J.L.Lemke On-line Office
III. Classroom Lessons and Lessons for the Future
How might a sophisticated sociocultural approach to science teaching make itself felt in educational practice? What kinds of research studies exemplify the insights that can make a difference for students' learning about science?
In 1978 I designed a research study supported by the National Science Foundation to investigate classroom interaction in science classes (Lemke 1983a, 1990) using methods of discourse analysis based on social linguistics (Halliday 1978, 1994). Unlike the better known theories of formal linguistics, social and functional linguistics regards our use of language as a socially and culturally contextualized meaning-making, in which language plays the part of a system of resources for meaningful verbal action. Concepts such as register, genre, and semantic network are used to establish connections between local contexts of situation (e.g. teacher and student social interaction, the expressed science content of a lesson episode), more global contexts of culture (expected teacher and student roles, canonical scientific discourses), and the lexical, grammatical, and discourse semantic properties of transcripts of actual classroom talk. This work built on earlier studies of give-and-take in classroom dialogue (Sinclair & Coulthard 1975, Mehan 1979) but was able to more precisely examine how scientific concepts and their relationships were communicated in talk. It demonstrated the close interdependence between teacher-student negotiations of social relationships (authority, humor, stylistic expectations) and the communication of scientific ideas, as well as revealing the many forms of miscommunication and misunderstanding that happen in science classrooms (Lemke 1990).
In order to complete this project it was necessary to develop and refine new methods of social discourse analysis (e.g. Lemke 1983b, 1985) and to move beyond considering classroom dialogue in isolation to take into account gestures, chalkboard diagrams, and what was written in the textbook (Lemke 1987). From this work came a number of recommendations for classroom teaching, principally for giving students more opportunities for extended talk using the language of science. The subtleties of language which were pervasive in communicating scientific ideas pointed to the need for more serious consideration of the needs of students less fluent in English and even of those who use nonstandard community dialects. Closely related work has since demonstrated the educational relevance of social-class dialects (Hasan 1988, 1995) and begun to investigate the role of mathematical symbolism and specialized visual representations, along with talk, in classroom learning and in professional scientific practice (for example Roth 1999a; O'Halloran 1996, in press; Lemke 1998a, in press-a).
The work of Wolff-Michael Roth in science education (e.g. Roth 1998a, 1998b, 1999b, 1999c) has made sophisticated use of both discourse analysis perspectives and concepts developed by sociologists of science like Bruno Latour to examine how students learn by collaborating in designing and building simple mechanical engineering projects (e.g. towers of glued soda-straws; sees also Kamen et al. 1997), how practical innovations and new ideas spread through a classroom community, how students and professionals use graphing as a tool for meaning-making, as well as how students marshall evidence and argument. Less well known is the recent work of Kay O'Halloran (1996, in press) in mathematics education, which combines classroom discourse analysis with new efforts to interpret the relations between language and mathematical symbolisms and diagrams, but also goes further to make explicit comparisons of discourse and symbol use across gender and social class differences. The work of Gordon Wells (e.g. 1986, 1999, in press) has very successfully integrated a discourse-based approach with research on student learning in inquiry-oriented science curricula from a sociocultural perspective in the highly multicultural context of urban schools in Toronto. The work of these researchers may be taken as exemplary among the many excellent research programs that today pursue sociocultural approaches to classroom education and use discourse-based and semiotic research methodologies.
From this work and related studies in other areas of education (see Cazden 1988, Sutton 1992, Ogborn et al. 1996) have come a wide variety of now indispensable tools for the analysis of verbal data, oral or written (see Lemke 1998b for an overview), as well as newer techniques for the study of the visual representations (e.g. Kress & van Leeuwen 1996) that are so pervasive in science (cf. Lynch & Woolgar 1990, Lemke 1998a). In a recent project (Cumming & Wyatt-Smith, 1998), 19 highly respected researchers from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia analyzed videotape and documentary data (student notebooks, textbook excerpts, teacher overheads and handouts) from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives to ascertain the literacy demands of the advanced secondary school curriculum and their social and cultural functions. (Several of these analyses will be published in a forthcoming special issue of the journal Linguistics and Education). Such multiple analysis projects (e.g. Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group 1993, Kamen et al. 1997) are also increasingly common features of sociocultural research practice, because the sociocultural perspective highlights the ways in which any single analysis necessarily represents a socially and culturally positioned and thereby inherently limited viewpoint. Unfortunately, few studies have yet attempted to incorporate viewpoints that range across the full spectrum of social and cultural differences to be found in science education today. We preach collaboration across differences as an exemplary way for students to study science, but we do not often enough practice it ourselves as a way to study science education.
Classroom studies have been a dominant focus of sociocultural research in science education, importantly supplemented by inteview-based studies (e.g. Baker & Leary 1995 in which girls speak out about science and school science). There has also been pioneering work on collaborative learning mediated by computer networks (e.g. Scardamalia 1992, Edelson et al. 1996), but sociocultural perspectives on science education should also push us to examine fundamentally different kinds of social arrangements for learning about science.
There is no ideal 'sociocultural' science classroom in the sense that there might perhaps be one that is representative of HPS, STS, 'constructivist' or 'conceptual-change' approaches to science education. Sociocultural approaches do emphasize the role of classroom communities and an understanding of the development over time of the unique social relationships and micro-cultures that characterize these communities, but the greatest promise of sociocultural approaches lies in looking beyond the classroom. Unlike, for example, literacy education (cf. Egan-Robertson & Bloome 1998), science education research has not as extensively investigated the relationships between home and school cultures, or between school science and professional science. We have not looked at science teaching from the experiential perspective of a student who spends most of every day, before and after science class, in other subject-area classes, in social interactions in school but outside the curriculum, and in life outside school. We have imagined that the few minutes of the science lesson somehow create an isolated and nearly autonomous learning universe, ignoring the sociocultural reality that students' beliefs, attitudes, values, and personal identities -- all of which are critical to their achievement in science learning -- are formed along trajectories that only pass briefly though our classes.
Sociocultural insights may in fact be antithetical in the long run to our present ways of organizing science education only in heterogeneous classroom communities. If we take difference seriously, then we should not be prescribing the same curriculum and methods for all students. We should not be trying to either ignore language differences or homogenize them, to ignore social class and heritage culture differences or to eliminate them in favor of one dominant culture. While we must help students to learn about difference and learn to work together collaboratively across differences, we cannot continue to use that as an excuse to ignore the different learning needs that difference engenders. A sociocultural perspective tells us that we should be doing research to discover the best ways to integrate science teaching that is responsive to different needs with teaching that addresses the challenges of a heterogeneous and diverse classroom community.
Diversity and its needs are not matters of exceptionality and exotic and radical difference. Diversity in some degree is the condition of every community. Our curricula and teaching methods, however, are by long tradition most closely adapted to the needs of middle- and upper-middle class, culturally North European-American, fluent speakers of prestige dialects of English. I do not mean here just the goals of our curricula, about which there is appropriate political debate, but the means as well. We inherit a social ideology, especially in the United States, which says that by heroic efforts of underpaid teachers, it is possible to create classrooms of 30-40 students with an arbitrarily high degree of social, cultural, and linguistic diversity who will nevertheless learn science at exactly the same rate and with equally high and broadly distributed levels of achievement compared to, say, classrooms of 20-30 students who share substantially similar backgrounds and learning needs. On the other hand we also inherit an organized school system which pays no attention to teaching students the lessons of working across age-diversity (e.g. cross-age tutoring, or mixed-age collaboration) or learning to connect school learning to learning and action outside school. We inherit a system of schooling that rips apart arduously constructed classroom communities and teacher-student social relationships every four to nine months -- almost as soon as they are well enough established to produce mutually-supportive insights. The organized efforts of many people in our field today are focussed on setting curriculum achievement standards and promulgating more intellectually authentic teaching methods, but more basic institutional, social, cultural, and linguistic pre-requisites for school success are still not being taken seriously enough.
The most optimistic researchers in our field today are those working at the cutting edge of applying new information and communication technologies in science education. I share their optimism, but not because I believe that new kinds of learning experiences (modelling, simulation, remote-sensor data, data visualization, etc.) are sufficient to increase widespread interest in and success at science learning. My hope is that these new technologies will stimulate fundamental structural change in science education, adding to our present model of maximally heterogeneous classroom groups many new options: providing students with access to a diverse, global pool of 'tele-mentors'; enabling peer-group (including mixed-age) network-mediated longterm project work and electronic portfolio documentation of contributions, progress and results; and facilitating individualized curricula and study paths, with wide latitude in expected time-to-completion. Such alternatives could fill a significant fraction of students' learning time, making it possible for professional teachers to work more intensively with those who need special help, for heterogeneous classroom communities to take on more specialized functions and maintain continuity of social relationships over periods of years, and for schools relieved of some time and space pressures to also offer other essential services for more homogeneous groups of students with common needs.
Within this more flexible institutional framework, science education will very likely need to develop several complementary approaches to assisting learning. We will still need curricula, activities, and teaching methods suited to the heterogeneous classroom and primarily teaching the lessons of collaborative inquiry -- but not also trying to do everything else for everyone. We will need inter-disciplinary curricula and instructional materials support for the science-based components of thematic project studies, and for individual and for small-group learning in both face-to-face and network-mediated investigations. We will need stand-alone computer-aided instruction curricula, with topic modules and multiple pathways for linking ideas and developing conceptual relationships, rich information-access tools, intelligent tutoring modules, and links to resource pools of online human mentors. We will need specialized curricula and methods for students who are learning English at the same time they are learning science, at various levels of achievement in each. At the same time, we should also be developing alternative curricula and modules of all these types which address the special needs, interests, and developing identities of a wide variety of students: very young students attempting advanced topics, adult learners starting with simple concepts, women of any age who may not feel welcome in the masculinized world of traditional science curricula, the large numbers of gay and lesbian students whose needs and perspectives are ignored not just by science education but by schooling in general, and all those members of our many distinct social cultures who wish to have their interests and values respected while they are learning science or any other subject.
New technologies are removing our excuses for not paying more attention to social, cultural, and linguistic differences and their importance to students. One size has never fit all in science education, and in my opinion the most urgent, challenging, and exciting agenda for science education in the first decades of the next century will be to diversify the range of ways in which a diverse population of people can come to understand, appreciate, and criticize science as a human activity, a social institution, a specialized culture, and a means of making sense of the vast complexity of our natural-and-social worlds.