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Keywords:

  • culture;
  • metaphor;
  • equity;
  • science teacher education

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

Culture has been commonly used in science education research, in particular to examine issues of equity for students from low-income, racial, and ethnic minority communities. It has provided a lens with which to appreciate science classrooms as cultural places and to recognize the importance of students' cultural ways of being as resources for science learning. Scanning the ways that “culture” has been used in recent publications shows that much science education research continues to draw from an older view of culture(s) as a bounded and coherent set of beliefs and practices associated with a distinct social world, referred to as a pluralizable or discontinuous view of culture. This view of culture has been critiqued on the basis of its assumptions of homogeneity of groups and as masking the role of systemic inequity in the marginalization of people from certain communities. This view of culture is often associated with a particular set of metaphors, such as cultural borders, gaps, mismatch, conflict, and tension. Despite increasing attention in science education research to an alternative view of culture as porous and emergent, these newer ways of thinking about culture do not yet seem to have been taken up in research around science teacher preparation. Recognizing the usefulness as well as the limits of the older view of culture as bounded and coherent social worlds, this paper points to other metaphors about culture—such as funds of knowledge, third space, and figured world—that might be more helpful in preparing science teachers. By exploring the metaphors we use to think about culture and how they structure the inferences and actions of teachers and researchers alike, we can envision new avenues of research and practice that will inform the preparation of science teachers for the complexity of our schools and classrooms. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 50:104–121, 2013

Culture is a commonly used concept in academic disciplines that focus on humans as social beings, most notably in sociology and anthropology. Over 10 years ago, Eisenhart (2001a) called attention to changing conceptions of culture and their uneven uptake in various fields of education research. Referring specifically to science education she stated, “culture is rarely conceptualized, and ideas about it—old or new—do not seem to have affected the direction of the reform” (pp. 209–210). Of course, since 2000 culture has become commonly used in science education research, in particular to examine issues of equity for students from low-income, racial, and ethnic minority communities. In this work, culture has provided a lens with which to view schools and classrooms to better understand the experiences of these students. This lens has enabled us to appreciate science classrooms as cultural places and the importance of recognizing cultural ways of being of both students and teachers. The concept of culture has provided a means to examine the interplay of home, school, and scientific cultural practices, particularly as they impact the underachievement of non-dominant groups in science. However, one might still question the extent of the impact of this cultural work on practice and policy reform, as noted by Eisenhart, particularly around the preparation of science teachers.

Much of the cultural work in education has relied upon an understanding of culture that originally came from cultural anthropology and which Sewell (1999) described as pluralizable, in that multiple, discrete cultures are assumed to exist. In science education, Warren, Ballenger, Ogonowski, Rosebery, & Hudicourt-Barnes (2001) explored how a similar view of culture has been used to depict a dichotomy between everyday and scientific sense-making. They described this as a discontinuous perspective, because it portrays cultures as relatively distinct and different. They point to the need to move away from this perspective and to take up a new tradition that “gives way to an articulation of dimensions of continuity between ordinary people and expert scientists” (p. 530). Despite some attention to new and changing conceptions of culture, which come from anthropological and other traditions, much science education research continues to draw from this older view of culture, illustrating the durability of our conceptual systems and language linked to them. Recognizing the usefulness as well as the limits of such a view of culture, this paper points to alternative views of culture that might be more helpful in transforming science classrooms and shaping how we prepare teachers for them.

Communities, schools and classrooms across North America are becoming more ethnically, racially, and linguistically diverse; but, in many locations, schools continue to be highly segregated along racial, ethnic, or economic lines. Technological changes now enable young people to experience the world as a relatively “small” place via the Internet; at the same time, the teacher workforce remains predominantly White and schools continue to adhere to Western norms. In thinking about these complex contexts, Appiah's (2006) idea of cosmopolitanism, as a moral solidarity built around difference, can be useful. This idea challenges us to think about the role of education research, and science education research in particular, in promoting “ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.” (Appiah, 2006, p. xii). Thus, a concept of culture adequate for today's schools needs to address differences and tensions between the experiences and resources of individuals and groups, as well as a vision of classrooms as cultural spaces that are porous and can support cultural fluidity. Carlone and Johnson (2012) recently drew attention to this issue in science education; however, I extend this discussion specifically to the area of research in science teacher preparation, an area that has largely been uninfluenced by newer conceptions of culture. I argue that new understandings of culture may be particularly useful in preparing science teachers to approach their classrooms as sites both of cultural production and reproduction, rather than as sites of cultural gaps and tensions where reproduction outweighs production of new cultural forms, and I suggest that these should be taken up in our research agenda in science teacher preparation.

How we, as researchers, conceptualize culture is reflected in the research questions we ask, the issues on which we focus, and the practices in which we engage, for example in the preparation of science teachers. By exploring the metaphors (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) we use to think about culture and how they structure the perceptions, inferences, and actions of researchers and teachers alike, we can envision advances in research that will inform the preparation of science teachers for the complexity of our schools and classrooms.

Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

Despite its ubiquitous use across the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, cultural psychology, and related fields, the concept of culture has been used in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways. One frequently used meaning that has been critiqued by Sewell (1999) and others (Carlone & Johnson, 2012; Eisenhart, 2001a) views culture as “a concrete and bounded world of beliefs and practices” (Sewell, 1999, p. 39). In this meaning, culture belongs to a society or to “some clearly identifiable subsocietal group” (p. 39), often leading us to attach labels to cultures, such as American culture or middle-class culture. In this sense, cultures are multiple (pluralizable) (Sewell, 1999) and seen as lacking continuity, overlap or complementarity (discontinuous) (Warren et al., 2001). In addition, this conceptualization of culture assumes some degree of coherence and homogeneity within each cultural world.

Concept of Culture in Multicultural Education

The use of culture as bounded social worlds of beliefs and practices to represent the diversity of experiential contexts from which people come is commonplace in education, and it is useful in conveying this variety. One of the early definitions of the field of multicultural education was laid out by Banks and Banks (1995); they stated, “Multicultural education is a field of study and an emerging discipline whose major aim is to create equal educational opportunities for students from diverse racial, ethnic, social-class, and cultural groups.” (p. xi). This and most other definitions of multicultural education are based on a meaning of culture(s) as plural and connected with specific contexts and histories. Judging from the pervasive use of the term “multicultural” in educational discourse, most science teachers probably share this understanding of culture, perhaps concretized by their enrollment in multicultural education courses.

Concept of Culture in Science Education

A concept of culture as pluralizable and discontinuous highlights contrasts between cultures, for example between home culture and the culture of science, and areas of conflict and tensions have been described. Warren et al. (2001) noted this emphasis on difference and tensions when they wrote:

Traditionally, those who have thought about the relationship between particular cultural groups and the culture of science have identified tensions between what they describe as the knowledge, values, and practices of science and the knowledge, values, and practices of children from particular racial, ethnic, and linguistic minority communities (p. 548).

Carlone and Johnson (2012) referred to this as the cultural difference tradition. Arising from this tradition, metaphors of cultural borders, gaps, and mismatch are often used as explanatory models for the lack of achievement in science among some racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized populations. References such as these are plentiful in the science education equity literature and have certainly drawn attention to the experiences of students in science classrooms that do not resonate with and value their resources. Describing school science as a foreign culture for many non-dominant students, Aikenhead and Jegede (1999) used the phrase “cultural border crossing” to denote “the transition between a student's life-world and school science” (p. 269). In classrooms with African American students, Brown (2004) contrasted the culture of science and the culture of the science classroom and examined the challenges African American students face when “assimilating to the discourse of science culture” (p. 824). Brown (2006) put it this way, “Learning to participate in the cultural practices of science classrooms is not an effortless adjustment for all students,” and “engaging in scientific discourse represents a cultural conflict for students” (p. 96).

In order to provide a quick view of the meanings of culture most common in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching,1 I searched for the word “culture” in the abstracts of this journal. This yielded 52 articles dating back to 1995.2 In most cases the term culture appeared with a label attached, for example in phrases such as these: “school culture,” “classroom culture,” “teacher culture,” “traditional culture,” “non-Western culture,” “peer culture,” and the “culture of science.” Other abstracts contained references to gender, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status to denote cultural groups that students or teachers belonged to, for example, “African American culture,” “Mexican culture,” or “Indigenous culture.” Eisenhart (2001a) described similar findings in her review of education articles about culture that were published in two anthropology journals from 1994 to 1996; she found that 90% of the articles used culture to refer to membership in social groups, such as those based on ethnicity, skin color, and gender. The meaning of culture implied in other phrases in the abstracts is somewhat less obvious. For example, “culture and language” was commonly seen. In these cases, the phrase referred to the multiplicity of languages and ethnicities found in schools and classrooms, highlighting the linguistic and ethnic diversity, and again illustrating culture in the pluralizable sense.

This search of abstracts is not intended as an exhaustive review of the use of culture in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching,3 but rather as a glimpse of how authors refer to culture when they summarize their key points, questions, and findings in an abstract. Despite its simplicity, this general scan of abstracts provides evidence of the prominence in science education research of a view of culture as pluralizable.

Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Education

Shifting our attention to research specifically in the area of science teacher preparation, a similar scan of journal articles for “culture” and “preservice” yielded the following results. Searching for this combination of terms in abstracts or key words in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching yielded zero publications. Searching for the same terms in all fields produced two papers since 1995, and only one of these used culture with an equity and diversity lens. Searches for other terms and combinations (such as “cultural” and “teacher education”) produced a few additional results. This is similar to what Bryan and Atwater reported in 2002 based on a broad review of the multicultural teacher education research literature. They stated, “it was rare that we found studies in which the participants were mathematics or science teachers” (p. 834). It appears that this is still the case, and, despite much research across educational fields on the preparation of teachers for multicultural issues, there has been surprisingly little such research published in science teacher education.

The few research articles that were identified as using a cultural lens to study teacher preparation generally employed a discontinuous view of culture and made reference to cultural borders, mismatches, and conflicts. For example, Brand and Glasson (2004) used the idea of border crossing to explore the experiences of preservice science teachers when teaching students from cultural backgrounds different from theirs.

Metaphors in Teaching and Learning

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

Some might argue that this review of language used in talking about culture does not tell us much; after all, culture is just a word. However, in their work on metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) remind us that it is never just a matter of language and that “[o]ur concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.” (p. 103). Though we are not normally aware of our metaphors or conceptual system, our language can reveal much about them and the way they both represent and create realities for us.

A metaphor is a word or phrase through which an implicit comparison is made between one kind of object or idea and another, and in doing so a resemblance is assumed. Because metaphors are rooted in objects or ideas that are more familiar to the user, they facilitate engagement with more abstract ideas.4

Many researchers and teacher educators have pointed to the importance of recognizing and examining the metaphors that shape our discourses and practices related to teaching and learning. In the 1980s, when research on metaphors first appeared in the education literature, this research focused on what teachers do and why they do it. Tobin (1990) described how metaphors for teaching are part of our belief sets and guide many of the practices enacted by teachers. Cadenhead (1987) questioned how the metaphor of reading levels, spawned by the measurement movement of the 1980s, shaped literacy practices and research at that time. Marshall (1990) critiqued the pervasiveness of a workplace metaphor in shaping how we talk about classrooms and challenged educators to move beyond that metaphor. Others have looked at metaphors for learning and suggested the usefulness and limits of them (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991; Sfard and Prusak, 2005). Hager and Hodkinson (2009) pointed out that although new knowledge and metaphors about teaching and learning have emerged from research and theorizing in recent decades, many educational policies, practices, and discourses do not reflect this new knowledge.

This body of work on metaphors in education draws upon the ideas of Lakoff and Johnson (1980) about the power of metaphors to shape our inferences and actions.

We define reality in terms of metaphors, and then we act on the basis of those metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans at least partly in response to the metaphors we use (Cadenhead, 1987, p. 436).

Much of this work also supports the need for new metaphors to emerge in response to changes in society and knowledge development in the field of education generally and science education specifically. Stemming from this, I suggest the need to interrogate the metaphors about culture on which we rely, and, if warranted, move toward new ones.

Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

As previously noted, the view of culture as pluralizable and discontinuous has been a fruitful avenue of research and theorizing. It has enabled research in science teaching and teacher preparation to focus on the challenges faced by teachers and students whose experiences are quite different from each other and the difficulties of understanding and communicating across those differences. But while this model may be useful in some ways, reliance on it, particularly in science teacher education and research, may actually limit our efforts toward equity for non-dominant populations and the elimination of what is commonly called the achievement gap. By conceptualizing culture in this way, I suggest that we are constrained by the very meaning of culture that we draw upon and the other constructs that have come to be associated with it. It sets up several contradictions that can be explored if we consider culture and the related constructs as metaphors. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) described several aspects of metaphors that are salient to the issues that concern us. They pointed out that metaphors highlight certain features while hiding others and that metaphors sanction actions and justify inferences. Thus, metaphors and the images they evoke have great power in shaping our actions and thoughts.

Two features that are highlighted by a discontinuous view of culture are the expectation of difference between cultures and of homogeneity within cultures. This has led to assumptions of fixed characteristics and overly stereotypical notions of individuals who are associated with particular cultural groups. Gutiérrez and Rogoff (2003) called attention to this in their critique of how cultural variation is characterized in education. They stated, “Equating culture with race, ethnicity, language preference, or national origin results in overly deterministic, static, weak, and uncomplicated understandings of both individuals and the community practices in which they participate” (p. 21). They further described how this often creates efforts to attend to cultural difference in schools that are simplistic and that essentialize individuals on the basis of a group. An example of this, which has received a great deal of publicity, is the characterization of a “culture of poverty” (Lewis, 1961; Payne, 1998) to explain the low achievement of non-dominant groups in school. Ruby Payne's work has been used by many school districts (at considerable expense) to prepare teachers for student diversity, but it has been critiqued as based in generalizations and stereotypes that can have undesirable consequences when played out in schools and classrooms (e.g., Gorski, 2008).

Many have noted that a view of culture rooted in difference can lead to a deficit view of students' cultural resources, as cultures are often compared and ranked within science classrooms, whether consciously or unconsciously, and those cultures that are closest to the dominant culture are privileged over others (e.g., Barton, 2001; Carlone & Johnson, 2012; Parsons, 2008). Because metaphors sanction actions and justify inferences, we can imagine in-the-moment actions taken by teachers that are based on metaphors of gaps and mismatches between cultures,5 despite multicultural awareness and sensitivity preparation. For example, when teachers were asked to respond to the question of why African American students achieve at levels below their peers in math and science, the teachers most frequently cited students' culture and community as responsible for this disparity (Lewis, Pitts, & Collins, 2002). Providing further evidence of this, Warren et al. (2001) explained that teachers typically see non-dominant students' everyday sense-making practices as hindrances rather than tools in their science learning. They addressed this further when they referred to educators' descriptions of minority students' home life.

We suggest that … they are assuming that the way these children speak in their homes—their everyday language in both senses—does not contain the same capacity for deep thought, refinement of ideas, or complex argument that they believe is inherent in the language of children of educated parents. They see linguistic, racial, ethnic minority, and low-income children as cut off from important forms of expression and thought, from cultural traditions that middle-class English-speaking children gain by means of their language and socialization (p. 548).

While highlighting cultural differences, gaps, comparisons, and mismatches, these metaphors (as all metaphors do) conceal other aspects of culture. A pluralizable or discontinuous concept of culture obscures the tendency for social worlds to overlap, for resources from one world to be useful in another, and for culture to change. Instead common metaphors for culture create an expectation of contrasts and less expectation that resources and practices from outside school can contribute to learning. In their 2001 paper, Warren et al. summarized how everyday and scientific ways of knowing have been conceptualized in opposition to each other and critiqued how the relationship between home and school science is often viewed as discontinuous and these social worlds as distinct. Thus, the resource-rich nature of students' out-of-school experiences and ways of being is often concealed (e.g., Seiler, 2001).

In addition, metaphors that equate the achievement gap with a cultural gap ignore the role that poverty and other factors play in school performance. In this view, culture gets the blame, rather than focusing on the complex set of social, political, and economic factors that fuel social reproduction. In many cases, this conceals for researchers and teachers the important reality that the achievement gap reflects the socioeconomic history of marginalized groups and is a consequence of systemic inequity and bias reproduced by strong political and economic forces (Norman, Ault, Bentz, & Meskimen, 2001). These forces have resulted in radically different sets of experiences for non-dominant youth and their families and that certainly shapes their experiences in school, but it is not their experiences and resources that are to blame and that is often lost when our attention is drawn to cultural difference.

Other metaphors associated with this view of culture have also been critiqued for what they reveal and conceal. McKinley (2001) pointed to the metaphor of teacher as culture broker and argues that this metaphor leads science teachers and science teacher educators to believe that all they need to do is to learn about “the various cultural practices and/or cultural knowledge so that they might intervene appropriately in a pedagogical manner” (p. 74). However, she notes that this masks the historic and contemporary oppression experienced by certain groups, and “without an understanding of how responses to subordinate groups are socially organized to sustain existing power arrangements, we cannot hope either to communicate across social hierarchies or to work to eliminate them” (p. 75).

Lastly, if we represent culture(s) as social worlds that are associated with particular contexts and are relatively coherent and bounded, then regardless of what we do in schools or in science, the different cultures will remain distinct (due to the very nature of culture in this meaning). To follow this logic, we will always have a cultural gap and, with it, an achievement gap. Thus, while attention to difference and cultural gaps and conflicts has been useful in many ways, focusing on difference has other consequences. Because our metaphors structure how we perceive people and actions, we can imagine that such metaphors set up the expectation among teachers, teacher educators, and researchers that there will be borders, gaps, conflicts and tensions in classrooms and schools, and as McKinley points out, that these can be crossed and resolved in certain ways that may miss more important understandings about reproduction of social divisions.

It is important to note that the recognition of difference between students with varied experiences or from social groups with different histories is not, in itself, problematic. Rather, what is problematic is the labeling and devaluing that is at times associated with a cultural difference perspective and which may be perpetuated by a view of culture(s) as so coherent and distinct that large gaps and conflicts between them appear inevitable. We want educators to recognize and appreciate the array of resources and experiences that their students bring to science class (Seiler, 2001), and I suggest that there are metaphors about culture that may facilitate that goal.

An Alternative Concept of Culture

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

As mentioned, an understanding of culture(s) as coherent and distinct entities is based on an older view of culture represented in classic ethnographies. In his analysis of the meanings of culture, Sewell (1999) problematized some assumptions underlying culture in this pluralizable sense. While emphasizing the significance of resources and practices that are acquired in various social worlds, he called into question the notion that cultures such as middle-class culture, school culture, or home culture “form neatly coherent wholes; that they are logically consistent, highly integrated, consensual, extremely resistant to change, and clearly bounded.” (p. 52). Sewell provided evidence countering these assumptions about culture, and similar evidence has emerged from many science classrooms.

In research in Philadelphia, we documented many instances in which inner city African American students spontaneously used their own cultural practices and dispositions to participate in science (e.g., Elmesky, 2011; Elmesky & Seiler, 2007; Seiler, 2001, 2005; Seiler & Elmesky, 2007). We found that as the students participated in science class, they relied on shared cultural referents and ways of communicating that were familiar to them and employed their own ways of being and sense making. Specific abilities, dispositions, and inclinations were identified as embodied resources among many of the students, and these contributed to new cultural formations, something resembling hybridity constructed with resources from multiple social worlds. Others who have examined schools and classrooms as cultural spaces have found similar occurrences of porous boundaries and cultural production. For example, working in classrooms with students whose first language was Haitian Creole, Warren et al. (2001) illustrated how the students used linguistic and social practices from their everyday lives. And dispelling the myth of a bounded and coherent culture of science, these researchers provided evidence of “profound continuities between everyday and scientific ways of knowing and talking” (p. 546). These kinds of instances and examples solidify an understanding of culture as amenable to “spontaneous or purposeful importation of meanings from one social location or context to another” (Sewell, 1999, p. 51), further troubling our notion of science culture, classroom culture, or any culture as narrowly constructed, homogeneous and durable.

To be sure, there are degrees of uniformity and coherence across social contexts such as science classrooms, as certain essential features and meanings are reproduced, that is, continued and produced again, often in limiting forms. Sewell argues that this coherence is, to a great extent, attributable to institutional power, and the appearance of congruence is likely due to efforts toward homogenization, that is, efforts to organize contradiction and divergence “from the sanctioned ideal” (Sewell, 1999, p. 56). So according to Sewell, the predominance of cultural reproduction in schools (and relative lack of cultural production) is due, not to the nature of culture, but rather to the institution, which relies on ways of limiting the production of novel cultural features and practices. In this way, cultural reproduction is often more common in science classrooms than cultural production, and, as noted by many researchers, reproduction of the status quo in science classes often has inequitable outcomes (Carlone, Frank, & Webb, 2011). Carlone and Johnson (2012) illustrated this in their description of the dramatic decline of a Latino student's (Julio) interest and participation in science when he moved into a classroom in which the norms were inconsistent with and opposed to his cultural strengths and values.

In contrast to a view of culture as a way of life that is bounded and associated with a particular social world, an alternative view conceptualizes culture as an abstract aspect of social life that is both produced and reproduced from systems of symbols and meanings drawn from the participants' past experiences (Sewell, 1999), and as such, is porous and emergent. Eisenhart (2001a) provided a similar view when she described culture as “a set of symbolic and material forms, affected but not determined by history and structure, actively appropriated or produced in groups” (p. 213). Collective meanings arise based on what is inherited and what is imposed “in a way which is nevertheless creative and active” (Willis, 1981, p. 49). Thus, production and reproduction of culture occur in tandem, the balance between them depending on current and sociohistorical structures.

Attention to the ways culture is both produced and reproduced in a particular context, and the role of different sets of socially acquired resources and meanings, as well as systemic constraints on this process leads to a new image of culture. In this alternative view, culture is inherently contradictory, loosely integrated, contested, changeable, and weakly bounded (Sewell, 1999). At the same time, cultural productions, which entail creative use of resources to fashion new possibilities for making sense of and participating in a social world (Eisenhart, 2001a), are anticipated and foregrounded.

While classroom research has supplied ample evidence of truncation of cultural production, as in the case of Julio, other examples mentioned above illustrate the propensity for culture to be porous and for students to use their cultural resources, for example from outside school, even in the face of considerable efforts toward regulation of their behavior. Operating from a pluralizable or discontinuous view of culture, this interfacing between cultural practices would be anticipated and understood as cultural conflict, rather than innovative production of new cultural forms, and teachers would be more likely to respond negatively to it. As explained by Seiler and Elmesky (2007), recognizing that all culture is hybridized and porous enables us to see that neither student culture nor science culture exist in a form that is coherent and without contradiction.

When hybridization is not valued, teachers often act in normative ways and react to micro-level gestures, movements, and discourse of [non-dominant] students as problems to be shut down or dismissed and the oppressive structures become concretized (p. 416).

In this new concept of culture, the emphasis turns from culture as an entity, to the cultural resources that people acquire through participation in various social worlds and the ways that their use is afforded or truncated creating a shift toward either reproduction of culture or production of new cultural forms. Seeing culture in this way, as porous and emergent, has begun to change the things science education researchers pay attention to, as will be shown in the following section.

New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

Illustrating the permeability of science education to new concepts and metaphors, researchers have begun to look to other areas—including new traditions in anthropology and other fields, such as literature (Bhabha, 1994)—for new ways of conceptualizing and utilizing culture in our research. Three concepts best capture the emergence in science education research of new metaphors associated with a view of culture as porous and both reproduced and produced. These are funds of knowledge, third space, and figured worlds. In what follows, brief examples are provided of how each has been used in science education research. Each case illustrates the decreased likelihood, when classrooms and culture are viewed as porous, emergent, and contested, that a deficit view will prevail.

Funds of knowledge, which are “historically and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992, p. 133.), have been used in literacy and mathematics education to build connections between home and school, thus recognizing the porousness of culture. Recently some in science education research have begun to use this idea. Tan and Barton (2010) documented the place of students' non-traditional funds of knowledge as acceptable pedagogical resources in a science classroom.6 For example, in skits on the respiratory system, “community-based funds of knowledge, grounded in the students' lives in their neighborhood took center stage, providing the plotlines of several skits. Street culture and ways of speech are also showcased in many skits and students' everyday lives in their neighborhood became the core content of science class” (pp. 46–47). Examples such as these illustrate the tendency for students' discourses and practices to diffuse into classroom spaces, on their own and when the teacher works to recruit them and to maintain the porous boundaries of the context.

Barton and Tan (2009) used funds of knowledge and third space, which Moje, Tehani, Carillo, and Marx (2001) borrowed from Bhabha (1994). Describing a third space as a “hybrid space where different funds and Discourses coalesce to destabilize and expand the boundaries of official school Discourse” (p. 52), they highlighted the shift toward science classrooms as sites of cultural production as a means to counteract the tendency of science classrooms toward reproduction, in ways that marginalize students from certain social groups. Elmesky and Seiler (2007) also found that hybridity in science classrooms provided opportunities for participation by those traditionally shut out of science. They suggested that hybrid science can arise via cultural production and would combine existing practices and symbols of science with new ones originating in other fields, in ways that create new possibilities for expanded action both in science and in the other fields.

Figured worlds (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998) is another concept originating outside science education but recently finding usefulness in research in this field. A figured world is “a socially and culturally constructed realm of interpretation” (p. 52). Carlone et al. (2011) viewed school science as a figured world. They emphasized new possibilities through cultural production when they stated, “[r]eform-based, equitable school science represents the creation of a new figured world that requires different configurations of cultural resources, new norms and practices, new meanings of competent participant, and new subjectivities and sensibilities” (p. 48).

Utilizing new metaphors to theorize and study how cultural practices from outside of school mediate what happens inside classrooms and can contribute to the learning of students is crucial to addressing current disparities in science opportunity and access, and these new concepts and metaphors move us in that direction. Rather than asking students to abandon who they are when they enter the school door, this research points to the need to see students' ways of being and experiences as resources for teaching and learning and for the production of culture. Building on what students bring to school and on their ways of sense making in science has been shown to be an effective teaching strategy with language minority students in elementary grades (e.g., Rosebery, Warren, & Conant, 1992). Newer studies have looked at what happens when such a shift is made with high school students. Elmesky (2011) and Emdin (2010) both showed the possibilities arising when science participation was transformed to create opportunities for the expression of aspects of hip-hop, a tradition of great significance to the students in their studies.

As shown in these examples, a new view of culture can envision classrooms as places of cultural production and as inherently open (due to the nature of culture) to the inflow of resources from outside and may enable teachers to recognize that the salient conflict is between the competing aims of cultural production and reproduction, and not between home culture and science culture. This highlights the important role of teachers in maintaining that porosity and working against the reproductive bias of institutions such as schools, which brings us to consider the use of these new metaphors about culture in science teacher education research.

A search in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching for these three concepts in all fields produced the following results: funds of knowledge, 11 papers; third space, 3 papers; and figured world, 6 papers—a total of 19 distinct papers.7 Among these papers, 14 focused on the experiences of students or youth, and five focused on teachers. However, several of these five used the term only in the body of the paper, and its usage did not contribute substantively to the theory or methodology of the research. The sole remaining article was the previously mentioned paper by Barton and Tan (2009) in which they used funds of knowledge and third space. In this paper, they described a design experiment to understand how to better “support the teacher in incorporating pedagogical practices supportive of students' everyday knowledge and practices during a 6th grade unit on food and nutrition” (p. 50). There were no papers in which funds of knowledge, third space, or figured world provided a basis for the study of preservice teachers or their preparation.

Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

Research such as that described above, which is rooted in a porous, emergent view of culture and new metaphors and language related to culture, may enable us to move beyond dichotomies such as the distinction between home culture and science culture, while valuing difference in the collective and individual resources of students and communities. Although the number of studies that use this type of cultural lens has increased in science education research, this trend is not, for the most part, evident in the subset of research focused on science teacher preparation, as illustrated in the scan of the literature.

Of course, many concerned with science equity have offered suggestions directed toward teacher education that rely on conceptions of culture that see border crossing and gaps in new ways. These generally include reflective approaches to uncovering stereotypes or learning more about students and their communities. Warren et al. (2001) challenged researchers to look for continuities, rather than incompatabilities and conflicts between everyday and scientific ways of knowing and sense making and to recognize the “pedagogical possibilities” (p. 546) in them. Bruna (2009) suggested opportunities for individual and collective reflection on the knowledge and skills that students bring, on one's assumptions and biases about students and their communities, and on institutionalized forces of schooling. Through many insightful research studies, we now recognize the need in science education for enabling teachers to see difference without deficit and to recognize the uniqueness as well as the collectivity of the histories and resources of diverse students. I have been among those pointing to the need to prepare teachers to recognize and value the cultural orientations of non-dominant students and to look for and create spaces for continuities in cultural practices between in-school and out-of-school contexts. However, specific suggestions of and research about how to do this effectively have been uncommon in science teacher education research.

Despite good intentions and courses in multicultural education, it remains a challenge to prepare teachers to teach beyond metaphors of cultural difference and gaps, and the problem of overgeneralization and essentialization persists in schools (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003). Bryan and Atwater called attention to this in 2002 when they pointed to the need for “developing science teacher education programs that examine and challenge teachers' beliefs about culture, language, and class and their impact on science teaching and learning” (p. 823), but the lack of focus on the concept of culture in science teacher education research and the absence of new metaphors about culture in this field (as exemplified in the research publications in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching) indicate that we may not have made much progress toward this goal in the intervening 10 years.

Despite rich examples in the literature of teachers valuing diverse funds of knowledge and insights derived from new cultural lenses being applied to research in science classrooms, it remains unclear through what means we can prepare teachers to achieve classrooms like these, particularly on a scale that can meet the output of our science teacher education programs. As teacher educators and researchers, we know that much of what teachers do in-the-moment profoundly affects relations with students and that teacher inferences, perceptions, and actions are structured by their conceptual systems. Much research recognizes that conceptual systems are powerfully constraining (Sewell, 1999), leading us to recognize that the actual concept of culture can be constraining as well.

The Power of New Metaphors about Culture

In arguing for greater attention to the very concept of culture, particularly in relation to the preparation of science teachers and research in this area, I return to another attribute of metaphors that Lakoff and Johnson (1980) described—metaphors have the ability to create and define reality. For example, an understanding of culture as porous and emergent can provide a vision of classroom boundaries that are open to the inflow of resources from other contexts and the possibility of valuing them as viable learning and sense making tools. I suggest that changing teachers' views of the actual meaning of culture may be useful in enabling them to teach in new ways. Rather than viewing “the problem” as a gap between the students' culture and the teacher's culture, or between home culture and school culture, or between peer culture and science culture, a view of culture as inherently incoherent and contested can change how a teacher responds to a student's efforts to participate with resources from the contexts outside of school. And research can play a role in this process, by informing practices of science teacher preparation.

In considering where we want teachers to be in relation to teaching students with experiences quite different from theirs, it seems that we need to nurture science teachers with a new meaning of the concept of culture, along with the other approaches commonly called for. The needed shift, therefore, involves not only challenging one's assumptions about students or what is acceptable participation in science classrooms, but also foregrounding new features of and new metaphors about culture. Emdin (2010) wrote about, “the perceived split between the culture of a hip-hop generation and culture of science and science education.” He continued, “I contend that this split is reinforced by the continuing implementation of curricula that separate the urban science classroom from the hip-hop community in which the school is located.” (p. 3). While acknowledging that curricula and school practices must certainly change, I suggest that the perceived split could be diminished by an alternative view of culture as outlined here. As illustrated, we have begun to employ new understandings of culture in some areas of science education research, however, moving to a new view and language of culture in science teacher education is an area where research can lead the way.

Changing Teachers' Concept of Culture

Changing one's conceptual system is not a trivial task, but considering culture as a metaphor yields some possibilities for thinking about how we might attempt such transformation. Tobin (1990) envisioned metaphors as a potential “master switch” (p. 123) for changing beliefs and practices of teachers. He suggested that preservice and in-service teachers can understand their own teaching beliefs through articulating the metaphors they use, whereupon “new metaphors can be constructed to help teachers reconceptualize teaching roles and change instructional practices.” (p. 123). But how are new metaphors constructed? Lakoff and Johnson (1980) explained that metaphors change recursively—metaphors highlight certain aspects of our experiences; new metaphors highlight different aspects; we comprehend our experiences in terms of a new metaphor; the metaphor becomes deeper; and as it enters our conceptual system, we begin to act in accord with it.

If we consider metaphors as a form of knowledge, we can also look to ideas on individual and collective knowledge construction to help us understand how this process occurs. For example, we can consider knowledge construction in a spiral way, from conversion of tacit to explicit knowledge (representation of knowledge in a public form); explicit to explicit knowledge (construction of new knowledge); and explicit to tacit knowledge (embodiment of new knowledge through sustained practice) (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995) Salient in this model is the importance of making tacit knowledge explicit in a public way, the collective nature of the process, and the role of experiential learning and acting upon new knowledge. This fits well with ideas gaining traction in teacher preparation, which stress the need to make learning to teach public through cycles of collective practice, rehearsal, review, and reflection (e.g., Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009).

This spiral way of thinking about the personal and collective development of new meanings makes clear the need for on-going interaction between ideas and experiences. In a teacher education program, this might take the form of iterative engagement with theory and practice specifically tied to a new concept of culture.8 Theoretical readings can provide a language for making tacit knowledge about culture (as a concept) more visible and for constructing new knowledge, for example, through readings and discussions that introduce metaphors (common in some areas of research but less common in science teacher education) such as funds of knowledge, figured worlds, or third space and explore culture as more than a label for people's lives or a social category. Along with this, experiences are key, for example opportunities to see (through video or direct observation/participation) productive examples of the permeability and fluidity of culture and to experience production of new cultural forms both in and outside of classrooms.

Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

In many studies, including my own work (e.g., Seiler, 2001), researchers have frequently employed critical ethnography (Barton, 2001) to document cultural conflict in science. While this approach often shifts the focus away from deficit models of students, this approach also has limits. Many such studies focus on a small number of teachers. This is also the case in teacher education research in general, which “is still dominated by small-scale investigations of preservice teachers' beliefs, attitudes, background experiences, cultural awareness, and conception of multicultural issues” (Sleeter & Owuor, 2011, p. 531). While important in documenting the work of teachers and students in creating new kinds of science learning spaces, this research does not necessarily lead to suggestions of how to prepare cohorts of new teachers for such practices or enable us to understand or identify program components or practices that matter. In concluding their paper on the hybrid cultural space that one teacher created in his classroom, Barton and Tan (2009) highlighted the need for further research to “explore the factors that help mitigate the creation of hybrid spaces in science class” and “identify more teaching practices and pedagogies that foster the creation of hybrid spaces.” (p. 71). To this, I would add that, through research, we also need to provide teacher educators with guidance on how we can ready preservice teachers for such practices and do so within the context of teacher education courses and programs. If we believe, based on research, that metaphors such as funds of knowledge, third space, and figured worlds—ideas rooted in a concept of culture as porous and emergent—have potential for understanding science classrooms and improving the learning of non-dominant students in science, then we should investigate how these ideas can be used in science teacher education.

The knowledge spiral of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) can illuminate some potential areas of research for metaphor conversion (Table 1). Researchers might consider the ways that tacit knowledge about culture is perpetuated, as well as how it can be made explicit and reworked in ways that lead to practice and experience with new understandings of culture (both individual and collective) within teacher education programs.

Table 1. Creating New Metaphors
Metaphor Conversion SpiralPossible Areas of Research in Science Teacher Education
Tacit to tacit knowledge (socialization)Investigate ways that metaphors of culture(s) as distinct social worlds are perpetuated within schools and teacher education programs
Tacit to explicit knowledge (representation of knowledge in a public form)Explore public ways to work collectively with teachers to make the pluralizable view of culture(s) and the assumptions and implications associated with it more explicit
Explicit to explicit knowledge (construction of new knowledge)Design and investigate ways that useful aspects of the pluralizable view of culture(s) can be combined with new ideas, vocabulary, examples, and experiences associated with alternative metaphors about culture to generate a new understandings of culture as a concept
Explicit to implicit knowledge (embodiment through sustained practice)Plan, enact, and study approaches to teacher education that provide practice and experience in acting within new metaphors about culture

Views of culture underlie how we frame research questions and carry out research, particularly in the area of equity and access to science for students from non-dominant groups. But just as science teachers are constrained by metaphors and conceptualizations of culture, so are we, as science education researchers. Moving toward a new view of the concept of culture and reconsidering our common metaphors about culture may enable us to consider new research questions such as: How can the construction of new metaphors about culture (e.g., funds of knowledge, third space, or figured world) change teaching practices? Can these new metaphors promote a non-deficit perspective? Can these new metaphors create a better understanding of the constraining forces of schooling and science on cultural production? And how can these new metaphors about culture be incorporated into teacher education programs in ways that are effective?

It is important to note that a view of culture as changeable and porous allows us to see science in new ways, for example, as a hybrid or third space. This fits with a science education goal articulated by Barton (1998), when she wrote about “reflexive” science where the boundaries of science itself can change. Current metaphors about culture (e.g., cultural difference, mismatch, gap, and border) position science and students in conflict, and, owing to the power with which science is imbued, thereby perpetuate “students and science in a relationship where only students can change” (Barton, 1998, p. 525). Indeed, we may be at a point that Eisenhart (2001b) notes, a point when “we [should] adjust our conceptual orientations and methodological priorities to take into account apparently changing human experiences and priorities” (p. 16). Could it be time to shift to new metaphors about culture in our research in science teacher preparation?

While it is early to enumerate multiple implications for research in science teacher education based on new metaphors about culture, it is clear that working with new metaphors about culture will produce new conceptual means to take what we understand about science teaching and learning from a cultural approach and apply it more explicitly to the preparation of science teachers.

Summary

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

The use of the concept of culture in science education has greatly increased since the 1990s, enabling us to recognize science classrooms as cultural spaces and providing insights into the marginalization of students from non-dominant groups in science. The most common meaning of culture in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching appears to be rooted in an older view of culture as consisting of beliefs and practices associated with a specific social world, and therefore as pluralizable and discontinuous. This view of culture is often associated with a particular set of metaphors—such as cultural borders, gaps, mismatch, conflict, and tension—and assumptions of homogeneity that can lead to essentialization of individuals and groups. Further, this view of culture has been critiqued as linked with a deficit view of non-dominant ways of being and the privileging of dominant cultural norms and practices, thereby masking the role of systemic inequity in the marginalization of certain groups. Of course, I recognize the strong reproductive bias that social structures exhibit and the powerful tensions that exist between teachers and students, particularly in urban schools with middle-class teachers. But, I suggest that these tensions and conflicts are perhaps heightened by expectations and assumptions about cultural mismatch, disadvantage, conflict, and gap that accompany the tradition of cultural difference and a discontinuous, pluralizable view of culture.

Considering the powerful role of metaphors in shaping people's perceptions, assumptions, expectations, and actions, I argue that metaphors associated with a pluralizable view of culture make in-the-moment culturally continuous decisions difficult for teachers, particularly when their experiences are different from those of their students. Concepts such as funds of knowledge, third space and figured world, which signal a porous and emergent view of culture as something both produced and reproduced, are increasingly common in the science education research literature. But these concepts do not seem to have been taken up in science teacher education research nor presumably in science teacher education programs in substantive ways. These new metaphors about culture have afforded new understandings in some areas of science education research and are more aligned with a goal of cosmopolitanism as solidarity built around difference. Recognizing the power of metaphors to shape actions and thoughts, perhaps it is time to investigate ways to move these more transformative metaphors about culture into research and practice in the science teacher education arena.

Notes

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References

1Restricting the overview of articles to the Journal of Research in Science Teaching was considered appropriate for this special issue of that journal.

2No articles with “culture” in the abstract appeared in the journal before 1995. The most recent entry was August 2011.

3There are, for example, many authors who have used the concept of culture in their work, but did not refer to the term in their abstracts, and I refer to some of these later in the paper.

4This is illustrated in the representation of the abstract idea of culture by more familiar ideas or objects, such as borders, gaps, mismatch, tension, and conflict, which function as metaphors and enable us to envision certain aspects of culture(s).

5I suggest that metaphors that evoke images of a dominant culture as distinct and different from other cultures, with borders and gaps between them and mismatches when they do come into contact, might support the tendency to position cultures in relation to each other and to privilege the dominant culture, thus promoting a deficit view of other cultures.

6Carlone and Johnson (2012) associate funds of knowledge with the cultural difference tradition, hence the older view of culture discussed here. However, I see funds of knowledge as representative of a newer way of thinking about culture as porous and continuous, inasmuch as this work positions classrooms as cultural spaces that can be open to ways of being and sense making from outside school and values the novel cultural productions that can emerge.

7One paper used more than one of these concepts and was only counted once in the total.

8It is important to note that understanding culture as a concept is different from understanding “different cultures” or “cultural differences.”

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Culture(s) as Bounded Social Worlds
  4. Metaphors in Teaching and Learning
  5. Limitations of a Discontinuous, Pluralizable Concept of Culture(s)
  6. An Alternative Concept of Culture
  7. New Concepts of Culture in Science Education Research
  8. Concept of Culture in Science Teacher Preparation
  9. Implications for Research in Science Teacher Preparation
  10. Summary
  11. Notes
  12. References
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