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IV. Encounters with Complementary Perspectives in Science Education Research 

This special section of the current JRST issue is in part also a dialogue among various research perspectives on science education. In what follows I respond to the articles in this issue by Nancy Brickhouse and by David Wong and his colleagues. Each of us also responds to a classic presentation of the conceptual change perspective by Posner et al. (1982), which is also represented in this issue by a commentary by George Posner (see the Introduction to this issue).


Sociocultural Perspectives on Feminist Approaches to Science Education

 In her thoughtful and committed article in this issue, Nancy Brickhouse summarizes for us the history and motivations of feminist perspectives on science education. More than this, she sketches out how a synergy between situated cognition theory and feminist scholarship might address an even wider range of key issues in science education. Both of these approaches emphasize issues of identity development as central to learning, and identity conflicts as central to the failure of our schools to engage and educate specific segments of the population in making good use of science for their own purposes. Both regard the unit of analysis for learning not as an idealized, individualized Cartesian ‘mind’, but as material and symbolic activity in a material context and a socioculturally specific community. In both these regards you will easily recognize the close similarities to the approach I have been outlining here.

 In one sense the sociocultural perspective seeks to include and subsume feminist and situated cognition approaches, and to articulate them with linguistic, semiotic, sociological, and cultural research on science and science education. But there is a danger in every such intellectual imperialism: the danger of losing what is distinctive, and especially what is uniquely critical in intellectual traditions with separate social histories. Feminism offers a profound critique of all of traditional intellectual culture: of science, of mathematics, of literature, of technology, of education and schooling, and no less of linguistics, sociology, cultural anthropology, or psychology. There is a great deal we have yet to hear, spoken from women’s location within our communities. Feminism (and its distaff cousin, Queer Theory) add profoundly to the traditional concerns and perspectives of sociocultural theory: a concern for the fact that human beings make meaning with our own biologically and culturally different kinds of bodies, a perspective on knowing that includes bodily and culturally meaningful feelings as well as percepts and concepts as central to our epistemological repertoire, a re-legitimation of sexuality as a core intellectual concern and human motive in interpersonal relations and learning, an honest confrontation of what structural inequities of power in a society mean at the personal and individual level, and an intellectual engagement with the reality of human pain and suffering.

 Sociocultural theory also speaks to feminism, though cautiously, because it has not yet fully responded to the feminist critique of its own core assumptions (a critique moreover which is not yet fully articulated, but see Haraway 1999). Feminism has learned, I think, from sociocultural theory not to assume that the experience of gender is the same in different times, places, and cultures, nor homogeneous even within one time, place, and culture: there is systematic variation with age, class, ‘race’, and even religious and occupational subcultures. Accordingly, feminism also has to cope with the tension between needed political solidarities among women and an intellectual awareness that those solidarities are discursive constructions every bit as much as are the oppressive stereotypes they confront.

 I want to respond here to just two of the specific challenges which Brickhouse’s article presents to more traditional views of science education.

 After all, the point is not the facts, she writes in her account of David and the octopus stories. What is the point of learning what institutional science says about the natural world? For many students, it is to make use of those facts for their own purposes (in David’s case, richer stories about an octopus and a hero), but our mainstream science education does not support the outbound trajectory toward a broad field of possible identities in a wider range of possible activities that use science. We say  that we want students to ‘taste’ the canonical scientist’s way of using science (though in practice there’s very little of that and mostly in only very abstractly simulated ways; Lemke 1994); but is that all we can manage to support across all the years students study science? Our rationalization for imposing a single possible scientific attitude and identity on all students and ignoring the many possible other ways of viewing and using science is neither honest nor believable from a sociocultural perspective. It is too easy to see how obviously economic interests dictate our ‘inbound trajectory’ for student identity. We are, too often, being paid to make more scientists, engineers, and technicians, not better poets or wiser human beings. 

Perhaps we could succeed better at ‘science literacy for all’ if we supported the much wider range of uses for science learning that fit with the lives and identities of a much larger fraction of the population. We could identify and confront the masculine bias in paternalistic attitudes to students (‘why can’t you grow up to be a scientist? I did!’), and its economic basis (noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t publish next-decade projections of the national need for story-writers); we could think more critically and more often about the larger-scale relationships between these phenomena.

 Brickhouse later notes that [The authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves] also listened to women’s experiences and integrated this information with more conventionally scientific information. This discussion helps us identify the sociocultural sense in which science and science education, as traditionally understood, may already have become either obsolete or overspecialized. The real and pressing problems of human communities are never merely technical, can never be articulated or solved solely by knowledge of that abstraction we call Nature. As Latour (1993) quite cogently, I think, argues, we are long past the stage in human history when it was useful to artificially segregate the natural from the social world. To study natural phenomena as if we were not in society and as if they were not interacting with society, through us and through technologies that will amplify and ramify those interactions indefinitely and unpredictably in the human future, is today simply unscientific and irrational. Not to study women’s health, global warming, nuclear power, or space exploration by the methods of both the natural and social sciences is pointless. We must teach students how to integrate interview data with biochemical assay data, and how to critique particular assays in relation to their social functions as well as their ligand chemistry. We can identify the masculine bias in a biomedical science that has often unconsciously assumed that men were universal and generic homo sapiens, and we can trace the artificial separation of natural and social sciences in relation to the economic and military usefulness of the former and the politically subversive potential of the latter. In either a feminist or a sociocultural perspective, we have to conclude that continuing to teach the sciences as autonomous disciplines will not prepare students for successful lives in the 21st century.


Education as ‘An Experience’

 There are a number of common intellectual sources that connect my own view of sociocultural learning with the Deweyan perspectives developed by David Wong and the Deweyan Ideas Group (Wong et al., this issue). Both views are rooted in the epistemological traditions of American Pragmatism originating with Peirce: making meaning is a material process, transactive between persons and things, and does not belong to an autonomous Cartesian parallel universe of purely mental realities. Both also take meaning-making to be more than just reasoning: to be an aspect of total human activity that is also bodily and rich in affect (two dimensions also emphasized in feminist scholarship).

 ‘An experience’ in the special Deweyan sense Wong and his colleagues describe is always educational; but it does not just add to our store of facts, or bring about a rationally argued change of opinion, it also stirs us to a ‘heightened vitality’. It makes an impact on us as human beings; it contributes to the development of our identities. Wong et al. extend and specify this Deweyan perspective further by noting that it prescribes a dynamical model of experiencing, inside the flow of time and events, with an anticipatory awareness that we are getting somewhere, and a sense of consummation (rather than mere cessation) when we’ve got wherever ‘there’ turns out to be. A recent biological Idea (in the Deweyan sense, see below) is Rosen’s (1985) notion of living systems as ‘anticipatory systems’, which I interpret as meaning that our living experience is always a moment in processes on many timescales, some of which necessarily overlap into the ‘future’ as physics reckons time, but which form part of our biological ‘present’ (cf. Lemke in press-b). The longer timescales of human living mark processes such as identity development (as well as relationship development, family and community projects, and other agendas), and the material systems in which they occur are ecological and eco-social ones, not single organisms or persons.

 If education is to be based on this view of having Experiences, rather than just being dragged through a curriculum (which pretty clearly diminishes rather than heightens  human vitality), then science education needs to pay attention to Ideas rather than just to concepts. Concepts are abstract tools; Deweyan Ideas are exciting; and they enable us to have new and richer experiences in the future. Ideas in this special sense are not just cognitive, they are behavioral (I would say ‘actional’) and affective as well. Having an idea is like being the protagonist in a heroic drama (perhaps too much so, see below). Good models of the dramatistic perspective on learning can be found in the classic work of Kenneth Burke (e.g. 1966, 1969), who also develops closely related views of how we learn to see in new (and newly limited) ways though the ‘screens’ or filters of our terminologies (see Stillar 1998 for a synthesis of Burke with more familiar models of discourse analysis). 

Experiences of dramas, or whole works of art, are ideal examples of what Dewey means. Vygotsky (1971), too, turned to art as a paradigm for the social experience of meaning. But what is the analogue in the case of science? Wong et al. seem to suggest that it is scientific concepts, perhaps Big Ideas. I would agree with this only if they mean something rather larger than a concept, something on the scale of a Discourse, or what is sometimes called a theory or a model, in which several concepts beautifully complement one another in complex mutually supportive relationships. We can diagram these artworks of science as static concept webs, but we experience them, initially and every time anew, as unfolding texts of argument and explanation, as beautiful prose works of scientific art. But even that doesn’t quite seem enough to me to evoke the ‘heightened vitality’ we associate with ‘an experience’ in science. There are also the ‘beautiful experiments’ of science, whether rendered as accounts of what happened, or experienced from idea to design to data and conclusions. It is the vital fusion of theory and experiment (or observation) that makes science truly a performance art. I don’t think we in science education have paid much attention to understanding the esthetics of science (or of learning). There is certainly a (suprisingly) large literature in which scientists themselves attest to the central and essential role of an esthetic dimension in their creative work (e.g. see such collections as Wechsler 1977,  Tauber 1996).

 Why don’t we? Why must science and science education define themselves as rejecting the educational ideals and methodological insights of the humanities? Who is attracted to science presented as purely rationalistic and affectless? (No human activity is affectless; rational-mindedness and dispassionateness, reasonability and tentativeness are affects.) What kinds of identities are recruited, and what kinds are excluded, by this narrow view of science – one that is contradicted repeatedly by creative scientists? These are just the sorts of questions that a sociocultural perspective in science education (and very often a feminist one as well) sets out to answer. The answers are historical, economic, political, and sociological. The cultures and identities of the sciences and the arts have also been pushed apart along many of the same dimensions of difference that separate stereotypes of what is masculine and what is feminine (rational/emotional, hard/soft, controlled/spontaneous, abstract/concrete, universal/particular, objective/subjective, profitable/pleasurable, stable/shifting, etc.). If authentic education about science is to work against the exaggerations of these stereotypes, it will have to become  more ‘humanistic’ in many of the ways that Deweyans endorse.

 Two final cautions. First, having an exciting experience with science is valid and valuable in itself, but education must always be more than one great experience after another. Each small drama of experience must somehow play a part in still larger dramas on longer timescales. Unlike works of art, or designed curricula, educations are always works-in-progress. How do we promote and support longer-term intellectual and personal development in a curriculum of great experiences? One suggestion is that our curricula must work to insure greater continuity in students’ ways of experiencing as they move from one classroom to another and from classroom to hallway to neighborhood to home (Lemke, in press-c). There is no more reason to believe that the habits of vital experiencing will automatically transfer to the rest of students’ lives than that habits of technical reasoning will do so. What lasts for the longterm in us is what we have learned how to remake for ourselves across many contexts. This is not only an argument for more multi-disciplinary curricula, but for the curriculum to work more vigorously against the radical separation of school from the rest of students’ lives. It is a very Deweyan concern.

 Second, in the dramatic metaphor for such experiences, we each find ourselves the hero or protagonist, achieving an insight; but do we also thereby learn ‘ensemble acting’, how the climax of the drama arises in real life from the interactions of many players? How do we synthsize the psychological insights of Art as Experience with the social and political ones of Democracy and Education? My point here is that a focus on personal feelings and even on individual intellectual excitement, whether in applications of Dewey or feminist theory, can easily tempt us back toward an individualistic view of learning. Even if we make clear that social interaction is an essential part of learning, we have a further responsibility to articulate how even feelings differ across communities because they are in part the artifacts of communities. Sociocultural theory must ask how we teach human beings to Have Experiences and engage with Ideas; it wants to know how the felt experiences of these human possibilities would differ from culture to culture, how comfortably they sit with differently configured and socially positioned identities, what social functions these very Deweyan notions themselves may play in the intellectual and political economies of their cultures of origin and export?


Changing More than our Minds

 The conceptual change approach in science education began with the useful observation that many students come to the science classroom with alternative ways of understanding everyday phenomena. Part of the job of science education, it was argued, should be giving these students opportunities to change their minds on the basis of what the scientific tradition considers good evidence and valid argumentation. The result would be both conviction about the accepted scientific way of understanding these matters and also valuable experience with the scientific process of rational decision-making, explanation, and theory-building.

 A sociocultural perspective offers some challenges to this optimistic view. First, there is the question of whether students’ alternative conceptions and those of the European scientific tradition belong to any common framework within which there can be agreed upon criteria of evaluation. A choice between two scientific explanations can be made only because both belong to a common tradition, with agreed upon rules of evidence and argumentation. In a larger sense all scientific explanations also belong to the culture of science, a culture that seeks particular kinds of knowledge for particular purposes. The cultures of everyday life also seek knowledge and explanation, but often for quite different purposes; their criteria of validity are also correspondingly different. When we move well outside the orbit of European-derived cultures, or even of middle-class subculture, the very nature of what counts as knowledge and what qualifies as explanation may also be startlingly different.

 A classic instance of course is the continuing debate over scientific evolutionary theory in biology vs. fundamentalist Christian biblical literalism about Creation. This case represents not so much a conflict in the sphere of the everyday as a more serious example of incommensurable cultural criteria about explanation. Within evolutionary science, there are debates about punctuated equilibrium, selection vs. self-organization, gradualism vs. catastrophism. Some of these come close to posing paradigm shifts, which already imply changes in basic assumptions about what are the relevant questions and kinds of evidence. But between evolutionary science and fundamentalist religion, there is almost no common ground. In the one case the purpose of accounts of, say, human origins is to provide a framework for the synthesis of diverse forms of specialist data (paleontological, genetic, geological, climatic, etc.). In the other case, the function of beliefs is to maintain the ground of moral behavior (according to the usual sociocultural theory) or to uphold one’s faith in God and His Word (in the view of believers). Hybrids like ‘creation science’ do not really bridge these incommensurable cultures.

 Less dramatically, the culture of everyday life and commonsense reasoning also has different uses for explanatory concepts or accounts than does systematic science. Everyday reasoning is local, it does not require a global consistency among procedures or concepts across all practices and phenomena; it is enough if an account works in the domains where it is used. There are many other such differences. Historically science and common sense understanding have differed for centuries. Each thrives on its own ground.

 Conceptual change models and linguistic or semiotic models in sociocultural theory are much more convergent. The former speaks of investigating ‘how a student’s current ideas interact with new ideas’ in the context of a ‘conceptual ecology’(Posner et al. 1982). Discourse theory has quite a bit to say about how concepts or themes ‘interact’ semantically with one another, within and between discourse formations, and Foucault (1969) gives quite an elaborate analysis of the elements of such formations relevant to analyses of historical change in scientific and other discourses (see also Lemke 1995, chapter 2). Even the emphasis in conceptual change models on the role of our meta-theories and epistemologies is quite a familiar sociocultural theme. The fundamental difference is that sociocultural models see a students interacting with teachers (cf. Vygotsky vs. Piaget), each as representatives of communities that can be characterized in part by their belief systems, rather than either one set of ideas interacting with another or a sovereign individual ego freely choosing between beliefs and communities.

 An apparent assumption of conceptual change perspectives in science education is that people can simply change their views on one topic or in one scientific domain, without the need to change anything else about their lives or their identities. This ‘modularism’ runs quite contrary to the experience of sociocultural research. Again, the evolutionist-creationist controversy can serve as an example. To adopt an evolutionist view of human origins is not, for a creationist, just a matter of changing your mind about the facts, or about what constitutes an economical and rational explanation of the facts. It would mean changing a core element of your identity as a Bible-believing (fundamentalist) Christian. It would mean breaking an essential bond with your community (and with your God). It could lead to social ostracism and the ruin of your business or job prospects. It could complicate your family life, or your marriage chances. While I am slightly over-dramatizing here (substitute adopting a progressive secularist view of the acceptability of gay lifestyles to appreciate the more extreme potential consequences), the point is that beliefs about the natural and social world have co-evolved in cultures along with the entire complex network of social practices that bind a community together. The renaissance Church did not oppose Galileo just because it disagreed with his conclusions about the motions of celestial bodies. There was a lot more at stake than rational choices among competing theories. 

‘Changing your mind’ is not simply a matter of rational decision-making. It is a social process, with social consequences. It is not simply about what is right or what is true in the narrow rationalist sense; it is always also about who we are, about who we like, about who treats us with respect, about how we feel about ourselves and others. In a community, individuals are not simply free to change their minds. The practical reality is that we are dependent on one another for our survival, and all cultures reflect this fact by making the viability of beliefs contingent on their consequences for the community. This is no different in fact within the scientific research community than it is anywhere else. It is another falsification of science to pretend to students that anyone can or should live by extreme rationalist principles. It is often unrealistic even to pretend that classrooms themselves are closed communities which are free to change their collective minds. Students and teachers need to understand how science and science education are always a part of larger communities and their cultures, including the sense in which they take sides in social and cultural conflicts that extend far beyond the classroom.

 How is it that some other perspectives on science education research have paid rather scant attention to these issues? In part, I think, it is because of ideals. Many science educators believe that rationalism should be the sole basis of decision-making, not just in science but in life and politics. In part, it is also because of cultural assumptions; Americans and many others in the English-speaking cultures particularly insist that the individual mind must be the natural unit of all valuing and meaning-making practices. Our heroic, romantic (and masculine) myths glorify ‘one man with the truth’ struggling against ignorance and error to triumph over all. Sociocultural research not only debunks these myths by doing detailed research on how new discourses, values, and practices really arise and spread in social networks, but also by asking how such myths and beliefs function in society as a whole, and what their economic and political implications are.

 Brickhouse (this issue) has also noted that the very dichotomy between ‘rational choice’ and the bodily feelings that both feminists and Deweyans see as fundamental to learning reflects a peculiarly narrow historical and cultural tradition. Reasonableness and tentativeness are surely feelings, too, and never found unmixed with other feelings (whether exhilaration or pride, steadiness or humility) necessary to the scientific ideal. Logic gates do not describe what was once called the divine faculty of human Reason, and there is much more than the quantitative weighing of evidence to what we call scientific judgment.  Belief is more than the acknowledgment of bare facts or an assent to logical relationships; it is a felt commitment, a component of identity, and a bond with a community.

 Yes, we should give students opportunities to change their minds, but we should not do so unaware that we are thereby inviting them to join a particular subculture and its system of beliefs and values. We must also stop and consider whether we are, perhaps unnecessarily, making the price of admission to science the rejection of other essential components of students’ identities and values, the bonds that link them to other communities and cultures. We cannot afford to continue to believe that our doors are wide open, that admission is equally free to all, that the only price we ask is hard work and logical thinking. We need to understand how the price is reckoned from their side of the differences that separate us. We also need to critically re-examine whether the particular view of scientific rationality we offer is an idealization, or a travesty, of the true scientific spirit.