Traditions in science education? At first that might seem like a strange way to think about science in schools. The word ‘tradition’ often conjures images of formal traditions: holiday dinners, Christmas carols, festivus poles, and wedding ceremonies. But that’s not the only kind. As Greg Laden wrote recently, traditions are also those things that we take for granted, those practices and ways of thinking that we explain by saying “it’s just always been that way”. Science education doesn’t really have formal traditions (there’s no commemorative long weekend as far as I know) but it definitely has this kind of more embedded tradition.
One of the things I research in schools is how students decide that they want to continue to study science, either in senior high school or university. As I wrote over on my “About” page, when I used to encourage Grade 10 students to consider taking optional science courses in Grade 11 and 12 there were talented and interested students who would say things like “Oh no, not me Miss, I’m not really a science person?” I’m always drawn to remembering one student in particular, because I thought she would make a wonderful science student and maybe scientist or science teacher one day. She was curious, outspoken, creative in her scientific thinking and when she found a question interesting she would pursue it endlessly until she was satisfied. I spent many lunch hours bantering with her about different questions on everything from climate change to DNA replication. I was shocked that she was one of the students who thought she wasn’t the right type of person to do science.
So what does that mean? Who is the right type of person to do science? The answer to that question is a perfect example of something that is tradition in science education. The descriptions that students offer and use as the basis for their decisions often doesn’t match the qualities that are really needed to be a scientist but they are the qualities that “everyone” seems to use to describe and depict science students.
As part of a study published this year, I went met with 95 students at three different Ontario high schools (one urban, one suburban and one rural) and asked them to tell me about what it means to be the right type of person to be a science student. All of the students wrote descriptions for me and then I interviewed 33 to ask them more about what they’d written.
Some of their answers came as no surprise. They recognized important qualities like being curious, relying on evidence, practicing critical thinking and being skilled in experiments. “The most important expectation of a science student is to have a desire to know why the world is the way it is,” wrote one girl. Another explained, “A science student is likely to be someone who wants to expand their understanding of the world around them.” A boy at the urban high school wrote that “A science student is more concerned with concrete evidence than opinions (unless they are supported through legitimate evidence)” and his classmate explained that science students are expected “to be organized in their thinking and with a sense of critical reasoning.”
Others, however, were more surprising and less connected to the actual practices of science. One of the most common themes was that science students need to be intelligent. “They’re probably smart in science. And then I guess that they’re probably just really smart in general about like everything.” That in itself wasn’t unexpected. What was unexpected was the way students defined scientific intelligence. Many students extended definition to say that because science students are so smart they shouldn’t ever have to ask for help or further explanations. One student said in her interview that real science students “understand all concepts and go above and beyond knowledge expectations. They do not require explanation.” Another student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.
Students seemed to base their judgments about themselves as science people on a perception that science is always rule bound. There are right answers and wrong answers, rules to follow and little room for creativity. To be the right type of person to do science, the students said that you needed to someone who fits in with the school rules. “A science student is less likely to be expected to be rude to the teacher when he/she is talking or to disrupt the class,” one boy wrote. “They aren’t expected to be messy or rebellious” said another. It isn’t hard though to think of scientists who wouldn’t come close to meeting these particular expectations.
Not only were school rules important, science itself was seen as a set of rules. One student explained, “When people take science they think of like strict rules that can’t be broken or anything. There’s laws to science, like conservation of energy, conservation of mass. So it’s like set down rules that you have to follow. If you don’t follow them you’re going to end up doing something weird or wrong. I guess people expect you to follow a set of rules that are set down for you, guidelines so that nothing out of the ordinary happens, nothing really weird or odd happens. Creativity is a part of it but it seems to me that there’s more rules to follow than room for creativity.” And while he and others recognized that science might be somewhat creative, some students were more equivocal. “They aren’t expected to be creative and design-aware. Creativity is unnecessary and artistic representations aren’t necessary. Expressive work is uncommon and not the ‘typical’ criterion for a science student” explained a girl from the suburban school. This is despite recognition from scientists and science educators that creativity and even sometimes rebellion and subjectivity are essential to science. Physicist Lisa Randall, in a recent interview on CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, made a strong argument not only for the importance of creativity in science but also for the connections and similarities between scientific creativity and artistic creativity.
After talking to these students and reading what they had written, I was interested to see how much these perceptions varied across classes and schools. I wondered if some of the surprising ones were coming from particular teachers or schools so I created a questionnaire using the students’ ideas. It asked questions that compared the expectations associated with being the right type of person to do science with other subjects, specifically in the areas of intelligence (in the way the students defined it), scientific mindedness (critical thinking, logic and rational thinking), scientific skills (such as designing and interpreting experiments), creativity and appropriate classroom behavior. I went to three different high schools and collected questionnaires from 157 more Grade 10 students.
Were there any surprises? Yes and no. The students’ answers showed that all of the major expectations, except creativity, were either unique to science or extra important in comparison to other subjects. These new students confirmed what the others had said in their interviews and writing that there are clear expectations about what it means to be the right type of person to do science. The most surprising thing was how consistent they were. Across schools, classes, teachers and even gender there weren’t any significant differences in the expectations that students described. All of the students described the right type of science student in roughly the same way, even though some parts of that description are either unnecessary (e.g., never being rude) or even conflict with the actual qualities that make a good scientist (e.g., sticking only to established ideas).
How can that be? These students lived hours apart, went to very different schools (an inner-city public school, a suburban private school and a rural technical high school) and had very different teachers. Some had experienced teachers providing outstanding and open-ended learning experiences for their students. Other had teachers with little experience teaching science who clung to the course notes and textbooks. Some had enthusiastic new teachers trying out ideas and just beginning to find their own style of science teaching. It seemed so unlikely to me that the students in their classes would all agree on what it takes to be the right type of science student and that it would include misunderstandings even in classes where I know that the teacher encouraged questioning and creative thought.
It happens because these are science education traditions. They are embedded in the way that we talk about school science, the way school science looks on tv and in movies, the way parents remember school science and in the legends that older brothers, sisters and cousins tell kids. It’s also embedded in the basic practices of school science. Even when individual teachers do innovative and inspiring things, these ideas are still embedded in lab practices, such as the “right answer” style lab reports, and importantly in the ways that students are assessed (something teachers don’t always have control over). These traditions have serious consequences, such as excluding students who otherwise have the making of future scientists or convincing others that just because they are not future scientists they can’t also be a science person just by being interested in science, but because they are traditions they are very very difficult to change.
This post was inspired by discussions that I had with Desiree Schell and Greg Laden as we prepared for a panel discussion on the radio program Skeptically Speaking. The panel explored topics related to culture and tradition from different perspectives and featured biological anthropologist Greg Laden, primatologist Eric Micheal Johnson, and me. Desiree is the host of Skpetically Speaking and guided us with thought-provoking questions. A podcast of the show will be available on Friday, November 25 at Skeptically Speaking Episode #139: Culture and Tradition
Greg also wrote a great post about traditions in science education (I love the introduction!) after our first conversation.
And rounding out a very cool week of discussing these issues, Josh Rosenau who works for the National Center for Science Education wrote a very interesting post about how to move forward with change and reform in science education.
The study described here was published as:
Shanahan, M.-C., & Nieswandt, M. (2011). Science student role: Evidence of social structural norms specific to school science Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (4), 367-395 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20406