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Keywords:

  • empowerment;
  • multicultural science;
  • sociocultural issues;
  • curriculum development;
  • equity;
  • African American

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Social Condition of African Americans
  4. Shortcomings of Current Reform
  5. Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum
  6. Just the Faq's (Frequently Asked Questions)
  7. Notes
  8. References

“Science for All” is a mantra that has guided science education reform and practice for the past 20 years or so. Unfortunately, after 20 years of “Science for All” guided policy, research, professional development, and curricula African Americans continue to participate in the scientific enterprise in numbers that are staggeringly low. What is more, if current reform efforts were to realize the goal of “Science for All,” it remains uncertain that African American students would be well-served. This article challenges the idea that the type of science education advocated under the “Science for All” movement is good for African American students. It argues that African American students are uniquely situated historically and socially and would benefit greatly from a socially transformative approach to science education curricula designed to help them meet their unique sociohistorical needs. The article compares the curriculum approach presented by current reform against a socially transformative curriculum approach. It concludes with a description of research that could support the curricular approach advocated. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., Inc. J Res Sci Teach 48: 301–316, 2011

“Highly educated” Negroes denounce persons who advocate for the Negro a sort of education different in some respects from that now given the white man. Negroes who have been so long inconvenienced and denied opportunities for development are naturally afraid of anything that sounds like discrimination. They are anxious to have everything the white man has even if it is harmful (Woodson, 1933/2000, p. xvii).

For the past 20 years or so reform in science education has had sustained direction as it proceeds under the slogan of “Science for All.” The power of this slogan to sustain science education reform may be attributable in part to its simplicity and also to its widespread appeal. However, the simplicity and widespread appeal of the slogan while offering the benefit of sustained direction also has drawbacks. For example, the simplicity of the slogan opens it to multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretations. For some, “Science for All” suggests multiple representations of school science such that science is made accessible, relevant and interesting to all students (Tippins, Nichols, & Kemp, 1999). For others, “Science for All” suggests a cannon of science goals, knowledge, and processes that all students should attain (Hazen & Trefil, 1990).

As an ideal with widespread appeal “Science for All” seems unproblematic. It appeals simultaneously to science educators who view science as universal, and desire a common science literacy for all students (e.g., Siegel, 1999); and those who view science as multicultural, and desire culturally contextualized interpretations of science that all students could appreciate (e.g., Stanley & Brickhouse, 1994). “Science for All” appeals simultaneously to science educators concerned with the inequitable practices and results of science education; as well as those who view science education practice as a harmless victim of historical inequity rather a dynamic contributor to it. What is more, who could (or would) argue against “Science for All”? In many ways it is a right-sounding slogan that appears to contain all the political, social, and cultural ammunition for reformers to direct the practice and policy of science education almost without question. This is, however, exactly the problem.

“Science for All” is (as political slogans often are) inherently misleading and consequently dangerous. The simplicity and widespread appeal of this slogan has positioned science educators to turn their attention to questions of “How do we attain science for all?” without ever seriously considering the more efficacious question of “Should we work to attain science for all?” Once the latter question is broached, science educators are then positioned to engage in the critical discourse that should accompany reform efforts (Barton & Osborne, 1998; Kyle, 1998; Lee, 1997).

This article is intended to provoke critical discourse by challenging the idea that “Science for All” is an efficacious ideal. Focusing specifically on science curricula for African Americans, this article has a twofold purpose. First, the article aims to demonstrate that the prevailing curricular approach in science education is not likely to meet the social needs of African Americans. Second, the article describes features of a socially transformative approach to science curriculum that is more likely to meet the social needs of African Americans. The idea of using science education as a vehicle for social change is not new. Roth and Désautels (2002) present a range of ways in which science education curricula can be used to promote social change. This article builds on that work by focusing specifically on the science education of African American students.

To meet this twofold purpose, this article is organized into four sections. The first section, The Social Condition of African Americans, describes central features of the social and historical context in which African Americans now function. This section also lays the groundwork for identifying the social needs that a socially transformative curricular approach should address. The second section, Shortcomings of Current Reform, examines the prevailing curricular approach currently being used in science teaching and learning and juxtaposes the orientation, purpose, and assumptions of that approach against an orientation, purpose, and set of assumptions that better reflect a socially transformative curricular approach. The third section, Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum, draws from the first two sections to describe features that a socially transformative science curriculum might have. This section also provides a brief description of a curricular unit to illustrate how these features might be incorporated in teaching practice. The fourth section, Just the FAQs, concludes the article. In this section I present questions that I am often asked in response to the curricular approach advocated. It is my hope that these questions and my responses to them will serve to further provoke discourse on the efficacy of “Science for All.”

The Social Condition of African Americans

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Social Condition of African Americans
  4. Shortcomings of Current Reform
  5. Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum
  6. Just the Faq's (Frequently Asked Questions)
  7. Notes
  8. References

In 2001 Muller, Stage and Kinzie published a study on racial and gender differences in precollege science achievement. The authors based their study on data drawn from the National Educational Longitudinal Study. Among their findings, the authors' data showed that the mean science score for African American 12th graders is lower than the mean science score for White 8th graders (2001). This statistic represents a performance difference of 4 years.

There is probably little that we can infer from this statistic alone about the African American social condition. Fortunately, however, statistics such as this one do not exist in isolation. In a recent essay on the science education of African Americans, Parsons (2008b) suggests that if research with African American students is to have integrity, it must consider their positionality, which refers to the myriad contexts in which African American students exist. Just as African American students function in myriad contexts (including social and historical contexts), so do the schools which they attend, the teachers and administrators charged with their education, the tests which they take, and the gaps which are so often used to characterize their learning. In this sense, Parsons' essay is useful in helping us to realize the importance of putting gap statistics into context.

Muller, Stage, and Kinzie's (2001) work can tell us quite a bit about the social condition of African Americans when viewed as one part of a larger picture. To paint that picture and put Muller, Stage, and Kinzie's work in context I will underscore a few other disparities. There are disparities in education. In 2004 the Schott foundation published a report on African American male students' participation in public education. The report notes that although African American boys comprise approximately 8.6% of the public school population, they comprise 22% of students expelled from school, and 23% of students suspended from school. They are 2.9 times as likely to be labeled “mentally retarded,” 1.9 times as likely to be labeled “emotionally disturbed,” and 1.3 times as likely to have a “learning disability” (Smith, 2004). In 2001/2002 only 59% of African American males graduated from high school with their cohort; and in many larger cities such as New York and Chicago over 70% of African American males do not graduate from high school with their cohort (Holzman, 2004).

There are disparities in labor. By 2004, 72% of African American men ages 20–29 who had dropped out of high school were jobless. This should be compared to 34% of White male drop-outs and 19% of Hispanic male drop-outs. When including high school graduates, 50% of African American men ages 20–29 are jobless. Similarly, by their mid-30s 60% of African American men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison (Eckholm, 2006). While African Americans are 13% of the population of drug users (a number that reflects their percentage of the total population), they are 35% of those arrested for drug possession, 55% of the people convicted of drug charges, and 74% of those sent to prison (Harkavy, 2005).

There are disparities in health. In health care it is not uncommon for African Americans to receive less aggressive treatment for illness. For example, among American seniors diagnosed with depression, African American seniors are twice as likely as Whites to go untreated (Strothers et al., 2005). When looking at infant mortality, it is well established that African American infants are twice as likely as White infants to die in their first year of life. Moreover, there is sound empirical evidence that stress caused by racial discrimination is a major cause of this high infant mortality rate (Collins, David, Handler, Wall, & Andes, 2004).

Drawing on Parson's (2008b) notion of positionality it is important to note that while African American students function in a national context, they also function in a global context. Moreover, disparities like these are not confined to the United States. At times it may be difficult to demarcate disparities clearly along racial lines when looking at such statistics outside of the US. This difficulty is largely a function of the degree to which other nations (a) gather data disaggregated by race; and (b) employ a system of official racial categories similar to that used in the US. Despite these difficulties, we still see clear racial disparities in nations around the globe. For example, in the nine major countries that make up southern Africa (i.e., Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) Whites comprise a grossly underrepresented percentage of the population and are simultaneously grossly overrepresented in land ownership. Moyo (2004) points out that in Zimbabwe “Approximately 4,500 White commercial farmers (0.03 per cent of the population) control 31 per cent of the country's land under freehold tenure, or about 42% of the agricultural land, while 1.2 million black families in Zimbabwe subsist on 41% of the country's area…” (p. 9).

In Cuba, Afro-Cubans were at the forefront in the fight against Spanish colonial rule, yet those who question racial disparity are branded enemies of the revolution. Further, the prevailing party operates under the slogan “No hay racism aqui” or “there's no racism here.” However, beyond this slogan some have argued that Afro-Cubans work in harder jobs, are paid less, have poorer living conditions, are underrepresented in Cuba's governing bodies, and are disproportionately targeted for search and seizure by police (Carter, 2003; Miami Herald Staff Report, 2007; Sawyer, 2005). In Canada, African Canadians face disproportionately high rates of gun violence, job discrimination, racial profiling, AIDS infection, misdiagnosis of and poor treatment for mental illness (Tyler, 2002) as well as what Kurt Herndl, Austrian member of the UN. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, characterizes as “unreasonably high rates of detention” (Canadian Press, 2002).

Neither is Europe immune to racial disparity in the social condition of people of African descent. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality writes, “…there are currently twice as many black men in prison as there are at university. Most black boys of my generation came out of school under-qualified and unemployable. So did our sons. And so, it seems, will our grandsons. The critical mass of failure is threatening to turn this community into a permanent, irrevocable underclass” (Phillips, 2005). Statistics on the high incarceration rate of “black men” and the threat they face of becoming a “permanent underclass” is probably not unfamiliar to those who watch discussions of race in the United States. However, the Commission for Racial Equality is a UK based organization and the “black men” to whom Phillips is referring are African Caribbean men living and working in the UK.

More telling than Phillips' report was the response of European government officials to the riots that took place just outside of Paris, France in 2005. The French riots grew from the disenfranchisement of French citizens of African descent who are, according to Mulrine, Cue, and Grose (2005) essentially locked out of French society, and in many ways “treated like colonial subjects.” France is not the only European country with a disenfranchised population of African descent. Newsweek International (Dickey et al., 2005) quotes Italian opposition leader Romani Prodi as saying “We have the worst suburbs in Europe. I don't think things are so different from Paris. It's only a matter of time.” The serial goes on to point out similar concerns expressed by social workers in Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Germany.

The disparity statistics presented above are very useful in helping us to understand the social condition of African Americans. I will focus my presentation on three features of that social condition. First, the social condition of African Americans is pervasively deficient. By “deficient” I mean that African Americans have more of those things that are bad and less of those things that are good. By “pervasive” I mean that this deficiency exists across nearly every area of human activity (i.e., economics, education, entertainment, health, labor, law, politics, religion, sex, and war). So, by characterizing the social condition of African Americans as pervasively deficient I am saying that on nearly every relevant social statistic African Americans have more of those things that are bad and less of those things that are good.

Second, the social condition of African Americans is not unique to African Americans. The pattern of having more of those things that are bad and less of those things that are good applies fairly consistently to people of African descent everywhere on the planet. So, while it may be relatively easy to accept that African Americans share a common ancestry with people of African descent globally, it should be recognized that African Americans and people of African descent globally also share a common history, a common social identification, and a common social condition. In this sense people of African descent living in the United States have a great deal in common with people of African descent living in Ghana, for example, despite the fact that they may speak different languages and eat different types of food.

The third characteristic of the African American social condition is another way of understanding the first two. In reference to their social condition, African Americans (and African1 people in general) can best be characterized as colonized2 people. As colonized people, Africans enjoy both a quantity and quality of life that is substantially lower than their colonizers. More importantly as colonized people, Africans enjoy a quantity and quality of life that is substantially lower than the life enjoyed prior to the period of colonization. The colonization of African people (of which enslavement was a part) is a matter of historical fact (Rodney, 1972/1981; Sartre, 1964/2001; Williams, 1944/1994) that cannot be credibly disputed. By characterizing Africans as colonized people I am suggesting, as have others (e.g., Fanon, 1963; Packenham, 1992), that the historical period of colonization has not ended. The form has certainly changed, but Africans continue to be colonized people.

The preceding overview of the social condition of African Americans and African people throughout the world provides direction as to the social needs of African Americans that a socially transformative curricular approach should work to meet. First and foremost, African American education in general (and science education in particular) should position African Americans to (a) realize their colonized status; (b) understand how it is maintained; and (c) work to wrest power from their colonizers. It is my contention that the prevailing curricular approach in science education is inadequate for helping African American students to meet these social needs. In the next section I will juxtapose science education as articulated in current reform against a socially transformative approach. This juxtaposition focuses specifically on the perspectives, goals, and assumptions inherent in each approach. The purpose of this comparison is to illustrate how science education reform as currently articulated is inadequate for African American students.

Shortcomings of Current Reform

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Social Condition of African Americans
  4. Shortcomings of Current Reform
  5. Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum
  6. Just the Faq's (Frequently Asked Questions)
  7. Notes
  8. References

The interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them; for the more the oppressed can be led to adjust to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated. Tranquility rests on how well men fit the world the oppressors have created and how little they question it.

∼Paulo Freire

Curricular Perspective

Current Reform

To provide a sense of the widely varying approaches that educators (specifically curriculum theorists) bring to education, Pratt (1994) identifies four “curriculum perspectives.” Two of these are germane to this article. The first is cultural transmission. Cultural transmission as a perspective maintains that the primary purpose of curriculum (and school in general) is “to transmit the best products of the intellectual culture” (p. 9). Current science education reform operates from a cultural transmission perspective. A clear example of the commitment to cultural transmission is found in Science for All Americans (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990).

The criteria for identifying a common core of learning in science, mathematics, and technology were both scientific and educational. Consideration was given first to the ideas that seemed to be of unusual scientific importance, because there is simply too much knowledge for anyone to acquire in a lifetime, let alone 13 years. This meant favoring content that has had great influence on what is worth knowing now and what will still be worth knowing decades hence, and ruling out topics mainly of only passing technical interest or limited scientific scope. In particular, concepts were chosen that could serve as a lasting foundation on which to build more knowledge over a lifetime. The choices then had to meet important criteria having to do with human life and with the broad goals that justify universal public education in a free society (p. xix).

Here I should underscore that the determination of what science content “is worth knowing now” and “will still be worth knowing decades hence,” is not an acontextual determination. This is a determination that varies greatly depending on the culture and worldview of the people making the determination. Science education research (e.g. Allen & Crawley, 1998; Jackson, Doster, Meadows, & Wood, 1995; Kawagley, Norris-Tull, & Norris-Tull, 1998) has shown that various groups of people have come to determinations of what science “is worth knowing” that are sometimes markedly different from what Rutherford and Ahlgern might identify as worth knowing. As it pertains to African Americans, Rutherford, and Ahlgren's determination of what science content is worth knowing is made in a context where African Americans (and African people throughout the world) live under a form of colonialism. So the science content that is purported to be worth knowing now and decades hence is often content that validates and reinforces the worldview of colonizers.

What makes this approach inadequate for the needs of African American students is that scientific knowledge is not a mere vestigial component of the Western worldview. Scientific knowledge (and practice) serves to support and reinforce the Western worldview even as it is shaped by that worldview (Cobern, 1991). For this reason Darwin's work coincided seamlessly with the notion of Africans as a “savage” and otherwise inferior race over 100 years ago (Kohn, 1996); just as human subject research abuse by Western pharmaceutical companies, universities and government agencies (e.g., Stephens, 2000) coincides seamlessly with the notion of Africans as a “savage” and otherwise inferior race as recently as 10 years ago (Washington, 2006).

To position African American students to accept Western Modern Science (or Western knowledge generally) as part of their own intellectual culture, is to indoctrinate them with the very ideas that support their colonization. Woodson (1933/2000) makes this point quite eloquently in Miseducation of the Negro,

The so-called modern education with all its defects does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker peoples. For example, the philosophy and ethics resulting from our educational system have justified slavery, peonage, segregation, and lynching. The oppressor has the right to exploit, to handicap, and to kill the oppressed. Negroes daily educated in the tenets of such a religion of the strong have accepted the status of the weak as divinely ordained, and during the last three generations of their nominal freedom they have done practically nothing to change it (p. vxviii).

Science education informed by a cultural transmission perspective is inadequate for African American students in that it does not position them to realize their colonized status, understand how that colonial position is maintained, or work to wrest power from their colonizers. In fact it actually positions them to think more like their colonizers. This is not to say that African American students should not learn Western Modern Science. It is to say that in learning Western Modern Science they should not learn it as the best product of their intellectual culture, but as the best product of the intellectual culture of those responsible for their colonization.

A Socially Transformative Approach

The second of Pratt's curriculum perspectives, social transformation, stands in stark contrast to cultural transmission. Social transformation as a curriculum perspective emphasizes political and social change and regards curricula (and schools in general) as vehicles for social change. The approach to science education advocated in this article operates from a social transformation perspective. Pratt points out that the primary goal of a socially transformative education is “liberation—developing in students maximum capacity for choice.” Pratt goes on to point out that a people's liberation is incomplete not only as a result of social disparities, such as “economic constraints, prejudice and discrimination;” but also by virtue of how those people are educated to understand (or not understand) the world and their place in it. According to Pratt, “We are also oppressed insofar as we live with false information or incomplete understanding of ourselves and of the world” (p. 13).

Curricular Goals

Current Reform

A second way that current science education reform falls short of meeting the needs of African Americans is in the articulated goals for school science. The overarching goal of current science education reform is to foster a scientifically literate citizenry. The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) elaborates on this overarching goal by identifying four more specific goals.

The goals for school science that underlie the National Science Education Standards are to educate students who are able to

  • experience the richness and excitement of knowing about and understanding the natural world;

  • use appropriate scientific processes and principles in making personal decisions;

  • engage intelligently in public discourse and debate about matters of scientific and technological concern; and

  • increase their economic productivity through the use of the knowledge, understanding, and skills of the scientifically literate person in their careers (p. 13).

I do not wish to leave the reader with the sense that these goals are inadequate for African American students by virtue of what they require. African American students can (as most any student could) benefit greatly by knowing about the natural world, being able to apply scientific principles in personal decisions, engaging in public discourse, and increasing economic productivity. These goals are not inadequate by virtue of what they require. Quite the opposite, they are inadequate for African American students by virtue of what they do not require. African Americans are colonized people; and colonized people who know about the natural world, apply scientific principles in personal decisions, engage in public discourse, and enjoy increased economic productivity are no less colonized people. Attainment of these goals would not improve the social condition of African Americans.

A Socially Transformative Approach

If we acknowledge that African Americans (and African people throughout the world) live under a form of colonialism, then the overarching goal of a socially transformative education would be to ameliorate the colonial structure. The work of critical pedagogists such as Paulo Freire is very beneficial here. These scholars work to identify educational goals aimed at empowering oppressed people to overcome oppression.

There are five specific goals that when attained, better position African Americans to reach the overarching goal of ameliorating the existing colonial structure. The first of these goals is content mastery. Content mastery refers to the degree that African American students are able to exhibit mastery of science content and processes in the way it is prescribed by current reform efforts. As stated previously, the goals of current reform are not inadequate by virtue of what they require. They are inadequate by virtue of what they do not require. So, under a socially transformative science education African Americans should be able to demonstrate mastery of Western Modern Science (like that described by the National Science Education Standards). Mastery of the colonial structure is an important step in being able to ameliorate it. Freire and Macedo (1987) reiterate this point in an essay on emancipatory literacy, “On the one hand, students have to become literate about their histories, experiences, and the culture of their immediate environments. On the other hand, they must also appropriate the codes and cultures of the dominant spheres so they can transcend their own environments” (p. 47).

The second of these goals is critical awareness. Critical awareness refers to the ability to recognize propaganda so that one does not unknowingly succumb to it. It refers to the ability to resist the indoctrination function of schooling. Macedo (1993) refers to critical awareness as the ability to read the world. In his essay critiquing the American educational system, Macedo identifies a wide range of contradictions that Americans accept without consternation. Macedo argues that schools perpetuate a “pedagogy of big lies” by omitting the types of courses and experiences that could foster critical awareness, and also by presenting subject area content in a disconnected way. Macedo's argument has clear implications for science educators interested in socially transformative science curricula. The goal of fostering critical awareness would likely necessitate challenges to conventional notions of what counts as science.3

The third of these goals is racial awareness. Racial awareness refers to the degree to which African Americans understand themselves as members of a group of people of African descent with whom they share a common ancestry, history, social identification, and social condition. Racial awareness also refers to the degree to which African Americans see themselves as responsible for the well-being of that group. Why is racial awareness important? Allen (2004) provides a poignant answer to this question in an essay on the role of whiteness in critical pedagogy. He points out that one of the strategies by which colonialism is maintained, is by maintaining discord and division among those being colonized.

Oppressors use divide and conquer strategies to weaken the collective resolve of the oppressed (Freire, 1993). Whites are especially adept at dividing people of color. Internalized racism is a tool that whites deploy to keep those within a racial group at odds with each other and distracted from organizing against white supremacy (p. 128).

The fourth of these goals is conscientization. Conscientization refers to the degree to which African American students understand how colonialism is enacted and maintained; and how it works to shape their lives. According to Freire (1985), “Conscientization refers to the process in which men, not as recipients, but as knowing subjects achieve a deepening awareness both of the sociocultural reality that shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality” (p. 93).

The fifth of these goals is praxis. In this context praxis refers to the degree to which African American students draw on their mastery of content, critical awareness, racial awareness, and conscientization to identify and engage in behavior aimed at ameliorating colonial structures. While Freire's notion of praxis identifies action aimed at ending colonial structures, Freire is clear in underscoring that this action must grow out of a deep understanding of how those structures are established and maintained. According to Freire,

It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organizing struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection; only then will it be a praxis (1970, p. 65).

Curricular Assumptions

Current Reform

A third way that current science education reform falls short of meeting the needs of African Americans is that it is based on assumptions that are problematic. I will underscore three problematic assumptions that give shape to current science education reform and illustrate their inadequacy for African American students. The first assumption is the assumption of parity. This assumption is explicitly acknowledged in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996).

The Standards assume the inclusion of all students in challenging science learning opportunities and define levels of understanding and abilities that all should develop. They emphatically reject any situation in science education where some people—for example, members of certain populations—are discouraged from pursuing science and excluded from opportunities to learn science (p. 20).

The problem with this assumption of parity is that there is no parity, particularly racial parity. That large numbers of African American students are in schools, programs, and tracks that do not provide challenging learning opportunities is well established (e.g. Oakes, 1986, 1995; Spade, Columba, & Vanfossen, 1997; Thompson & Lewis, 2005). In fact, of the science education research written to address African American populations, a substantial portion of it is written to address disparity in science teaching and learning (e.g., Lewis, 2003; Lewis & Collins, 2001; Lewis, Menzies, Najera, & Page, 2009; Muller et al., 2001; Norman, Ault, Bentz, & Meskimen, 2001; Parsons, 2008a). So, to prescribe a plan for science education that works when all students are included in “challenging science learning opportunities,” while also realizing that large numbers of African students are not included in “challenging science learning opportunities,” is to prescribe a plan that does not work for large numbers of African American students.

A second assumption shaping current science education reform is that (a) Western Modern Science, which is the form of science historically practiced by Europeans (Lewis & Aikenhead, 2001; Ogawa, 1995), is the science about which we should foster literacy; and (b) Western Modern Science is good for everyone. In a chapter outlining major discoveries in the history of science, Science for All Americans (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990) speaks rather pointedly to the first part of this assumption.

All human cultures have included study of nature—the movement of heavenly bodies, the behavior of animals, the properties of materials, the medicinal properties of plants. The recommendations in this chapter focus on the development of science, mathematics, and technology in Western culture, but not on how that development drew on ideas from earlier Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Arabic cultures. The sciences accounted for in this report are largely part of a tradition of thought that happened to develop in Europe during the last 500 years—a tradition to which people from all cultures contribute today (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990).

In spite of the authors' acknowledgements that throughout history “…all human cultures have included study of nature…,” and today people from all cultures contribute to the scientific enterprise, current science education reform limits its conceptualization to science as it has developed “in Western culture, but not how that development drew on ideas from earlier Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Arabic cultures.”

Although the second part of this assumption is self-evident to some degree, it is stated explicitly in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996).

Science in our schools must be for all students: All students, regardless of age, sex, cultural or ethnic background, disabilities, aspirations, or interest and motivation in science, should have the opportunity to attain high levels of scientific literacy (p. 20).

Taken together this assumption has shaped current science education reform such that it is very much an attempt to standardize (in fact Westernize) the whole of science education such that what is produced are students of all races, who know, admire and appreciate science as practiced in Western culture to the exclusion of science as practiced in other cultures.

So, if students only come to know one method by which humans study and interact with nature (that being the way represented by Western Modern Science), it is very difficult for them to be critical consumers of it.4 They have nothing against which to compare it. Such a condition is especially problematic for African Americans. In order to ameliorate the prevailing colonial structures under which they live, they must understand it and be critical of it. It is difficult for them to be critical about any specific scientific practices if they have not been able to conceptualize alternative practices.

The third assumption is that race is insignificant. In contrast to the first two assumptions, the third assumption is not stated explicitly. Instead it is the absence of any overt consideration of race that suggests its insignificance. Whether considering the content, goals, or methods of attaining the goals of science education reform there is a deafening silence on the import of race. Although there are instances where it would not be unreasonable to acknowledge the importance of race, science education reform documents remain silent. Rodriguez (1997) provides a critique of the National Science Education Standards, which underscores the failure of this specific document to address (or at least contextualize) racial issues.

A Socially Transformative Approach

There are three contrasting assumptions which shape the socially transformative approach to science education described in this article. The first of these assumptions is that the science teaching and learning of African Americans takes place amidst pronounced disparity. In fact, I argued that the social condition of African Americans (and African people in general) could be characterized as pervasively deficient; and that the scope of the disparity touches every area of human activity. Moreover, the disparity is not the problem in itself, but rather the manifestation of inequitable social, historical, and political relationships demarcated by race that is most accurately characterized as colonialism.

The import of pronounced disparity for socially transformative science education is twofold. First, in order for science educators to effectively meet the social needs of African Americans we must acknowledge and account for the disparity so pervasive to their life conditions. This requires that the science education we prescribe for African American students meet the unique needs that they have and the unique circumstances in which they live. To prescribe for them the same science education as their non-African American peers would be a great disservice either to them or their peers. It is akin to prescribing the same medication to a group of people who exhibit different symptoms and have different illnesses. Second, leveling disparities is not the overarching goal of a socially transformative approach. Instead the overarching goal is to ameliorate the colonial structure, the consequence of which would be the eradication of disparities which spring from it.

The second assumption begins with the realizations that (a) all human cultures have had means of studying nature; and (b) Western modern science refers to the means of studying nature that is predominant in Western (and Westernized) societies. Additionally, the worldview that supports and reinforces Western modern science is the same worldview that supports and reinforces colonialism. Consequently, a socially transformative curricular approach must position students to critically examine all aspects of Western modern science, including the influence of Western modern science on their own social condition.

The third assumption is that, far from being insignificant, race is centrally important to a socially transformative curricular approach for African Americans. People of African descent have unique needs that are not shared by any other racial (or ethnic) demographic group. Very often in both popular and academic discourse, speakers invoke creative euphemisms when discussing people of African descent.5 One of the more popular euphemistic tendencies is to treat African Americans and (their issues) as a subset of some other group. So we commonly see work framed around “traditionally underrepresented students,” “minorities,” “at-risk students,” “inner-city,” “urban students,” “diverse learners,” “students of color,” etc. Examples can be found in the work of Atwater and Riley (1993), Banks (2005), Boykin and Cunningham (2001), Gay (2010), Tobin, Roth, and Zimmermann (2001), and others who study the educational performance of African Americans. The major flaw with this type of work is twofold. First, it proceeds on the assumption that African Americans and the other students in the newly contrived group share a common condition. Second, it assumes that they share that common condition for the same reasons. These assumptions are rarely tenable. The history of colonialism and slavery alone make people of African descent substantially different from any other group in both their condition and reasons for their condition.

Summary

The perspectives, goals, and assumptions presented here are offered for the purpose of helping interested science educators to envision an alternative approach to science education for African American students. By juxtaposing current science education reform against a socially transformative approach, science educators are equipped to consider how current reform efforts might look different. The next section presents an example of a curriculum unit in order to illustrate what this approach might yield in practice.

Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Social Condition of African Americans
  4. Shortcomings of Current Reform
  5. Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum
  6. Just the Faq's (Frequently Asked Questions)
  7. Notes
  8. References

Having described the social condition of African Americans and having compared the orientation, purpose, and assumptions of current reform-guided science education to socially transformative science education I will now describe five features of a socially transformative curriculum approach for African American science education. Throughout the description I will further illustrate the difference between the two approaches by comparing two curriculums (one representing a reform-guided curriculum and one representing a socially transformative curriculum) that both focus on helping students to better understand “the food system.”

The socially transformative curriculum approach advocated in this article requires that African American students attain five types of mastery for any major science topic. These are: content, currency, context, critique, and conduct. I will elaborate each area in turn. The first type of mastery is content. Traditional curricula in science education focus almost on exclusively on content. That is they work to position students to better answer questions such as, “What is the food system?,” “How does the food system work?,” “What processes are at work in the food system?,” “Where do these processes take place?” One could substitute a wide range of science topics (e.g., cell, atom, electricity, ecosystem, or water cycle) for the “food system” and the guiding questions need not change.

The Center for Food and Environment at Teachers College, Columbia University has produced a curriculum for elementary students titled Linking Food and the Environment (LiFE): An Inquiry-Based Science and Nutrition Program. Readers can find information on this curriculum at http://www.tc.edu/life/index.html. A number of research studies related to the implementation of the curriculum have been published (e.g., Barton, Koch, Contento, & Hagiwara, 2005), as have a number of articles for practitioners (e.g., Koch, Barton, Contento, & Crabtree, 2008). LiFE is a good example of an innovative, reform-based curriculum.

In an article describing one of the modules, Farm to Table and Beyond, Koch et al. (2008) underscore the curricular focus on content mastery.

In “Farm to Table and Beyond,” students investigate the highly technological, complex system that moves food from the farm to the table. To learn about the food system, students are challenged to think deeply about food. What happens to fruit and vegetables once they are harvested? How do we use technology to help prolong the shelf life of foods? “What are the tradeoffs? What is involved in transporting food from field to market?” (pp. 36–37)

The interest in having students attain content mastery is as important to a socially transformative approach as it is to a reform-guided approach. Mastery of content is essential for African American students. To quote Freire and Macedo, students “…must also appropriate the codes and cultures of the dominant spheres so they can transcend their own environment” (p. 47). As such the first feature of a socially transformative science curriculum for African Americans is that it must position students to master content.

The second type of mastery that African American students need is mastery of currency. In addition to being able to answer the question “What is the food system?” they must also be equipped to answer the question “How and where is the food system relevant to mankind in modern life?” This question is one of currency. Again the LiFE curriculum in general (and the “Farm to Table and Beyond” module in particular) provide a great example of a curriculum that works to foster mastery of currency.

We believe that a greater awareness of the importance of teaching about food in science education in ways that link food with its impact on both the body and the continued sustainability of the natural environment is critical. After all, the continued sustainability of the ecosystems on which humans depend is being jeopardized by the rapid rate of change of human population, energy use, and resource use along with polarization in consumption of global resources by rich and poor nations, technology, and pollution, which also contribute to social, political, and economic instabilities (Koch et al., 2008, p. 37).

It is this approach to helping students appreciate the relevance of the food system to modern life that makes the LiFE curriculum so novel. Few science curriculums work to make science topics relevant to such a high degree; and although the specific articulation of how the food system is relevant might provide a source of contention for some, the curriculum certainly aims to help students master currency. It is here that the LiFE curriculum ceases to resemble a socially transformative science curriculum.

The third type of mastery that is important for African American students is mastery of context. In positioning students to master the context of a science topic we help them to answer the question, “In what ways are food systems6 important to people of African descent?” One example of an area of study that could help students to address this question would be the study of food systems in non-Western cultures with a special focus on food systems throughout the African Diaspora. Herein students might explore the types of foods eaten by people of African descent throughout the world. They might also explore how those various groups of people obtain their food, how they prepare it, how they consume it, as well as the cultural norms governing the processes of obtaining, preparing and consuming food (Pollan, 2008).

A second example of an area of study that would address context would be for students to explore the historical development of both Western and non-Western food systems, again with a special focus on the African Diaspora. Students might explore changes in people's use of and reliance on food systems over time. They could explore the ways that social and political changes at local, regional, and international levels impact food systems (Kurlansky, 2002; Pollan, 2006). They might examine how the needs imposed by food systems spurred global exploration and trade (Le Couteur & Burreson, 2003). A third example would be for students to explore the health effects of Western and non-Western food systems with a special focus on the effects these systems have on people of African descent. For example, they might explore the relationship between the Western diet and the high incidence of Western diseases among African Americans (Drummond & Wilbraham, 1939; Price, 2006).

The fourth type of mastery important for African American students is mastery of critique. Herein students must be equipped to answer the question “How can my understanding of food systems help me to understand the mechanism by which colonialism is established and maintained?” One example of an area of study that could help students to address this question would be the exploration of the use of food as a social and political weapon (Josephy, 1994, pp. 371–379). Students might be pushed to think deeply about control of the Western food system and how control in the Western food system differs from control in other food systems. What individuals or companies are responsible for producing food? What restrictions are placed on the production of food? Are there groups who are discouraged or prevented from producing food? If so what means are used to discourage or prevent them from producing food? What is the relationship of those groups to the food producers? Similar questions could be asked about the processing and consumption of food. Racial disparity in agricultural land ownership in Southern Africa and the events precipitating the lawsuit filed by Black farmers against the USDA are two current event topics that lend themselves to an exploration of food as a weapon.

A second example of an area of study that could help students master critique would be the exploration of the relationship between food systems and economics (Schlosser, 2002). The current Western food system requires large amounts of food at extremely low costs. How is this labor demand currently being met? What are the labor and life conditions of workers who move from farm to farm following the growing season and those who work in meat packing plants? What are the racial and ethnic groups that comprise these labor markets? What parallels can be drawn between the labor demand met by the current food system and the labor demand met by the antebellum food system?

The fifth type of mastery that is important for students of African descent is conduct. Herein African American students are equipped to answer the question “How can I use my understanding of food systems to improve the social conditions of people of African descent?” One way that a study of food systems might position students to respond to this question is by empowering them to produce and process their own food. The act of producing and processing one's own food is an important form of activism; and in line with the idea of praxis, this activism should be accompanied by deep reflection. In this vein students might be encouraged to understand this activism as a means of controlling the food system on which they rely. Other ways that a study of food systems could position students to respond to the question of conduct are (a) encouraging students to be thoughtful and critical about food consumption, and (b) engaging them in activism related to food systems (e.g., support of the National Black Farmers Association).

Just the Faq's (Frequently Asked Questions)

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Social Condition of African Americans
  4. Shortcomings of Current Reform
  5. Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum
  6. Just the Faq's (Frequently Asked Questions)
  7. Notes
  8. References

This article aims to demonstrate that the prevailing reform-guided curricular approach in science education is not likely to meet the social needs of African American students, and to describe a curricular approach that is better able to do so. The approach described is intended to position African American students to realize their colonial status, understand how colonialism is maintained, and wrest power from their colonizers. The approach differs from reform-guided science education in its perspective, goals, and assumptions. Moreover, the perspective, goals, and assumptions shape the socially transformative approach described here such that it requires students to attain five types of mastery on any science topic. These areas of mastery are: content (what is topic?), currency (how and where is topic relevant to mankind in modern life?), context (in what ways is topic important to people of African descent?), critique (how can my understanding of topic help me to understand how colonialism is established and maintained?), and conduct (how can use my understanding of topic to improve the social condition of people of African descent?).

The approach advocated here is challenging in that it problematizes ideas that in science education are not typically problematic. It also embraces other ideas that in science education are quite problematic. Consequently, there are questions which I am frequently asked about this approach. In this closing section I will address those questions. In doing so it is not my intention to convert the reader to a prescribed way of thinking, but rather to stimulate dialogue around a set of issues that have not been addressed as it pertains to African American science education.

What is Science? The first set of questions typically advanced in response to the approach presented here pertains to the integrity of the content. One might be tempted to assert that the approach described is more suited to social studies that to science; and that it is more properly in the domain of the social studies educator than the science educator. There are three points I will make in response to this assertion. The first point speaks to the detrimental effects of “hyper-specialization.” Hyper-specialization as Macedo (1993) calls it disconnects disciplinary knowledge from the larger context in which it exists; and from which it derives meaning. The consequence is that our disciplinary knowledge stands beyond critique as the knowledge brought to bear in a critique is outside of the disciplinary boundaries. Very often meaningful critique lies at the boundaries of multiple disciplines, and neither discipline allows space for the critique. So, students wishing to address the use of the food system as a political weapon might be told by the science teacher that politics is a topic for social studies class. Those same students might just as easily be told by the social studies teacher that the food system is a topic for science class.

It is not my intent to argue that hyper-specialization is intentionally used as a tool to truncate critical discourse. I do wish to argue that the consequence of hyper-specialization is that it truncates critical discourse. This leads to the second point, which speaks to the urgency of critical discourse (or critique). If we examine the social condition of African American students, and approach the task of repairing that condition with a sense of urgency, it seems that every disciplinary specialization provides opportunities for critical discourse. Moreover, it is imperative that we engage students in critical discourse at every opportunity. There is no clear rationale for having students wait until social studies class to begin thinking about the world and their place in it.

The third point is that despite the possibility of protestations to the contrary, the approach described very clearly falls under the purview of science. Using only the topics suggested in the description of the food system unit presented in the previous section and using the National Science Education Standards as a guide, students would cover the unifying concepts and processes standard as they explore food systems and the way they vary across geography and time. Students cover the scientific inquiry standard as they examine the research of 19th century scientists like Weston Price, which established the link between Western diseases and the Western diet. Students cover the life science standard as they explore the means used to control food production. Students cover the science in personal and social perspectives standard as they examine the labor demands and resources needed to sustain a food system. Students cover the history and nature of science standard as they examine exemplars of the historical development of the Western food system. This easily covers five of the eight content standards; and the remaining three could easily be covered with slight modification or elaboration.

What research does this approach portend? A second set of questions concerns empirical research that could result from the socially transformative approach advocated here. In response to this set of questions I will first underscore the purpose of any related empirical research. One tendency we have as researchers is to collect data that we use to evaluate the effectiveness of novel instructional or curricular approaches. Very often the standard of effectiveness is not problematic. What I have worked to do is to problematize a very common standard of effectives: the reform model of science education. Consequently, any evaluation of a socially transformative approach that evaluates effectiveness of the approach according to prevailing science education reform misses the point.

If we are going to evaluate effectiveness, a more appropriate standard would be the degree to which students are better positioned to recognize their colonized status, understand how it is maintained and work to wrest power from their colonizers. In this respect the goals of the socially transformative approach provide concrete markers for effectiveness. We could ask, “How effective is Curriculum A in moving students to racial awareness?,” “What questioning strategies are most useful in helping students to move towards conscientization?,” “Do students respond more readily when activities that foster praxis precede those that require content mastery?”

In addition to work that evaluates the effectiveness of this approach there is a substantial need for brain work that extends beyond data collection. Implementation of a socially transformative approach requires more than superimposing an “anti-colonial” curriculum over colonial schooling structures. So the type of brain work needed is that which would enable restructuring of (or circumnavigating) the colonial structures that exist in our current system of schooling. For example, issues of teacher resistance would need to be addressed. What teachers might effectively implement a socially transformative curriculum for African American students? What types of reward systems would help to support these teachers? What educational experiences would support these teachers as they develop broader conceptualizations of science content?

Issues of school structure and space allocation would need to be addressed. How could physical space, schedule space and curricular space be allocated to support African American students as they take specially designed science courses? What structural systems can be implemented to ensure that students taking these science courses are not stigmatized? Curriculums and curriculum support material would also need to be written.

Without question, the task of implementing the approach described here is substantial. It requires in part a restructuring of the schooling system as it exists. But more importantly it requires a restructuring of our understanding of the schooling system that exists. That is a task for the science educator who is moved to sacrifice in an effort to improve the condition of African people. To use Woodson's (1933/2000) words,

If the “highly educated” Negro would forget most of the untried theories taught him in school, if he could see through the propaganda which has been instilled into his mind under the pretext of education, if he would fall in love with his own people and begin to sacrifice for their uplift—if the “highly educated” Negro would do these things, he could solve some of the problems now confronting the race (p. 44).

Notes

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Social Condition of African Americans
  4. Shortcomings of Current Reform
  5. Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum
  6. Just the Faq's (Frequently Asked Questions)
  7. Notes
  8. References

1By African I am referring to people of African descent globally, whether African Canadian, African American, Afro-Cuban, French nationals with African ancestry, or others.

2When I invoke the term “colonized” or “colonization” I am referring to the practice of domination which involves the subjugation of one people to another. This practice has many labels such as oppression (Freire, 1970), racism white supremacy (Welsing, 1995), and institutional racism (Feagin & Sikes, 1994). For consistency I have chosen to use the term “colonization” and its derivatives throughout this article.

3This notion of what counts as science will be addressed in more detail in sections three and four of this article.

4This argument is worked in out in much greater detail in a themed issue of Science Education (Cobern, 2001).

5The interested reader might consult an essay by Hilliard (1988) wherein he provides a cogent argument on the use of euphemistic discourse in education and its negative consequence.

6The reference to “food systems” as opposed to “the food system” is an overt acknowledgement that all groups of people have developed systems of producing, processing and consuming food; and that where pedagogy is concerned, the Western approach should not be treated as though it exists in isolation or as normative.

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  2. Abstract
  3. The Social Condition of African Americans
  4. Shortcomings of Current Reform
  5. Features of a Socially Transformative Science Curriculum
  6. Just the Faq's (Frequently Asked Questions)
  7. Notes
  8. References
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