Meanings of Culture, Race, Diversity, and Equity
Understanding the widespread lack of achievement in STEM education and developing possible solutions poses critical challenges, especially in light of previous cognitive science research, as well as community-based research, suggesting that the problems with achievement are more complicated than simply knowing or not knowing “science content” (see Demmert & Towner, 2003, for a review). Indeed there is a growing body of educational research that is demonstrating the need to understand the complexities that diverse ways of knowing create for teaching and learning environments, particularly if we are to improve achievement for those groups of students who have historically been placed at risk (Ballenger & Rosebery, 2003; Gutiérrez, 2006; Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003; Hudicourt-Barnes, 2004; Rosebery & Hudicourt-Barnes, 2006; Warren & Rosebery, 2007). Fundamentally, this work argues that the current state of knowledge about human learning and motivation has yet to adequately understand the ways in which culture is integral to learning (Nasir & Hand, 2006; Nasir, Rosebery, Warren, & Lee, 2006).
The definition and use of the concept of “culture” is deeply controversial (see, e.g., Brumann, 1999, and related commentaries), and numerous scholars have suggested getting rid of the term altogether. There is a growing body of work taking up issues of “culture” that have in common the rejection of a “box” model of culture, where boundaries are sharp and categorical and where culture is defined solely in terms of shared characteristics or behaviors (i.e., Rogoff & Angelillo, 2002). For example, one alternative perspective is the epidemiological approach to culture (e.g., Sperber, 1985; Atran, Medin, & Ross, 2005) where culture is conceptualized as a causally distributed set of ideas, their public expressions, and the practices and behaviors of individuals and groups in particular ecological contexts. From this framework, within-group variation is an object of study rather than treated as measurement error or random variability.
An increasingly influential framework (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003; Moll & González, 2004; Nasir & Cobb, 2005) proposes that, although the construct of culture is problematic, people nonetheless “live culturally.” From this perspective, a key object of study is the wide-repertoire of sense-making practices that people participate in, particularly, in everyday contexts. Lee (1993, 1995, 2001) has used this approach for the design of learning environments that leverage knowledge associated with everyday experiences to support subject matter learning (in her case literacy practices). From this framework, cultural practices can also be seen as providing alternative “perspectives” or epistemologies. This understanding of culture implies that there is no cultureless or “neutral” perspective any more than a photograph or painting could be without perspective. In this sense, everything is cultured (Rogoff, 2003), including the ways schools are organized and education is implemented (Lipka, 1998; Warren et al., 2001), layout of museums (Bitgood, 1993; Duensing, 2006), scientific practices, and the practices associated with teaching science in school (Warren & Rosebery, 2004). Sometimes these perspectives are explicit but they are often implicit in practices and symbols (Unsworth, 2008).
Developing culturally based science curricula is far from straightforward. One of the key aspects of our work has been the evolution of our understanding of what culturally based science programming means and the ways in which to design and study the programs. “Culture” and “science” are two concepts that are strongly subject to stereotyping and simplistic definitions. For example, it may be easy for some people to think of science as a body of knowledge and to imagine scientists as (White) men wearing white laboratory coats and using beakers and test tubes. Similarly, it is easy to think of culture as a set of ideas about what people think or customs rather than as affecting how people think. If these stereotypes and reductionist approaches remain unchallenged, then it is natural to take some preexisting science curriculum and build in a cultural connection by “adding culture to it.” Indeed, this is an approach that has been widely advocated and used but has failed to have the desired impacts (Hermes, 1999; Yazzie-Mintz, 2007). In part, we think this is because it has not addressed the core problems of culture in science and science education nor has it recognized the embeddings of culture in everyday practices.
We think that cultural practices and their connections with Native ways of knowing must be the foundation of a community-based science curriculum. There is a strong body of Indigenous scholarship, exploring the philosophies and methods of Indigenous ways of knowing (or “Native Science”) the natural world and corresponding relationships and tensions with Western modern science (i.e., Deloria, 1979; Kawagley, 1995; Cajete, 1997; Deloria & Wildcat, 2001). A key aspect of developing our framework has been to resist placing Western modern science and Native science in an oppositional dichotomy because it has the effect of inappropriately simplifying both ideas of Western modern science and Native science (Maryboy, Begay, & Nichol, 2006).
Our approach works to remove the implicit valuing of Western modern scientific some ways of knowing over all others. Native science is not simply folk wisdom accumulated over time that may or may not be “validated' by modern science; instead, Native science embodies values and epistemological orientations for approaching and understanding the natural world that have integrity in the contemporary practice of science (Cajete, 1999a). Recognizing the significance of Native epistemologies may remove some of the problems with student navigation of ethnic and academic identities that is documented in the literature (i.e., Nasir & Saxe, 2003) and put students in the position of successful “border crossing” (Aikenhead, 2006; Gutiérrez, 2006). Our project has evolved in a way that makes a practice view of culture and the perspective of children moving in, between and through multiple ways of knowing central to our curriculum design, implementation, and evaluation.
Epistemologies as Cultural Processes
There is growing evidence that issues related to epistemology are central to improving the quality of STEM learning and knowing (see Project 2061 (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 2000). Noticeably missing from the literature on epistemology and science education that has been conducted outside of Indigenous communities is the consideration of epistemology as an aspect of cultural processes.
In education, most epistemology research makes the assumption that the epistemologies that students come to classrooms with are inferior, or less productive, compared with the one(s) that researchers and educators (for our purposes, science education) are trying to assist students in learning. Some researchers have claimed that successful science education will require students to learn or replace the personal epistemologies they bring with them with an epistemology that is aligned with a Western scientific epistemology (King & Kitchener, 1995; Strike & Posner, 1985).
Within science education more specifically, Hammer and Elby (2003) suggest framing student epistemologies as “epistemological resources.” This reframing can be thought of as analogous to the reframing in conceptual change work that argues that students' prior knowledge is better characterized as “knowledge in pieces” that can be built upon rather than stable, robust, concepts that need to be replaced or overcome (diSessa, 2006).
Hammer and Elby (2003) define epistemological resources as students' epistemologies developed in students' everyday lives and that are appropriately employed in various contexts. The resources are not part of a robust, stable, or context-independent theory or belief about knowledge and learning; rather they vary across contexts and domains, depending upon the appropriateness of fit. They give several examples such as “knowledge as propagated stuff, knowledge as free creation, and knowledge as fabricated stuff.” They nicely demonstrate how even young children are able to draw on these resources given the appropriate context. Hammer and Elby suggest that recognizing students' epistemological resources and facilitating students' proper employment of these resources is a better pedagogical approach in teaching science.
It is surprising that notably absent from any of the epistemology work is any concern about cultural differences. Is there cultural variation in the fundamental epistemological resources different individuals bring to bear in learning? Are similar epistemological resources accessed and used in comparatively the same contexts by diverse learners? To answer these questions, further work to understand the ways in which epistemologies are learned, used, and instantiated as well as the ways in which epistemological issues are connected to identity, knowledge form and content, sense making and context is critical.
Indigenous Science/Science Education and Epistemology
Issues of epistemology are a rich area of scholarship for Indigenous people working within a variety of disciplines and from a variety of perspectives (e.g., Waters, 2003). A body of scholarly work has described and analyzed the plethora of ways in which ethnocentrism plays out, especially in regard to epistemology, Indigenous traditions, Western-European traditions, and those that have emerged from them (see Kawagley, 1995; Deloria, 1998; Cajete, 1999a; Hermes, 2000; Deloria & Wildcat, 2001; Meyer, 2001; Barnhardt & Kawagley, 2005).
Within the context of science and science education specifically, there has been less work, although the work that has been done is extremely important (e.g., Kawagley, 1995; Cajete, 1999b). Scholars such as Cajete (2000) see Native science in terms of epistemological stances and values, not simply as part of tradition but rather are alive and relevant today. Our own work has documented some of these cultural differences in epistemologies and associated values, and we have incorporated them into our community-based science education programs.
Meyer (1998) frames the importance of epistemology in relation to education nicely. She says,
Epistemology, the study of knowledge, is the starting point for any discussion of indigenous education. It is also a discussion of the priorities and need for identity. Understanding what Native peoples believe about their knowledge origins, priorities, context, and exchange teaches us more about its continuity. Knowing something, then, is a cultural experience that strengthens or fractures culture. (p. 22)
Understanding how “knowing something can strengthen or fracture culture” is extraordinarily “multi-leveled and layered because even the smallest of things that we know” can have consequential impact (see Cajete, 1999a). Clearly, understanding the impact of having children participate in multiple contexts with sometimes conflicting and sometimes aligning epistemologies becomes critical if we are to design effective learning environments that assist children in learning, distinguishing, and navigating epistemological resources and their applications.