualitative nature of risk, in the sense of an individual’s perception of risk due to history, fear, notions of controllability, and so on. Recommendations for research in the area of risk teaching include exploring the ways in which an understanding of risk in one context is used by students in their engagement with another, and examining whether a more explicit articulation of risk in science may make studying science appealing to students.

A comprehensive discussion on risk and a review of the ideas from influential sociologists and educational theorists are put forward in this study. The researcher concludes that “Risk, uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy are not traditionally ideas about science, but…they now constitute an important part of understanding the nature of science relevant to many contemporary issues” (p. 219).

The researcher also notes that Donnelly (2004) queries the inclusion of risk in the science curriculum. By highlighting uncertainty and ignorance, science may lose its distinctive contribution to learning as a unique body of knowledge. Donnelly argues that a teaching of risk should be subordinate to a critical understanding of scientific knowledge and its place in the world.

Further reference: 

Donnelly, J. (2004). Humanizing science education? Science Education, 88(5), 762–784.