Margery D. Osborne
Angela M. Calabrese Barton
Margery D. Osborne is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Education Building, 1310 South Sixth Street, Champaign, IL 61820, USA. She is the author of Constructing and Framing Knowledge in the Elementary School Classroom: Teachers, Students and Science, to be published by Garland Publishing.
Angela Calabrese-Barton is an assistant professor in the Department of Scientific Foundations at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. She is the author of A Feminist Theory of Science Education, to be published by Teachers College Press, and of 'Liberatory science education: weaving connections between feminist theory and science education', in Curriculum Inquiry .
Both Osborne and Calabrese-Barton are guest editors of a special issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching on marginalized discourses in science education.
JCS invites comments on this paper for publication on the JCS website. Address comments to Ian Westbury, General editor of JCS, at Westbury@uiuc.edu All such comments on this paper, and on other papers in the journal, can be accessed at the website.
Copyright © 1998 Taylor & Francis Ltd. ISSN 0022-0272. Copies may be made under the normal terms of copyright law.
Two summers ago the group of second grade girls I taught in science camp seemed to come from a large number of different backgrounds &endash; Korean daughters of graduate students; white middle class children with parents who were musicians and who went river rafting in Colorado on vacations; white working class girls of fundamentalist religious background; some from blended marriages; two low socioeconomic status African Americans on scholarship.
Jennifer, a child of intense religious views, chose not to participate in the questioning I was leading the girls through as they compared their experiences with kite flying. She did not participate in the 'science' side of anything we did. She led the class in turning our 'science' into arts and crafts; turning the empirical testing of kite tail design into a workshop on braiding. She polarized the group; her friends were torn between friendship for her and their interest in the group's inquiry.
I responded by changing the curriculum to accommodate: I provided many different materials for braiding and then crafts; I asked questions about the qualities of materials in light of what the children wanted to do with them. I asked the children repeatedly to think and articulate ways they thought what we were doing was science. The science became hidden beneath the 'crafts' but it was still there as we examined the properties of materials, testing and assessing them. We designed things and tried to realize them. Such an evolution in the science we were doing happened by responding to the children's wishes rather than forcing them to choose science or their own desires.
from the journal of Margery Osborne
As feminists and science educators, we have been working to develop a pedagogy in our science teaching which arises from certain aspects of feminist and critical theory: We validate and work from personal experience, and allow children to speak in ways of their own choosing; The science done is emergent from the interests of the children and is often implicitly or explicitly critical of existing and accepted scientific processes and theory. Teaching science, however, a discipline traditionally defined from a white, male, Eurocentric perspective, raises many dilemmas for feminists. The notion that science and scientific knowledge is androcentric in nature provides a compelling context for looking at the construction of gender and relationships in classrooms where women teach and/or women learn. As feminist science teachers we wish to encourage critical empowerment through understanding, liberation through knowledge of the discourse, and ever-changing visions and versions of self and knowledge (Barton and Osborne 1995, Women In Science Education 1995). The belief that science is constructed, through discourse, as a set of knowledges, and can act as an expression of identity, provides us with the means to re-construct science and science education so that girls can find a place or create a new place for themselves within it. Such goals, however, when confronted with the constraints and demands of an entrenched, established discipline are also sources of pedagogical dilemmas.
The purpose of this writing is to stimulate discussion about how girls' social identities come into conflict with alternative identities suggested and implicitly promoted in science class. This conflict between identities occurs in ways that might cause girls to withdraw from participation in science unless both teacher and curriculum respond sensitively to their needs. Given the rhetoric surrounding reform in science education in the US which calls for the construction of a science for 'all Americans', we believe that a central, yet absent piece of this discussion is how science, power, and status intermingle in science class to promote implicit beliefs of what it means to understand science and to be an accepted and active member of the science community. Often such values are in conflict with other values and needs children, and especially girls, bring to class. 'Choosing' science with its embedded value system and culture become problematic because they appear to exclude girls' other social choices and which the girls perceive as crucial to their personal identity construction. Specifically, we will suggest ways in which feminist theory can help science education practitioners to critically examine from multiple perspectives the intermingling of science, power, and status in science class, and to envision a 'socially-transforming' science education.
Over the past several years, we have been exploring science education within various contexts (Barton and Osborne 1995, Barton in press, Osborne in press a, b). Most of our efforts have focused on 'at-risk' students and those underrepresented in the science community by race, class or gender. Specifically, this work is the result of our participation in two science programmes with girls: an after-school science programme for elementary and middle school age children which is located at a homeless shelter in the New York City metropolitan area (Barton); and in a midwestern summer science camp which targets low socio-economic status students (Osborne). The study investigates the ways these children perceive science and themselves in relationship to science, and how these images and relationships change as students are encouraged to explore the meaning of science in the context of their lived experiences.
We are asking three central questions:
How can we, as feminist scientists and educators, teach science in a way that values the lived experiences, ways of knowing the world and social identities held by all students, especially women and minorities?'
How do students' concepts of 'science' constrain roles and expectations, shaping power and privilege in science class by defining roles and identities?
How can we move beyond these assumed roles and perceptions to help girls become empowered and liberated through developing science understandings?
We use these questions to ask how science class is positioned within knowledge and power hierarchies and the subsequent role that science class plays in how girls negotiate social identities. We then use these insights to create a forum where feminist conceptions of science and science teaching and learning are explored as a viable and liberatory alternative to contemporary science teaching methods for girls.
The pedagogy we have evolved is a purposeful attempt to construct a practice which is 'inquiry-based' and feminist: as such the teaching and learning are guided by questions and interests of children and are inherently political. We have started with the belief that science can be constructed out of any pursuit &endash; fundamental to science is questioning &endash; if questions are asked, science can be done. Therefore our task has been to help children to ask questions, hear questions in the things they do and say, and finally figure out ways that we can address those questions. These questions are not just about the qualities of materials and phenomenon, they are also about fundamental issues of what gets questioned, explored and valued. We have been teaching science from a social constructivist philosophy in which we rely on the children to speak about both what they are doing and thinking and about the sources and motivations for their theory-making. Our teaching is dependent upon the outside experiences the children bring to class as much as upon the experiences they have in class. This is a second source of politically-charged subject matter as we try to hear, validate and work from and with these experiences (Barton in press, Osborne in press a, b), and we also wish the children to develop a critical lens with which to view the world around them.
Creating science out of critical examination of personal experiences is particularly important with youth who do not see their experiences mirrored in science. As facilitators, we intentionally attempt to help the youth redefine science to become inclusive of the everyday things they do, allowing their experiences to be reflected in the science. This provides us with a venue to critically reflect on those experiences. If we structure our sessions in ways which create spaces for the children to share stories about why they chose certain experiments and experimental design as well as their motivations for their theory-making, then we will have created a community where we actively and collectively reshape how we understand the value and nature of our experiences.
Such responsiveness to the girls desires concerning content and process creates dilemmas for us around what is being taught. Although we define science in the large sense as a process of critical thinking, content and scientifically-recognized processes such as theorizing, observing, generalizing, etc., cannot truly be ignored. In other words, using such a definition of science as a process of critique and questioning is confronted by a societal definition of science education as concerning primarily content and defined, convergent ways of thinking and acting. Such a conflict suggests fundamental paradoxes about the form and purposes of a liberatory science pedagogy.
Located within critical and feminist traditions, our work draws from a number of debates concerning schooling and the need for liberatory education. 1 Our frameworks have been influenced by current discussions concerning the social construction of science and of identity, in which systems of race, class, and gender oppression and domination result in the subordination of people of colour and women, and where societally agreed-upon constructs of gender and race, and the ways these interconnect with each other and class relations, are foundational. Such arguments have forced us to rethink our conceptions of 'good' science education to include a pivotal role for social identity as emergent within the context of the discipline and the potential for disciplinary education to take part in children's construction of 'self'.
Despite philosophical respect for social constructivist views of science, most scientific discourse is grounded in the positivistic assumption of an objective reality &endash; a reality independent of those who observe it. Since the beginnings of such formalized science in the 17th century, positivism has developed into one of the most powerful intellectual traditions in contemporary western society. It has dominated the thought, culture, and practices of science, as well as many other disciplines. Such a scientific ideology, with its inherent values, goals and assumptions, posits that all scientific facts are grounded in sound scientific theory, largely free of personal, social, and cultural values and distorted one-way views of the world. This positivistic ideology is reflected in the reductionist presentation of the nature of science and scientific knowledge, and the authoritarian and powerful position of science in society. Such beliefs are at odds with both the social constructivist standpoint which emphasizes the human role in constructing knowledge and the poststructuralist view of discourse communities (such as science) which suggest that the construction of knowledge is political. The pedagogy we have been developing draws heavily from social constructivist and poststructuralist theories as well as humanistic goals, hence the term 'liberatory' education.
We posed three questions at the start of this paper and believe that consideration of feminist and poststructural theories suggest a means to address them. Contemporary efforts within the science education communities, have responded to race, class, and gender inequities through an increasing concern with 'teaching for conceptual understanding' as well as with the recognition of cultural aspects of knowledge and social interaction, particularly as the concept of discourse and discourse communities have entered educational thought. Although the teaching for understanding movement has enlarged our thinking concerning teacher knowledge and its bearing on what happens in classrooms, we feel that in addition to promoting conceptual understanding through making explicit the content, culture and discursive practices in science class, students and teachers must also use that understanding as a basis from which to critique, and rethink the knowledge base of science if we are to connect with students who are not white, middle class, and male.
Feminist and poststructural critiques of modern science argue that science is biased and partial: the representation of science as an objective, authoritative, competitive and reductionist enterprise emphasizes ways of knowing and doing science which are imbued with white, European, middle class and masculine cultural and social values. Scientific questions emerge from, and should be interpreted in light of political, cultural and socio-economic frameworks. For these reasons, scientific knowledge, presented as objective truth, 'the way of understanding the world', really represents a biased, partial and distorted view of the world. As Martin (1988: 130) suggests, perhaps it is because the 'uniqueness and complexity of individuals are viewed as problems to be overcome by science not as irreducible aspects of nature; personal feelings and relationships are taken to be impediments of objectivity, not ingredients of discovery'. Feminist and poststructural scholars suggest that such white, European, middle class and masculine characteristics of the practice and presentation of science are limiting; they force practitioners who are not a part of such a way of being &endash; by choice or circumstance &endash; to yield to beliefs about science and ways of knowing and doing science that are potentially contrary to their social identities, lived experiences, and a science they may wish to pursue. Because scientific inquiry always has a goal, whether it be curiosity or achievement, it is an artifact of human action and interaction.
These critiques of science are important to consider in science education because in the traditional science classroom, contradictions between the unproblematic way in which science is presented and the embeddedness of gendered, raced, and classed values in the process and content of science, lead to several interconnecting forms of oppression. The first form of oppression is nestled in the lack of diversity in the ideas and ways of knowing deemed acceptable in science class. In such a framework, students are often expected to make sense of the world in prescribed ways; they learn to impose boundaries, constraints and definitions on themselves, others, and the world. The second, and highly connected form of oppression, involves the question of 'truth'. Students of science quickly learn that if the prescribed ways for engaging in science do not 'make sense', 'feel right' or 'connect to their experiences' then they are the ones who are wrong or intellectually deficient. For example, Lemke (1990) and Edwards and Mercer (1987) argue that science classes facilitated by teachers who adhered to a view of scientific knowledge as objective, rational, and mechanistic, perpetuate an image of science education which exploits the authority of the teacher as the holder of scientific knowledge, and emphasizes science as a conglomeration of irrefutable, plain, and simple facts.
The feminist and poststructural framework central to our efforts to shape an inclusive science education include an attempt to rethink the nature of science and science education rather than a belief that equity in the sciences can be reached through the implementation of compensatory programmes for women and minorities. This marks a fundamental shift in thinking in science education circles because it alters the reform focus from centring on the deficiencies held by women or minorities to deficiencies and discriminatory practices in science and education. This shift in thinking raises such questions as, 'Can a science and science education be constructed that is liberatory, rather than oppressive, to those students who historically have been marginalized by the science endeavour?' and 'Can we teach a science which is open to multiple ways of knowing in order to help all students value the contributions made by those traditionally silenced in science?'
The feminist and critical perspectives we write from recognize schools as political contexts as well as legitimizers of hegemonic ideals through the power relations that are played out within them. The perspectives we write from also underscore the importance of examining gender, race and class in the context of patriarchal schooling. We recognize teachers and students as agents and actors within schools who actively and collectively shape and reshape their own understandings of the world and themselves from historically and culturally determined standpoints. These standpoints are manifestations of multiple and conflicting contexts each of which impose other relationships of power, privilege, values and role definitions. The powers and privileges that students and teachers manifest for themselves and recognize in others are not always the ones superimposed by the institution of school.
Four girls participated in today's science explorations: Kíneesha, Patrice, Gilma, and Isabel. Kíneesha and Patrice are African-American and sisters who live at the homeless shelter with their mother. These two girls had just moved from New York to North Carolina to New York again. In North Carolina they spent six months living in two different homeless shelters. The move to the south, Kíneesha and Patrice told me, all happened right after things seemed like they were going okay &endash; their mother and father had just moved into permanent housing in New York City which had been made possible through both parents securing full-time, minimum wage jobs. However, things took a turn for the worse when Kíneesha's and Patrice's father slipped back into substance abuse. He lost his job, and without two incomes, they lost their home. The family moved south with their mother to get away from the father and his problems, and to start over. Now they were back in New York to be closer to their father who had begun substance rehabilitation.
All four of these girls are vivacious. They always seem to have multiple and creative ideas about what kinds of experiments to do, and the energy to carry every single one of them out during our two hour time together. They are never at a loss for words to describe their work or their world.
Towards the end our time together on this particular Thursday, as usual, we talked about what we wanted to do together next Tuesday. It happened that it was Kíneesha's and Gilma's birthday the following week as well as Kíneesha's father's. There was hardly any discussion among the girls about what to do: They wanted to invent birthday cake recipes. We talked about what we might need for that activity and why.
While we planned for the next week, our conversation drifted. Kíneesha began to talk about her father and how she wanted to give him some of the birthday cake. She also began to talk of her father's drinking problem and the family's move to North Carolina. She began to tell the group how she now talks to him and visits him because he is getting treatment for his drinking. Before his treatment she would not go to see him because 'he be mean to me'. Now he was 'nice', and so she wanted to make a present for his birthday.
Gilma used Kíneesha's opening to inform the group that Sharon &endash; the shelter's administrator &endash;was holding a discussion that night at the shelter with all of the older children and the adults because empty beer bottles had been found in the shelter's trash. According to Gilma, the purpose of the discussion was to determine who was responsible. What struck me most about this conversation was how such adult topics wove their way into every fabric of these young girls' lives.
The focus of the conversation shifted from who is drinking at the shelter, to why people drink, and why that can sometimes be hurtful to us. All of the girls informed me that they had talked about alcoholism in health class or science class at some point. But, as Kíneesha said, 'talkin' 'bout alcohol in school can make you feel stupid 'cause you know they talkin' 'bout your family'.
Thinking that these kinds of conversations, unless followed up by a proactive response, can yield to feelings of helplessness, I pushed the girls to consider the following thought critically: What is it about the ways in which our society functions that might have contributed to their personal experience of substance abuse? Why does learning about alcoholism in science or health class make them feel 'stupid'? With my guidance, the girls decided that they would share their experimental cake with Kíneesha's and Patrice's father to show that they supported him and his efforts. They would also use our video camera to document the things in their environment which made them feel good or bad. We would use the video tape to come up with future experiments that would help to improve their environment, and as a venue to talk about their feelings.
from the journal of Angie Barton
Assertion: Creating science out of critical examination of personal experiences is particularly important with youth who do not see their experiences mirrored in science.
In the events that we describe above, it is clear that the physical and social circumstances of the children's lives shape their interaction with science. In Osborne's journal excerpt the children effectively choose peer relations and family and cultural values over the exploration of science. To force these children to participate in the science would construct an either/or choice. To open up the possibility of doing science in hidden ways such as through arts and crafts makes participation in science possible for these girls who might otherwise feel alienation or choose opposition. The question remains whether the political value of doing something overtly 'science' has been lost.
In Barton's story, the girls had the chance to use and hone scientific skills in observation (what does the cake taste like? feel like?), relationships (how much sugar to flour?), and analysis (what did and didn't work last time and why?). They also had the chance to build their understanding of alcoholism and its physical and emotional effect on people. What is important to note is that these skills were discussed in a way that connected to the daily lives of these youth and the question of how discussions of alcoholism can be a part of scientific exploration is explicitly addressed by teacher and children. In this time together at the shelter, science was not simply about 'doing experiments' or 'learning how the world physically operates'. Science was most importantly about understanding and critiquing experiences in a world composed of asymmetric power arrangements. Science in this sense was not merely functional but was a productive force that helped challenge existing social conditions. A notion of science was developed that was fueled by a desire to create immediate possibilities for redefining human agency and social struggle as a political practice and a struggle for liberation.
Acting on our assertion, changing how we teach or the content of our teaching to try to involve the girls, is at the root of a fundamental dilemma in trying to construct a responsive disciplinary education. In being responsive and sensitive to the interests of our children, is the scientifically and societally validated content lost or hidden to such a degree that the politically powerful nature of 'learning science' is also lost? Such a conflict is irresolvable and in effect provides a constant tension between two possible readings of our third question, 'How can we move beyond [the children's] assumed roles and perceptions to help girls become empowered and liberated through developing science understandings?' The first reading is that we are trying to empower them in what they choose to do. The second reading is that we are trying to empower them in an externally defined 'world'.
Our stories illustrate how significantly different life experiences intimately shape the ways in which children engage each other and the ways they think about school subjects. Children carry to school with them a set of struggles not reflected in the stereotypical school curriculum or in science as it is traditionally depicted. Therefore, it becomes important for educators to create learning communities which allow children to experience their strengths and to build self-esteem and when possible, make the politics of life situations central and visible. It becomes important for school subjects to be linked to an understanding of power, inequality, and critique so that teachers and students, together, can begin to name possibilities for collective agency. In essence, teaching and learning in the subject matters must become at once pedagogical and political.
Working with girls and the marginalized is not easy in general, and trying to construct a science with these children that connects with their experiences and empowers them in a liberating manner has compound difficulties. These children's lives and needs are complex and we, as feminists and teachers wish to fit science into this entanglement rather than keeping it unconnected and separated as so much traditional schooling and science would do. Race, class and gender, are not only dimensions of our social structure that reflect forms of power and privilege, they inform our ways of thinking about social processes and how we live our lives. We argue that relationships are not always smooth or of an actors choosing; they are constructed in contexts where actors have certain access to power and resources depending not only upon their relationships in the educational setting, but also their location and identity in the larger society. Attempting to consider the multiple layers that emerge and are formed becomes important for understanding the complex problems and issues that emerge in connection with pedagogy and curriculum in classrooms. Trying to construct a responsive disciplinary pedagogy which engages these contexts is conflicted in many dimensions.
In examining and revisioning concepts of 'science', roles, and expectations, students and teachers can move beyond assumptions and beliefs to become empowered and liberated through developing science understandings and by shaping relations of power and privilege in science class to be productive. In our work with girls in science we are attempting to define what a liberatory science education might mean for them and engaging the inherent paradoxes in what we hope are productive ways. In short we believe, experience and knowledge are reflexive. Understandings of self and of relationships with others can be transformed by an understanding of the socially and historically situated nature of experience. Thus possibilities for liberatory education exist when students and teachers struggle to understand and critique how their own individual and collective social and historical locations shape their relationships with each other, science, education, and society. We believe unresolvable questions remain about the effectiveness and purposes of such teaching.
1. Since the focus of our work has been to explore ways in which to help children learn academic subject matters through meaningful connections between their life experiences and the subject matter of schools while understanding and critiquing their experiences in a race-, gender-, and class-stratified society, we have named the blending of these three goals 'liberatory education' after Paulo Freire's (1971). use of the term. As is Freire's work, our goals embody the optimistic belief that children and their teachers are agents who can actively and collectively reshape their understandings of themselves and their society.
Barton, A. C. (1997) Liberatory science education: weaving connections between feminist theory and science education. Curriculum Inquiry, 27 (2), 141-163.
Barton, A. C. (in press) Our Lives Are Our Theories Are Our Lives: Teacher Research for Liberatory Science Education (New York: Teachers College Press).
Barton, A. C., and Osborne, M. D. (1995) Science for all Americans? science education reform and Mexican-Americans. High School Journal, 78 (4), 244-252.
Edwards, D. and Mercer, N. (1987) Common Knowledge: The Development of Understanding in the Classroom (London: Methuen).
Freire, P. (1989 ) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. (New York: Continuum).
Lemke, J. (1990) Talking Science: Language, Learning, and Values (Norwood, NJ: Ablex).
Martin, J. R. (1988) Science in a different style. American Philosophy Quarterly, 25 (2), 129-140.
Osborne, M. D. (in press, a) Constructing and Framing Knowledge in the Elementary School Classroom: Teachers, Students and Science (New York: Garland).
Osborne, M. D. (in press, b) Making personal experience relevant for science teaching? a teacher's perspective. Radical Teacher.
Women In Science Education (1995) Revisioning boundaries in science education: Continuing the conversation. Symposium at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.