Why do I do social research in science education? Hint, it’s not because I don’t care about learning

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

[vi] Pintrich, P., Marx, R.W., & Boyle, R.A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63(2), 167-199. http://rer.sagepub.com/content/63/2/167.short


10 responses to “Why do I do social research in science education? Hint, it’s not because I don’t care about learning”

  1. Dear Marie-Claire,

    An excellent and thoughtful rebuttal to the G&M oped last week.

    I base my comments not on social education research but experience on the ground having taught science and math in six different countries, studied in three of them, over the last 20 years.

    While I agree with the broad message of the post i.e. study the social context of learning alongside content, there are some aspects that need to be simply debunked and forcefully removed from education research.

    First is the absurd, laughable notion of “Western privilege” having something to do with certain “minority” kids not grasping science and math. Now assuming this privilege is something real and not concocted by researchers, how then do we explain the fact that the toppers the world over in science and math are in fact, the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Indians ? And speaking from my own background studying in the Indian system, we are all taught science and math in English and learn about Newton, Einstein and Rutherford – all white men far removed from the Indian context, yet there was never a question or even a notion of finding this alienating or far removed. If anything, good grades in science and math has been and continues to be the passport to success for many of us, including those settled in the West. If there is any “privileged” group here they are no doubt the sons and daughters of Asian parents who mercilessly made us do our math drills and read science books and expect nothing less than As in these two subjects. And not for a minute did our parents (including mine who were born in a colonized country) subscribe to this nonsense of science and math being a “white man’s” realm.

    As an aside, I find it outrageous and mind-boggling that some of your colleagues including one at McGill, use the phrase “white man’s science” in an academic, peer-reviewed journal. I dare your lot, in the same breath, to mention the success of “brown people” and “slant-eyed people” in science as well.

    Gender issues is another bogeyman. Even assuming science in its present form alienates girls, do we change science to pander to them ? Or do we present science and math in its unvarnished beauty for what it is and ensure they too can one day contribute to our growing body of knowledge.

    And by the way, wasn’t learning all about BROADENING horizons, discovering the other, imbibing new paradigms and embracing the unfamiliar ? Yet, In this brave new world of social constructivism, we teach by enforcing the familiar, connecting any and all new knowledge to a person’s background (would love to see how the constructivists teach quantum physics ) and integrating supposed gender and racial prejudices into teachings.

    I applaud Margaret Wente for having used such a public forum to debunk all of this, as I applaud and salute you for respectfully and thoughtfully refuting her article. While I cannot be counted as one of your converts, I nevertheless acknowledge the good intentions and believe that social research in education is invaluable provided we strip it of all imagined prejudices and grievances.

    What I do know from teaching kids in an underprivileged area in Montreal is that such research and such theories regarding White privilege et al. only reinforce their feeling of being victims and they cleverly use this as an excuse to not give science and math their best shot.

  2. Dear Sumitra,

    Thank you for reading and for taking the time to post a detailed comment. I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss these ideas with you.

    I am teacher too and have taught in several schools in Ontario, including an inner city school teaching science for immigrant and refugee students newly arrived in Canada. I have taught summer programs in northern Cree and Inuit communities and tutored teenagers and adults from all backgrounds in downtown Toronto. A lot of what you’ve written is my experience too. I did not want to give me students an easy way out, an excuse not to succeed. I wanted them to learn science. I agree with you that it actually hurts students not to give them access to the best and most important science that we know, and you’re right too, that my biggest hope was that they might even end up contributing to it.

    And it might not seem that way, but probably our biggest disagreements really come down to what the words we use in social research really mean. As I did say in the post, these ideas can be taken too far. I’d go further and say that they can become caricatures of themselves and I’m sorry that the caricature version seems to be what you’ve experienced. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by constructivism but it means something different to me and many of my colleagues. The idea of constructivism is simply a learning theory individuals are constantly (consciously and unconsciously) taken in what they see and experience around them to make sense of the world – they are constantly constructing understanding. What that means in schools is not that students should just freely discover everything (they won’t) or that anything goes (it doesn’t). It just means that students come into the science classroom with ideas about the way the world works and they continuously take in everything that happens there and try to make sense of it, for better or for worse. They might construct mixed up ideas. They might construct correct ideas. They might develop surprisingly insightful ideas through everyday experiences but struggle to adapt those ideas to what they see and hear in science class. They might actually know much more about something than their teachers realize. Constructivist teaching takes this into account, thinking about what students might already know and how they might make sense of classroom activities, valuing their knowledge as well as recognizing how challenging it can be to change it. There is nothing in constructivist thinking that suggests that students shouldn’t encounter new ideas. Constructivist teaching should actually try to make the most of those new ideas by thinking about why they might be difficult for students and finding ways to bridge the gaps. Given the popular misunderstandings and science fiction versions of the quantum world, I can’t imagine a better way to teach quantum mechanics.

    For the record, I wouldn’t use the term “White man’s science” either. It has deep and troubling assumptions embedded in it. And the idea of Western privilege is also grossly simplified. As you point out, immigrant students whose parents push them to succeed through diligent practice in math and science have a great deal more privilege than many of the rural kids I grew up with, whose parents could sometimes do very little to help them towards a career in science even if they’d wanted one. But just because it’s more complicated than Western/non-Western (and you’re right, it’s definitely more complicated than that) doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Privilege is the implicit advantages that some people have because of their background and experience. In addition to teaching inner city students, I’ve also taught at private schools. I knew many brilliant and hard working students at both types of schools. But, all other things being equal, the private school students (white and non-white) were going to have more opportunities. This is partly because when it came down to interviewing or writing an entrance essay, for example, more of them knew the right ways to say things. They knew how to make things happen or had people in their lives who could help them figure it out. They had confidence in their arguments and their right to voice opinions that I didn’t have as a student and that many of my inner city students didn’t have either. Some of that is privilege. But studying it doesn’t have to be about excuses. It can instead be about finding ways to help other students learn to the play the game too. And it can mean engaging in some critical thought about which of our assessment practices are actually about scientific understanding and which ones really just reward the ability to make a professional impression.

    So, before my comment gets longer than my original post, I’ll bring it together. I don’t actually disagree much with the examples that you’ve brought from your experience. And I agree that caricatured versions of ideas like privilege and constructivism are less than helpful. The part I disagree with is that they should therefore be expunged. They are essential to understanding science learning. If all we needed were efficient and effective mechanistic strategies, the difficulties of teaching science would have been solved a long time ago. Doing social research in education isn’t about pandering or excuses, it’s about trying to figure out why almost a century of research on efficient teaching strategies has still left us with disparate opportunities for students.

  3. Aha. I see some convergence after all. Perhaps I have indeed been exposed to caricatures rather than substance. But can you blame me ? Look at the profiles of professors at DISE at McGill or Concordia. All sociology of research, with barely one or two tackling actual content. I fully appreciate the need for context in learning but I fear that science education overall has been replaced by sociology of science education to the detriment of content. Back in the day, I wanted to do a PhD in science education myself and contacted a professor at DISE in this regard. I wanted to explore new approaches of integrating materials science and nanotechnology into classroom curriculums but within existing chemistry and physics content, rather than stand alone subjects. I was told – in writing – that there was no place for that kind of research and that the entire department was devoted to social construcitivism. And in my eyes, reading their papers, it is all about White man’s privilege, a feminized curriculum, anti-racism, even Marxism, Little wonder that it has been reduced to caricatures.

    And a word about constructivism: I like your view of it and it is very hard to disagree with that. If you take a building block analogy where you allow students to create their own constructs from building blocks presented to them, I am OK with that. But we need to present those blocks first. And in math it means learning the basics of fractions and algebra, in chemistry it means learning atomic structure and the periodic table, and how to balance equations. Once they have a grounding in the basics, only then can they make their own constructs. But according to the educators quoted in the Wente oped, that kind of drilling and knowledge transfer is superficial. And this is precisely what makes my blood boil.

    How on earth can a student create his own construct without any basics and knowledge to go by? Would you ever suggest that a musician attack Rachmaninov first without doing his scales day in and day out over years? We accept that there are no shortcuts in sports and art, we accept that a piansist must hone his skills over years through rather prosaic and unexciting scales and etudes. Yet talk about drilling math and science kids with multiplication tables and the periodic table, and that is considered oppressive and soul-destroying, and for some reason we have to find a sociocultural context to it.

    I believe this is a discussion you should pursue with your colleagues at McGill and elsewhere for I fear they might be giving your field the black eye through many of their publications and work. Perhaps you might be the very person to marry content-driven research alongside the social content and thus set a new standard for science and math education research for us all.



    • Thank you, Sumitra, for this conversation. I have really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss these ideas with you. And I understand where you’re coming from. On the topic of building blocks, I might just add that students do come with many of the building blocks from their experiences in the world but also wholeheartedly agree that there are others they need to be taught and connections that teachers need to help them make. To me, much of good science teaching is walking the fine line between those two so that students have the opportunity to develop the very best understanding of the world.
      And thanks for your encouragement. I will definitely continue to explore and communicate the connection between social and content approaches to science education.

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