Wednesday, October 7, 2009

making edible play dough is hegemonic

Science education that enables students to make sense of their world without empowering them to transform it doesn't go far enough.

You guys, I have to cop to a general apathy about science education. It's not really my thing, after all, and any time I find myself in a conversation about science pedagogy I basically check out until it's time to talk Language Arts.

But look: There are serious social justice implications to how we think about and teach science, and anybody who tells you otherwise--anybody who tries to argue that science is somehow "pure" or immune from the issues of rhetoric, marginalizing, and silencing that are so commonly explored among language ed researchers--is some combination of well-intentioned, stupid, uninformed, or mean.

Before I launch in to an explanation of why, I just want to make a short disclaimer: I'm new to thinking about science pedagogy and am therefore less well read on this topic than I would like. (And by the way, if you're looking for someone to blame for this post, blame Joshua Danish, who blew my mind with a handful of science ed readings and thereby offered me the grist for this particular mill.)

Science education, argues Angela Calabrese Barton in her 1998 piece "Teaching Science with Homeless Children: Pedagogy, Representation, and Identity," is key in thinking about education's role in reifying equity and power relations. She writes that

knowledge construction about science and self-within-science occur within and are shaped by the relational space of the social, historical, and political. It is from this perspective that questions of representation in science (what science is made to be) and identity in science (who we think we must be to engage in that science) become central.

What I guess didn't occur to me is that teaching science is more than teaching the scientific method or the basic features of DNA. Indeed, the deeper issues of research into how and what we teach in science classrooms are linked to the deeper questions of our underlying social structures: Who gets to decide what counts as legitimate participation in the field? What counts as valid, what counts as true? What are the standards by which we decide what and who are allowed in, and who benefits most from the answers to these questions?

Science education is not, after all, just about how best to teach the scientific method; it's also about reflecting on how the scientific method became the dominant method and on how we decide who measures up, and why, to the standards inherent in our chosen scientific approach.

Calabrese Barton explores this through a feminist approach to science education for homeless urban youth. She considers tactics for addressing the "hegemonic practices" in science that "have resulted in an unarticulated, yet highly active caste system." In her view, science can serve an important function for the highly disenfranchised young people in the shelter she visits twice a week for two years; she argues that the purpose of her visits
was not simply to help the children do science, but rather to do that which grows out of their questions and experiences. It was not to fit their experiences into science; it was to fit exploration of the natural world, questioning, and critique into their experiences. This distinction is important because it makes the borders of science fuzzy in two ways. First, it removes the binary distinction from doing science or not doing science and being in science or being out of science. Second, it allows connections between students’ life worlds and science to be made more easily. This is significant because, as the feminist arguments remind us, much of the culture, discourse, and content of science is reflective of masculine, Western, and middle-class values (Harding, 1986).
Calabrese Barton's science lessons embrace the everyday experiences and needs surrounding these children: Exploration of the pollution in their neighborhood, food-based experiments in an environment where children often go hungry or exist in anxiety over whether they will get enough to eat.

Wolff-Michael Roth and Stuart Lee have a similar take on science education in their 2003 piece "Science Education as/for Participation in the Community." As they argue, ignoring the role of cultural power struggles in determining what "science" is and aligning science education to scientists' definitions of what it means to 'do science' means that, as Shamos (1995) and others have argued, "the needs of diverse groups of people--except white middle-class males--have not been met, leading to, by and large, their exclusion from science. Despite tremendous efforts expended, educational reforms have for the most part failed to produce scientifically literate citizens."

Roth and Lee, working with seventh graders in a Canadian community, design a science curriculum as a set of social practices that bring together learners and older community members in a project to clean up and protect the local (polluted) river. The interactions between community members of various levels of expertise, the authors argue, allows for an authentic apprenticeship model of science education to emerge. In this model, it's not just that authentic interactions between adults and children allow genuine, if largely unstructured, learning to occur, but that the interactions themselves represent the genuine social practices of science.

Fine, fine, I'm on board with many of the arguments identified by these authors. You know me: I'm a dyed-in-the-wool liberal with liberal accessories and liberal highlights in my hair. I certainly don't disagree with any argument about the hegemonic nature of the "hard" sciences, and I buy wholeheartedly the assertion that most science education only serves as a continued source of oppression for lots of disenfranchised groups.

What I can't bear, though, is the hint of soft bigotry. It's not okay to start an argument by declaring that "science is hegemonic" and to end the argument with "...and so we will not force oppressed groups to engage with it." Calabrese Barton, for example, tailors "science education" to the direct experiences of the homeless children: In exploring their neighborhood, in experimenting with food, they are certainly engaging in science-y activities, but apparently without any contextualization. These children, it can be assumed, are generally not aware either that they're doing (some version of) science or that the science they're doing is a kind of political act, set up in opposition to traditional notions of science education. They are not introduced to the Discourse that serves to oppress, if not them, then other members of their community; they're not, at least within the confines of this particular description, offered tools for countering that oppression.

The children described by Roth and Lee are in a similar situation. Though the activities are linked to their (presumably) school-endorsed science class, the activities stand in fairly stark opposition to the typical approach of seventh grade science. One child, for example, chooses not to conduct experiments or work with materials directly; he films the experiments of his classmates instead. Another student, at a school science fair, shows off a colorimeter to an adult. The conversation looks like this:

Miles: What is this?

Jodie: A calori . . . meter. It measures the clarity of the water.

Miles: Ah! A calori . . . a colorimeter?

Jodie: You take the clear water and you put it in this glass and then here [puts it into instrument] (Pushes a few buttons.) and you take the standard, which is like the best there is. And then you switch this (takes different bottle) and put the one with the water from the creek. (Covers sample.) And then you scan the sample. And then you see what the thing floating in the water is.

Miles: Over-range, what does that mean?

Jodie: (Pushes a number of buttons.)

Miles: Oh, it is when it is over the range, I see.

Jodie: First I have to do the standard again. (Does standard.) Then I take the creek water. (Enters bottle into instrument. Pushes buttons.)

Miles: Oh, I see. This is really neat.

None of these activities are science class as we tend to think of it; none of these students are forced to engage with the hegemonic aspects of an oppressive Discourse. But as far as I can tell, the students are also not introduced to the notion that science is, by its nature, hegemonic. They are not shown how it oppresses.

If students are not made to question the colonizing effects of a Discourse, then, what is the point of finding alternate routes into the domain? Seventh grade science probably went pretty well for Roth & Lee's students; but eighth grade science was probably hell.

Again, I haven't read other work by these authors, but it seems to me that the strategies identified in these particular publications stop short of the most important pedagogical work: empowering learners to shape their world. The authors' approaches may very well enable students to think critically about the information that enters their community, but I wonder about the extent to which it empowers them to reshape the scientific conversation, both inside of and outside of their physical environment.

There's no other way to say this: When we stop short of empowerment and choose instead to merely enable, we are engaging in a soft bigotry of the most insidious sort. We're telling those learners that participating in domain transformation is not for them, that they should leave that work to those students with the higher grades or the different skin color, that all they need is the basic skills to get by in their everyday lives. We're telling them they're separate but equal, but we don't really mean that they're equal at all.


Flourish said...

While I have relatively little to say in response to your post about science education, not knowing much about that field, you have picked out one of my favorite snippets of TV in the entire world to illustrate it.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I know, right?

Julie said...

Interesting, Jenna- I'm just starting to think about science ed for the first time because I'm in a curriculum and culture wars course. This week we talked about teaching evolution in schools, and holy molie, talk about controversial. Sex ed has nothing on science ed. Which begs the question, what's the big deal all about? Shouldn't science class be all about making kids scientists, rather than teaching them Science (with a capital S)?

Mike said...

I'm wondering why we even teach 'subjects' at all? I mean really. Shouldn't you just let learners gravitate towards their interest? Things might have been different for me had they had a class in high-school called "Build Your Own 'Squeeeeeeeeely' guitar noise pedal" instead of "Introduction to Electrical Engineering". Sounds boring, eh?


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