GM crops and ‘controversial topics’: potential for inquiry-based learning?


Natasha Gartside, BGCI | 26/06/13 | London

The UK’s environment minister, Owen Paterson, triggered a divisive debate last week by claiming that genetically modified (GM) crops could alleviate hunger in developing countries. His speech on GM technology identified the potential benefits of GM crops such as ‘superwheat’ both to Europe and Britain (apparently last year less than 0.1% of global GM cultivation occurred in the EU) and to places such as Africa. Productivity and increased yields were the focus of his speech, but he also touched upon being able to “combat the damaging effects of unpredictable weather and disease on crops”, “the potential to reduce fertiliser and chemical use” and even the possibility of “free[ing] up space for biodiversity, nature and wilderness.”

It was comments such as “the benefits of GM do not just extend to developed countries” and “a GM drought-tolerant maize is now being grown in the USA and is undergoing field trials in Kenya, South Africa and Uganda,” however, which highlight the controversial nature of this topic. Further evidence such as Africa’s Civil Society Statement calling for a ban on genetically modified organisms (GMO), the fact that small scale African farmers have developed resilience in crops through seed diversity and how GM companies make it illegal to save seed reinforces the relevance of GM Foods to society.

GM crops in inquiry-based education activities
Hot topics in the news concerning science, the environment, ecology and so on unquestionably have the potential to be incorporated into schools’ curriculums. Furthermore, it seems absolutely necessary that children learn about and become aware of issues such as the nature of organic or GM food so that they can make their own informed decisions in years to come. Teachers and educators may question how the focus of controversial subjects may be applied to inquiry-based learning, especially since science textbooks dominate instruction and ‘only about 1% of space in science textbooks is devoted to any discussion of science controversy (Seethaler and Linn, 2004).’

But controversial topics are just that: controversial, and so can be argued from two or multiple perspectives. Therefore, by using them in the classroom, students will have to explore and question conflicting viewpoints in the search for evidence which can be used to support their own stance on the subject.

One resource (Seethaler and Linn, 2004) outlines a curriculum which utilises the Scaffolded Knowledge Integration (SKI) framework. This aims to help students develop an extensive network of ideas about controversial topics and highlight the crucial role of discussion and debate in science teaching. Ultimately, the curriculum endeavours to prompt students to use what they’ve learned about GMF and agriculture in their decision-making and as evidence for their position in final written essays.

This curriculum was built in the Web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE), which is a research-based digital learning platform that fosters science inquiry. Using WISE, students explore new ideas and evidence, ponder discrepant events, write reflections and form fact-based theories, whilst teachers guide and evaluate the process using a collection of classroom-based and online tools. Creating presentations and debate, students ask questions of each other and are ‘scaffolded’ as they learn new ideas and construct arguments. SKI and WISE consequently encourage students’ critical thinking about issues that will affect their lives.

The role of the teacher
Discourse in classrooms on socio-scientific issues (SSI) such as GM crops can be stimulated using scaffolded inquiry activities (Walker and Zeidler, 2007). The role of the teacher in this sense is merely to prompt student debate and mediate their interactions by introducing material, issues and theoretical positions if required. One such issue is the concept of ‘tradeoffs’ including human health, the environment and economics.  More general matters are those such as GM’s potential to improve the nutrient content of food and reduce allergens in food, GM’s threat to other wildlife such as insects and butterflies and how GM could lead to herbicide-resistant superweeds, as well as views for and against organic farming which involve chemical pesticides and crop diversity.

For a comprehensive summary of GM farming see enviroliteracy’s resource here, of which the ‘Background Content for Teachers’ and ‘Teaching Approach’ sections are particularly useful.



Kimberly A. Walker & Dana L. Zeidler (2007) Promoting Discourse about Socioscientific Issues through Scaffolded Inquiry, International Journal of Science Education, 29:11,1387-1410

Sherry Seethaler & Marcia Linn (2004) Genetically modified food in perspective: an inquiry‐based curriculum to help middle school students make sense of tradeoffs, International Journal of Science Education, 26:14, 1765-1785


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