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close this bookProspects - Quarterly Review of Education, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1995 (Issue 93) - Science Teaching for Sustainable Development (UNESCO; 1995; 152 pages)
View the documentEditorial - Juan Carlos Tedesco
Open this folder and view contentsVIEWPOINTS/CONTROVERSIES
View the documentIntroduction: New cultural and ethical frames of reference - André Giordan
View the documentThe Science, Technologies and Society (STS) Movement and the teaching of science - Gérard Fourez
View the documentThe aims of scientific education in the coming decades - Victor Host
View the documentThe purposes and methods of technological education on the threshold of the twenty-first century - Jean-Louis Martinand
View the documentScientific and technological training for traditional communities - Raúl Gagliardi
View the documentConcept mapping to facilitate teaching and learning - Joseph D. Novak
View the documentThe non-formal communication of scientific knowledge - Bernard Schiele
View the documentNew models for the learning process: beyond constructivism? - André Giordan
Open this folder and view contentsTRENDS/CASES

The non-formal communication of scientific knowledge - Bernard Schiele

Bernard Schiele (Canada)

Ph.D. (University of Montreal). Professor in the Department of Communications at the Université du Québec at Montreal. Former founding director of the Centre de recherche en évaluation sociale des technologies. For some years he has been interested in the popularization of science and in the presentation of science museums. His advice is often sought by different organizations and governmental bodies on scientific culture. Recent publications include The rise of environmentalism in museums (1993), Quand la science devient culture [When science becomes culture] (1994) and Science museums for the next century (1995).

In an article on this subject, Barbichon (1973) rightly comments that the way in which scientific and technological knowledge is propagated in society is not homogeneous. It is not assimilated directly. In the first place, schooling, work, daily life, the groups one belongs to, ideological subcultures and so on are so many environments with differing effects on the circulation of knowledge. Secondly, many different activities undertaken by various transmitters of knowledge all help in its transfer. Thirdly, what helps the receiver to understand and absorb is the plurality of intellectual operations rather than a single act of learning.1

While there is no royal road for the distribution and transmission of knowledge, two main types of vehicles are recognizable: formal and non-formal education.2

The differences between formal and non-formal education

Presenting this contrast between formal and non-formal education (about which we shall have more to say later) could suggest that the one is structured because it relates to specific places (schools at various levels, institutes and universities) while the other is not and that the one has physical substance while the other has none. Nothing could be more misleading. Non-formal education is based on a network of institutions: associations, groups, clubs, museums, the book market, the radio and television markets and one-off and continuous government assistance. The dissemination of scientific and technological knowledge obeys a number of rules; it starts from distinct and well-characterized places, beginning first with those which inject these productions into commercial circulation and secondly with those which give it non-commercial distribution (token payment). Clearly these two spheres are not watertight. In any case, the cultural industries, of which the commercial conveyance of scientific and technological education is only one facet (Schiele, 1983), can only thrive if the two overlap (Huet et al., 1978, Miège, 1989). Hence an increasing autonomization in the communication professions (scientific communicators, museologists, media specialists, etc.) that is transforming the organization of the professions themselves and that of the disseminating structures as well. The growth of the cultural industries is tending to structure how scientific and technological knowledge is disseminated, the form of the product itself, as well as its production. This development has its effect on groups and clubs, whose activities traditionally escape commercial circulation.

Taking this analysis of the differences between formal and non-formal education further, school ‘is a continuous process based on the assimilation of information in connected steps in order to construct a coherent set of knowledge. So each item of information is a part of a whole and the educational form is a programme followed step by step’3 (Schiele, 1987, p. 64). School is for an audience consisting of homogeneous, captive groups and has certain levers of enforcement. Students ‘are all required to attend the lessons they are enrolled for and, ideally at least, to tackle their difficulties with a comparable degree of preparation’ (Schiele, 1987, p. 64).

Does that mean that the dissemination of knowledge is solely via school? No, the question is absurd. Formal education is first and foremost linked with the working of the social recognition conferred by degrees and diplomas (Jacobi & Schiele, 1990).4

Conversely, non-formal education (in this case the communication of scientific and technological information) is free to choose both the subject and the way it is handled. So it can take its cue from current events (Guéry, 1985), with a penchant for medical subjects (Krieghbaum, 1968) and, more recently, environmental topics (Schiele et al., 1991). The object is not to organize information to suit the internal coherence of disciplines or a structured programme but to satisfy the latent or evident expectations of the target public (Wiebe, 1964, Boy & Muxel, 1989). Non-formal education can also make its aim - and unhesitatingly does so - to entertain as well as to inform (Schiele & Larocque, 1981) and to arouse emotion or inspire dreams (Jacobi & Schiele, 1988). The public is neither captive nor homogeneous: ‘It only exposes itself to the message if it so decides’ (Jacobi & Schiele, 1990, p. 85).

The communication of scientific information denotes a range of social practices

What is more, the ways in which scientific and technological knowledge is communicated are many and various and include every form of modern communication: writings, books, the audiovisual media, exhibitions, radio and television programmes and, soon, multi-media packages.

The supply of scientific and technological information products is therefore highly diversified as are the many related activities: scientific clubs, scientific leisure activities, nature trails, science passports, scientific sponsorships, open days, etc. This wide range of media tends to make scientific and technological culture a very general and confused expression, ill-served by its vague objectives (both to inform and to entertain) and boiling down to no more than the combination of all the media it uses. In particular this robs it of all meaning. It needs to be understood that scientific and technological culture is not a specific form of communication as compared, for example, with communication by teaching, even though it does favour certain specific situations of communication and certain - now well-known - modes of reasoning which make it specific (Jurdant, 1973; Mortureux, 1983; Jacobi, 1984,1987).5

Since scientific and technological culture uses all information media to convey messages of different form and content to publics of differing expectations and in different reception conditions, what we call the dissemination of scientific and technological culture embraces a wide range of social practices. There is not one practice for the non-formal dissemination of science and technology but several, a fact which has a direct impact on the nature of information products and on the relationship that the public has with them.

So, to consider the dissemination of scientific and technological culture solely from the angle of the media is highly limiting. The communication media and social processes used in the divulging and transfer of knowledge are more complex than is commonly and spontaneously thought.


There is no comparison between the way television operates in this area and what happens in a science club. The creator of a commercial product in the field of scientific and technological culture has to perceive a market for it and be sure that the product will be consumed. It is fair to ask whether products of scientific and technological culture meet the needs of training or culture or whether, instead, they are imposed by those groups having sufficient resources to launch them.

Dinosaurs, for example, certainly fantastic creatures, epitomize in themselves the subject of otherness - which is why they fascinate. Beloved of popular authors, they occupy a disproportionate place in productions for children (books, toys, television programmes, films, etc.) compared with that accorded to other forms of life. The film Jurassic Park was accompanied by a range of derivative products (books, tee-shirts, clothes of all kinds, cuddly and other toys, etc.) designed as much to broaden the commercial reach of the film as to help market it. For our purpose the fact to be noted is that the success of the film, feeding on the fascination with dinosaurs constantly fuelled by a flood of symbolic and commercial productions, had, in its turn, a structuring effect on a whole series of products and subproducts following in its tracks: exhibitions, the ‘Dinosaurium’ project in Montreal, and weekly encyclopedias, etc. like L’affaire dinosaures. Though it is easy to imagine why dinosaurs attract the interest of the public there is no evidence of any explicit public demand. This example shows that the products of scientific and technological culture that are marketed cannot be regarded as a response to an explicit social demand for education. Does that mean that such products are without interest? No. That is not the question because the manufacture of these products, to our way of thinking, is just one of many possible social practices.

The educational activities of a club are in no way comparable with the effects of the products we have just described. The commercial product is based on a structural distancing with intermediaries in between, whereas clubs imply a coming together of knowledge and the practice of knowledge even at the level of familiarization and discovery. Communication in a club depends, ultimately, on verbal exchange and in this way a club is nearer to the teaching-learning relationship in school - which is not the case of the commercial product.


The concept of audience or public, to which demand is often related, is more difficult to define than at first appears.

Traditionally, the public is divided up into socio-economic categories and sometimes age groups and these classifications continue to be useful. In recent years however, mainly because of developments in evaluation (Samson &: Schiele, 1989), the conditions of cultural practice and its context have been taken into account, a promising approach because it relates social time (leisure time as opposed to working time) with cultural practices recorded in their social context. Examples are tourist visits, family visits to exhibitions, etc. In this way, the conditions in which knowledge is acquired are connected with the framework in which that happens. It has long been known that very often the absorption of knowledge, as of all information, is not the result of direct exposure to the stimulus but passes via an intermediate channel. During a visit to an exhibition, for example, judgements on the information presented stem as much (if not more) from the conversation between the visitors as from the individual’s own view of the knowledge required. The extent to which this happens can be seen during scientific and technological cultural visits or activities organized as family or school outings (Niquette & Schiele, 1991). So the way television imposes models, one of its major effects, depends on the way in which the messages conveyed are received: by the family, peer groups such as children, teenagers, old people, etc. Similarly, the limits to the reach of the information material is very clear when it is not a question of multiple reception. These points should be borne in mind in view of the prospect of rapid development of multimedia, hypertexts and hypermedia which, like television and most of the material produced, all encourage individual consumption rather than seeking group assimilation. Conversely, the direct relationship with the seeker or the producer of knowledge reveals all its potential, particularly when one remembers that collective reception has, de facto, to do with the group’s habitus and ethos. Here the producer of knowledge can go beyond the spontaneous questions raised by the individual cognitive experience of persons and groups (Roqueplo, 1974; Lesgards, 1991).

Table 1 sums up the main characteristics of, and specific differences between, formal and non-formal education.

TABLE 1: A summary of the main characteristics of formal and non-formal education





To train specialists

To educate but not to train specialists

Content of educational relationship

Concerns operations:6 ‘the knowledge of the specialist is primarily a know-how whose linguistic expression is understandable with reference to a practice only by virtue of its underlying method’.’

Relates to fragmentary and generally concrete elements: the layman’s knowledge is ‘a cultural-type accumulation of the results’8 of the specialist’s practice: scientific knowledge that is out of context.9

Strategy for the acquisition of knowledge

1. Development of the critical spirit: ‘Scientific creativity develops more through the ability to refute theories than through the ability to construct them’;10 The learner’s problem is primarily to acquire a formal, experimental or linguistic practice’.11

1. The memorizing of knowledge (encyclopedism).


2. Knowledge creates objectivity, i.e. the subject becomes the communicator.

2. The knowledge is made objective, i.e. converted into cultural objects.

Education medium

1. Compose semantic messages designed to establish a graduated, systematic process of qualification.

1. Compose semantic messages that can be assimilated by any person who is educated but not necessarily a specialist nor intending to become one.


2. Specialty language.

2.. Layman’s language

Choice of subject

Elaborate system of official instructions (programmes, syllabuses, curricula).

No constraints of any kind.

Transmission of knowledge

Testing of education efficiency (the purpose of the examinations that qualify the student).

No testing of educational efficiency (the tests, quizzes or assessments which accompany some messages are designed more to call upon the sense of the plausible and the faculty of recognition than that of cognition).

Relation to the discipline

Centred on the internal organization of the disciplines.

Concerned about the real or anticipated interests and expectations of the target audience.

Education conditions12

Enclosed, specific space.

Open, undelineated social space - film, newspaper, magazine, television, museum - defining heterogeneous spaces that are abstract because each one is addressed to all and sundry without distinction.

Media used

Generally laid down.

Free choice of media.


Captive: students learn what the teachers are required to teach. Exposure to the message is compulsory for those (pupils, students, adults) who have enrolled for the course of education.

Not captive: an inclination for science or to improve one’s education, curiosity, etc. The public exposes itself voluntarily to the message.

Learning time13

Not calculated, i.e. determined by the time needed for the learner to present himself as being ready to be tested in the discipline: the time is therefore open and subjective.

Limited portion of leisure (hours, days, holidays); determined by the constraints of the rate of work. The time is therefore closed and subjective.

Supply of and demand for knowledge14

1. Mismatch in principle between supply (of knowledge which acts as a constraint) and demand (which resists): reciprocity in the exchange.

One-way relationship with, in the best possible case, a regulating feedback effect15: adjustment to suit demand.


2. Confront each other at the level of knowledge.16 The demand for knowledge subsumes that for social status.

The learning practice is involved with habitus and ethos.


3. Space: the reproduction of society.17


4. From the unknown to the known and, in its advanced forms, from the known to the unknown (training in research and research itself).

Space: the commercial relationship between producer and consumer. From the unknown to the known. The receiver is brought back to knowledge which is already there.

There has to be a consensus

In the present context, non-formal education has to supplement the role of the school whenever the latter fails to perform its mission of disseminating and sharing scientific and technical culture.


The challenge to contemporary society and what is at stake there resides in the ability to develop within society a true scientific and technological culture. The members of society have to be able to make ethical, strategic, ecological, economic and technological choices in full possession of the facts. This is necessary for the healthy exercise of democracy and for the maintenance of economic health in an increasingly complex environment and an increasingly competitive economy (Pouzard, 1989). The vast amount of literature on the scientific and technological culture all spell out the forms of this consensus (Schiele, Amyot & Benoit, 1994).18

This consensus is far from new. It grows in strength as each new scientific and technological advance has increasing influence on science, know-how, thought and life-styles (Papon, 1989; Barré & Papon, 1993). Because of this, the social stakes of the growing integration of scientific, technological and economic development are also rising, furthering the demand for greater co-ordination in government measures so that they should both favour development and at the same time safeguard welfare and equity.19 This comes out in successive recommendations by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 1963; OECD, 1971; OECD, 1980).

For some authors, the need for scientific and technological culture to be developed stems from the ‘increase in the value to society of science and technology’ and an ‘understanding of the importance to society of economic development (Pitre, 1994, p. 8-10). This is due to the present form of the consensus that has imposed itself over the last 15 years. It is true that the increasing role of science and technology in the formation of contemporary society heightens and in some cases exacerbates tensions and contradictions and may bring about a structural break. For these reasons OECD argues that innovation must not be solely technical but socio-technical as well (OECD, 1980, p. 93 et seq.), the conclusion being that raising the level of education will guarantee better adjustment to technological change and allow the nation, in the long term, to build up its comparative advantage. In addition, so the argument goes, the well-informed citizen’s participation in the debate will improve the decision-making process.

There is no point in taking this demonstration any further. The thinking is central both to the search for a new social and economic order and to the imposition of a social contract. Even its criticism and rejection take place within the space it itself delineates and circumscribes. They are evidence, a contrario, of its structuring effect.

It has to be stressed that this consensus, and its criticism, has deep-reaching historical roots. In the 1960s, when there was no talk of scientific and technological culture but only the popularization of science, it was expressed in similar terms.20

The instability of the wording used has acted as an obscuring screen. ‘Scientific and technological culture’, ‘popularization of science’, ‘public communication of science’, ‘scientific vulgarization’, ‘science literacy’, ‘public understanding of science’, etc.21 (Fayard, 1988; Rovan, 1973; Giard, 1979; Schaeffer, 1986; Guédon, 1981; Lucas, 1987) are all so many ways of describing the same process at work in different cultural and historical contexts. But none succeeds in describing it correctly. What is more, the process is probably very different from the ideological function that the variants in the consensus would like to assign to it.22 This instability is the sign of a vague social demand emanating from different and separate sources. It is not possible to give scientific and technological culture a single social place and space broken down by age-groups or socio-economic categories.


The resurgence of the consensus always features in a line of argument pointing to the quickened rate of industrial and economic change and, nowadays, their social consequences, and calling for a revolution in thinking and skills in order to keep up the pace - which also means solving the tensions and contradictions that these changes generate.

As a result, school is at the centre of the argument: sharply criticized for dropping behind, it needs change in order to adjust promptly to the requirements of the new realities. Scientific and technological culture is recruited in support to make up for the immediate shortcomings of the school and to inject new energy into it. It is seen as both an aid to, and vector of, change.

This reasoning wrongly dissociates school from the general movement of culture and, in the specific case with which we are concerned, isolates the teaching of science from scientific and technological culture, as if science and culture existed in different universes; scientific and technological culture is presented as being outside school. Yet it would seem more fruitful to seek out their points of synergy because, as Bourdieu and Passeron showed (1970) neither school nor culture is sufficient in itself. Ethos and habitus strengthen or oppose, as the case may be, the work of the school, which dispenses explicit knowledge but relies on implicit knowledge (Chevallard, 1985). It is subtly linked with the input from the family circle and cultural practices, modulated by the ethos and formal learning. Since the scientific and technological culture of non-formal education occupies the same space of reasoning as that of formal education, and since each anchors and actualizes its own reach, the question of their specificity and dialectic is hardly hinted at.


1. Guy Barbichon, 1973, passim.

2. It is useful to draw a distinction between knowledge and information. We would agree with Durand (1981, p. 81) that there is no ‘difference in the nature of knowledge and information; information is circulating knowledge and information is accumulated information’.

3. ‘The primary characteristic of formal scientific education is that it is wholly regulated by a system of official instructions, defined by programmes or syllabuses and organized in a series of curricula in accordance with the place assigned to science in the general or vocational education system. [...] Success or failure in formal education is expressed in the form of degrees or access to a higher level. The official aims assigned to scientific education are reflected in the recognized instruments certification and everyone knows the extent to which educational content is neglected, being neither assessed nor taken into account when degrees are awarded’ (Jacobi and Schiele, 1990, p. 84-85).

4. For lack of space, we deliberately confine ourselves to just two aspects. Obviously a deeper analysis would need to include the vocational training and retraining provided by firms and private or government agencies. More attention would also have to be paid to the dissemination of scientific and technical information and the resources it now has. Along the lines of our argument it would be easy to show that training and retraining come under the heading of formal education though without the legitimacy that only the official education system can confer, while the dissemination of scientific and technical information, including the systematic methods of technology alert currently being developed, are part of non-formal education.

5. The number of studies made on the linguistic processes for the non-formal dissemination of science is considerable but, since it is not the purpose of this article to present even an incomplete round-up, the reader interested in these questions could refer to the summary paper entitled La vulgarisation scientifique et l’éducation non formelle (Jacobi and Schiele, 1991).

6. Which does not rule out - on the contrary - a gradual progression in information and thus, precisely, reaching the operations: ‘knowledge of special data, knowledge of the means enabling special data to be used, knowledge of abstract representations’, etc. (Bloom, 1975).

7. Jurdant, 1973, p. 57.

8. Jurdant, 1973, p. 57..

9. Schiele and Larocque, 1981.

10. Jurdant, 1973, p. 70.

11. Jurdant, 1973, p. 58. We might add: knowledge ‘is what may be spoken about in a discursive practice specified thereby [...], knowledge is also the field of the co-ordination and subordination of statements where concepts appear and are defined, applied and transformed [...]’. To acquire scientific knowledge is to master the ‘coherent handling of terms and formalisms, the whole of which constitutes the discourse of a science’ (Foucault, 1969, p. 238).

12. Jurdant, 1973, p. 70-71, passim.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Moles, 1967.

16. Which does not, of course, rule out the search for social status and convergence between the demand for degrees and the interests of society (Jurdant, 1973, p. 69, passim).

17. Bourdieu & Passeron, 1970.

18. ‘The modern world sees the advent of a scientific and technological culture, shared by all strata of the population, as one of the strategic factors of the integration of the individual in an increasingly complex society. In the constant changes they bring about in relations with the world and others, science and its achievements require that, to be a citizen in the full sense, everyone has to be able to participate in the debate on the future of our society or, at very least, understand what is implied. What is at stake is our democratic responsibility. The modern world makes the dissemination and sharing of scientific and technological culture one of the conditions for winning competitive edge, building economic recovery and maintaining the prosperity of the nation. Swift adjustment to scientific, technical and industrial change, the key to improved competitive capacity, is only possible with new skills based on the understanding and mastery of the basic principles of science and technology. What is at stake here is economic competitive capability. ‘The modern world regards the monument erected by science as one of the greatest achievements of the human mind, with scientific and technological culture thus taking its place alongside music, literature and the fine arts. Here what is at stake is recognition of the intellectual accomplishment of science and technology. ‘Lastly, the modern world also posits that the contemporary expression of rationality requires the assimilation of the reasoning processes inherent in scientific and technological culture, the need for which arises first and foremost in school, which is expected to pass on the values and abilities on which our modernity is built. Here, what is at stake is the quality of the joint and individual decisions and choices that determine the present and the future’ (Schiele et al., 1994).

19. Needless to say, OECD’s reports have repeatedly drawn attention to the problems that governments should address, namely pollution and the deterioration of the environment, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the deterioration in the employment situation, deskilling and so on, but do not arrive at the conclusion that scientific and technological development has to be halted. ‘We start from the premise that advances in science and technology and their embodiment in investments and labour skills are a necessary though by no means sufficient condition for dealing with the problems now facing the world’ but ‘technological progress must take place in a way which is compatible with an increasing demand for democratic governance and equity at all levels - in the community, in the work place, in the nation-State and among nations’ (OECD, 1981, p. 91-92).

20. On this point, cf. Le Lionnais, 1958.

21. As we have already said, there is no shortage of terms used: ‘vulgarisation des sciences’, ‘popularisation des sciences’, ‘divulgation des sciences’, ‘communication des sciences’, etc., in French and ‘science literacy’, ‘public understanding of science and technology’, ‘public awareness’, etc., in English.

22. To be brief we would say that the Canguilhem viewpoint (1955) is by far the richest: it is more important to follow the filiation of concepts than the chain of theories, in other words to go from the concept to the theory, not the reverse. Defining a concept is formulating a problem: ‘the continued presence of the concept, all along the diachronic line that constitutes its history, proves the permanence of the problem’ (Lecourt, 1972, p.78).


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