On Thursday, the usually provocative Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote this: “Too many teachers can’t do math, let alone teach it.” She begins by describing plans at the University of Saskatchewan to reduce the required math education courses in their elementary teacher education program. I don’t have specific information on the USask proposal but in general I would agree with Wente that math (and science and social studies and health…) education courses are very important for elementary teachers.
After that though, things go a little pear-shaped for me. She argues that education faculties across Canada are turning away from content education courses because they believe that social factors (like social justice, gender, poverty) are more important than learning. She quotes Cecilia Reynolds, Dean of Education at the University of Saskatchewan, “Classes in elementary schools have complex human interactions that involve political, racial, economic and gender issues.” And later follows it up with this conclusion: “No wonder little Emma doesn’t know her times tables. She’s way too busy learning how her Western position of privilege entrenches gender relations. Or something like that.”
This hits close to home for me. I am a sociocultural researcher in science education. If you head on over to my “About” page you can see that I study identity, language and culture in science. Not only that, I am interested in gender issues too. I did my MA and PhD in science education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) which she singles out as a special cause for the insidious social factors view of education. She writes bluntly, “Improving student achievement through effective teaching methods is not a priority for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.”
It sounds like she’s writing about me (except with science replacing math). So much so, that friends and family have been sending a stream of emails asking if she’s right, some going as far as to say that future generations are doomed if she is.
Is Wente correct? Honestly, the answer is yes and no. The quotes that she’s pulled are no doubt legitimate but they’re also without context and quoted in a way that they are meant to sound like nonsense and not at all like schooling that anyone would recognize, because their relationship to learning is not explicit.
It’s true that many education researchers focus on social factors, like poverty, gender and relationships, but why do we do it? Is it because challenging gender norms and probing the effects of poverty are more important than math and science? No, and for me that couldn’t be further from the truth. My first degree is in mechanical engineering so let’s think of this a bit like a machine. Imagine a company has been trying for years to optimize the way a machine works internally but they just can’t get past certain barriers. They might then look at the environmental conditions (e.g., humidity, surrounding air pressure, etc.) and say, “You know it’s really important that we also look at these surrounding factors. All other things being equal our machine works better when we also care about the environmental conditions.” Wente’s piece is a bit like a journalist coming to that company and saying “It’s shocking you only care about environmental conditions! You don’t care if the machine actually works!” That would seem crazy, because they were only looking at the environmental conditions so that the machine would work better.
Likewise, the social factors in education are important, but for me they’re important because they contribute to learning, participation and development in science. For example, I study identification and identity development in science. Is that some new age, find yourself, actualization talk? I’m sure you could pick through my publications and find a quote that makes it seem that way. In simple terms though, it’s the feeling that students have of being the right type of person to do science. Identity is important because it is strongly related to the course decisions that students make[i], to the interest they show in science, and to the persistence they have for solving difficult problems in science[ii]. When they are the right type of person, they receive encouragement from peers, teachers and parents, encouragement that predicts future careers in science even better than does math ability[iii]. Teaching future teachers about identity helps them understand the sometimes subtle ways that marginalized children are excluded and discouraged in science[iv]. And it helps them see what they can do to bring those children back in, providing opportunities to learn and succeed in science[v].
Yes, sometimes those ideas can be taken too far, but most of us would never argue that learning in science or math or history doesn’t matter. It’s just that thinking mechanistically about learning inside of students’ heads is not enough to understand how and why they come to understand scientific concepts. The controversies that continue in the public media despite strong scientific evidence (e.g., anti-vaccine movement, climate change denial) happen in large part because learning and understanding are social and cultural processes. Simply telling students (and adults) scientific facts is not enough. To support scientific understanding we also have to understand the social and emotional contexts in which it happens[vi].
So, can I ask a favour? If someone tries to scare you and say that education is going to hell in a hand basket because education professors care too much about crazy notions of gender or Western privilege or something else that sounds like nonsense, take a second to step back and ask why on Earth they might care about those things. Chances are it’s not because they don’t care about learning but instead because they care about it deeply. Schools, teachers and education face many challenges. Misdirecting frustration at those trying to make a difference just makes change and dialogue harder.
[i] Taconis, R., & Kessels, U. (2009). How choosing science depends on students’ individual fit to ‘science culture.’ International Journal of Science Education, 31, 1115-1132. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/routledg/tsed/2009/00000031/00000008/art00007
[ii] Hazari, Z., Sadler, P. M., Sonnert, G., & Shanahan, M.-C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47, 978–1003. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tea.20363/full
[iii] Bleeker, M.M., & Jacobs, J.E. (2004). Achievement in math and science: Do mothers’ beliefs matter 12 years later? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 97–109. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022066304011973
[iv] Rahm, J., & Ash, D. (2008). Learning environments at the margin: Case studies of disenfranchised youth doing science in an aquarium and an after-school program. Learning Environments Research, 11, 49-62. http://www.springerlink.com/content/n52633341x4j6611/
[v] Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2010). “We Be Burnin’!” Agency, identity, and science learning. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19, 187-229. http://barton.wiki.educ.msu.edu/file/view/webeburning.FINAL.pdf/104914631/webeburning.FINAL.pdf