Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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4. Scientific knowledge is portrayed as being independent, unbiased, and free of personal, social, and cultural influences such as gender, race, and class (Harding, 1991; Longino, 1990; Moore, 1997). This portrayal of science gives little or no consideration to nurturing, contributions by and topics of interest to women and minorities (e.g., minorities as role models in science, prenatal care; see Atwater, 1994; Howes, 1997; Kahle & Meece, 1994), alternate ways of learning, or whether the “facts” of science could be biased by culture or society. Indeed, any consideration of these aspects of science is often ridiculed as political correctness or a lowering of standards.

5. Science is often taught as being independent of other ways of knowing. This positivistic “one best way” of teaching science often creates problems for developmental education students, especially women (Barton, 1997, 1998), for it de-emphasizes relationships and connections while promoting domination and “command of nature in action” (Francis Bacon, as quoted in Fox-Keller, 1985, p. 34). Similarly, many American Indians learn science best by identifying relationships and changes, observing, and evaluating science in a large context. Although scientists often study natural phenomena within such contexts, science is often taught in a reductionistic way in which natural phenomena are studied out of context (Atwater & Brown, 1999).

The products of these biases are disappointingly predictable: Despite decades of reform, students in developmental education continue to face many unnecessary obstacles in science (e.g., many programs increase boys’ confidence, while decreasing that of women; see Vasquez, 1998). Not surprisingly, then, many “at-risk” students avoid science; for example, women are less likely than men to take courses in chemistry, calculus, computer science, and other sciences. Similarly, more than 40% of students who enter college with an interest in science opt for other majors (Astin & Astin, 1993).

The compensatory “add ‘at-risk’ students and stir” programs implemented to address earlier wrongs have often failed because they have placed the responsibility for science education reform on those already marginalized by science, especially those at-risk students in developmental education. As a result, most students in developmental education continue to feel implicitly inferior and unwelcome in the neighborhood of science. Perhaps these problems are to be expected; after all, the lack of success in science classes by at-risk students has not been due merely to their absence from science classrooms. On the contrary, it has been largely due to what and how science is taught. Because these aspects of science education have not changed significantly, most of the long-standing obstacles to at-risk students remain.

Figure 1. The media has often stereotyped the contributions of women in science. For example, when Maria Goeppert Mayer (a professor at the University of California at San Diego) won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963, the headline in a local newspaper emphasized her maternal rather than her professional status. Photograph and article reprinted by permission of The San Diego Union-Tribune.
New Directions for Science Education in Developmental Education

For science education to be inclusive, we must proactively rethink the nature of science and shift the emphasis of reform from the alleged deficiencies of developmental education students to the deficiencies and biases of science and science education. Only this type of reform will make science accessible to all, including those students who have long been silenced by and excluded from science.

The science education reform that I suggest requires a philosophical change from the current objectivist approach to a constructivist one in which knowledge is constructed by learners rather than imparted by teachers; that is, I advocate a pedagogy through which learners build knowledge based on discovery-based experiences rather than exclusively on authoritative sources such as teachers and textbooks (Roth, 1994). These constructivist approaches stimulate learning by all students because they immerse students in science, show students how relationships and knowledge are situated within the discourses of scientific knowledge and authority, and demonstrate to students the cultural, social, and historical aspects of science, in the classroom as well as in society (Hiller, 1995). Constructivist teaching is also a powerful way of helping students understand science, challenge ideologies that justify inequalities, break silences, and discover the liberating power of science (Barton, 1997, 1998), for it can enhance learning and success by at-risk students. Indeed, just as a change in teaching style and philosophy can enable at-risk students to learn the same science curriculum as traditional students (Minicucci, et al., 1995; Woodward & Noell, 1991), so too can comparable changes such as those described here enhance the success of developmental education students in science. These changes must include changing how and what science is taught.

Changing How Science Is Taught: Emphasizing Discovery-Based Learning

The National Science Education Standards try to improve science education by encouraging that “inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences [be] the central strategy for teaching science” (National Research Council, 1996). Discovery-based activities enhance learning because they make the teaching of science more consistent with the practice of science. Although no one pedagogical approach or technique can meet all students’ needs, discovery-based learning can be a great educational equalizer, for it gives students the autonomy to learn science by pursuing questions and investigations of their own design (Costenson & Lawson, 1986; Sundberg, Armstrong, Dini, & Wischusen, 2000; Welch, Klopfer, Aikenhead, & Robinson, 1981). Despite these benefits, however, little discovery-based learning occurs in most science classes (Edwards, 1997). Indeed, most of today’s science activities are “cookbook” activities that involve little or no creativity, critical thinking, discovery, or engagement.

I urge science teachers to use more discovery-based ways of teaching science. There is much evidence that this will increase learning by all students, especially by students in developmental education programs. For example,

1. When developmental education students are exposed to discovery-based instruction, they score significantly higher on tests that evaluate scientific knowledge than do students given only traditional instruction (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1993). Discovery-based teaching enhances learning (Cannon, 1999; Leonard, 2000; Leonard & Penick, 1998; Lord, 1994; Roth, 1994; Seymour, 1995).

2. Most students prefer and learn more from discovery-based activities, despite the fact that they often find these activities more challenging than traditional ones.

3. Students want to design their own experiments, even if such activities require more work (Edwards, Luft, Potter, & Roehrig, 1999; Morrow 1999). When immersed in discovery-based learning, many students better understand the purpose of their work and learn more (Morrow, 1999).

4. Experimental studies, philosophical discussions, and instructors’ testimonials show that students learn more when exposed to constructivist, discovery-based experiences (Cannon, 1999; Lawson, 1988; Leonard, 2000; Seymour, 1995).

Although discovery-based learning is a powerful way to learn science, it must occur in a larger context that is supplemented by activities that reinforce learning and success, such as personalized tutoring and mentoring, summer research experiences, cooperative learning, open-ended learning experiences, and interactive methods that decrease the distance between the student, the teacher, and the subject being studied (e.g., see Lord, 1994; Project Kaleidoscope, 1994). These techniques are especially helpful to developmental education students, for they help students learn more, feel more confident about themselves, become more motivated to learn, and become more receptive of diversity (Johnson & Johnson, 1987). Each of these teaching techniques makes students a potential teaching resource and enables them to ground their perspectives in experience. However, like other pedagogical tools, these techniques must be used properly to enhance learning. For example, consider cooperative learning, which has become increasingly popular as teachers have realized that traditional instruction in science often (a) encourages students to work alone and in competitive atmospheres (Johnson & Johnson, 1987), both of which can alienate large groups of students; and (b) fails to teach students the importance of and skills necessary for working in groups to solve problems. There can be pitfalls with cooperative learning; for example, the group work involved in cooperative learning can be greatly influenced by race and gender (Rosser, 1997). Moreover, effective cooperative learning requires building positive interdependence and teaching cooperative skills. There is a big difference between merely putting students into groups and designing teaching strategies that help students to learn cooperatively.

Changing What Science Is Taught: Expanding The Pool Of Best And Brightest

Classrooms are not homogenous; on the contrary, they are mosaics of diversity. Consequently, teachers must select curricular contexts and instructional strategies that engage and address this diversity. The traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach to science teaching does not fit all, nor does it necessarily always identify or reward the most capable or promising students.

To increase the success of at-risk students in science, and thereby broaden the pool of best and brightest students, I suggest that teachers change what science is taught by considering the following:

1. Design science courses that actively involve students and their experiences in the guided construction of knowledge in relevant, nurturing, meaningful, and inclusive ways. In addition to increasing students’ knowledge of and experience in science, this approach helps students see themselves as part of science. This approach to science education differs significantly from the objectivist survival-of-the-fittest approach typical of most science courses and programs.

2. Instead of merely transmitting facts, expand the kinds of observations beyond those typical of traditional science courses and research. Do this by defining science within the discourse of human agency and in its larger contexts of culture, society, community, and authority. To accomplish this, teachers must understand the needs, norms, and discursive practices of their students.

3. Make learning more accessible by applying principles of Universal Instructional Design, an instructional philosophy based on a flexible and customizable curriculum. That is, recognize that cultural styles affect learning, and that different students learn in different ways (Atwater, 1994; Leonard, 2000). Expose students to multiple ways of knowing and doing science that reflect social, historical, and political contexts in which science is learned and done (e.g., how federal funding often guides science down self-serving paths; see Howes, 1997; Hubbard, 1990). Emphasize that science is connected to and influenced by other ways of knowing and doing that permeate all aspects of society.

4. Explicitly address the social and cultural biases of science that limit how and what science is taught and learned. Science, and therefore the “facts” produced by science, is not value-free. Rather, science—a human endeavor subject to human bias, ambitions, and social conditions—has a cultural history that often promotes White men and ignores or stereotypes others, as depicted in Figure 1. Although the blatant sexism and racism of the 1960s and 1970s have largely disappeared from textbooks, such biases continue to appear in more subtle ways (e.g., women and minorities are highly represented in illustrations but are absent from the written text; the roles of women and minority scientists are often omitted or included only as a token mention; the concerns of women and minorities are often overlooked; see Dujari, 2000; Kahle, 1985; Kramarae, 1980; Rosser & Potter, 1990; Whatley, 1988). These biases are found in most depictions of scientists (e.g., in films, books, movies, and cartoons; even science cartoonist Gary Larson portrays scientists as men), and often extend to science policy. For example, before 1993, when President Clinton signed legislation requiring the National Institutes of Health to include women and minorities in all of their clinical health studies, there was no federal policy to adequately enforce the representation of these two groups in public health research. As a result, scientists and science teachers often lacked data for a variety of important phenomena that affect women and minorities (e.g., the contraction of AIDS by women; see Link, 1998). Whenever possible, teachers must expose and eliminate these biases by screening textbooks and all other aspects of their courses for stereotypes (e.g., racial, gender-based, socioeconomic), language that is offensive to particular groups, and other features that might distract students from learning (e.g., see Nedergaard, 1990; Rosser & Potter, 1990).

5. Recognize that students must discern a new culture if they are to learn science. A student’s ability to discern this new culture is determined largely by the extent to which she or he can “understand, investigate, and determine how the implicit cultural assumptions, frames of references, perspectives, and biases within [science] influence the ways in which knowledge is constructed within [scientific disciplines]” (Banks, 1982, p. 21). If this is ignored, students and teachers will often be left feeling as if they’ve walked “into a dark cave from which there is no exit” (Reichert, 1989, p. 10).

6. Explicitly and repeatedly show students the contributions of women and minorities in science, and discuss how our knowledge and perception of science might be different if science were dominated by women and minorities (e.g., Galupo & Gasparich, 2000; Zacks, 1999). This will help students develop a critical consciousness through which they can challenge the status quo of the political, social, and cultural dimensions of science.

7. Develop personalized mentoring programs that address students’ primary concerns (e.g., advising, career opportunities, self-image, and self-confidence). Such programs, when properly designed, organized, and evaluated, can have a positive effect on students’ decisions to pursue, appreciate, and enjoy science. Effective mentoring programs benefit everyone, especially women, minorities, and at-risk students in developmental education (Association for Women in Science, 1993; Grant & Ward, 1992).

8. Teach students to communicate their ideas effectively to others. These communication skills can be enhanced by a variety of techniques, such as using “one-minute papers” that summarize students’ learning and concerns, student-led discussions (with faculty supervision), e-mail, and journals in which students write about what they are learning (Hedges & Mania-Farnell, 1999; Moore, 1997). All of these pedagogical techniques increase interactions between teachers and students by transforming the impersonal and monologue-like lectures typical of most classrooms into a more personal dialogue between students and teachers. These dialogues, in turn, help students listen to, contribute to, and work through an ongoing discussion of their observations, relationships, and ideas. Stimulating a dialogue between students and teachers not only gives students increased access to teachers, and vice versa, but also helps teachers understand and address students’ concerns about their learning.

For developmental education students to succeed in science, teachers must change their approach from an objectivist “survival-of-the-fittest” approach to a constructivist one involving discovery-based learning, different ways of knowing, and nurturing. These changes in how and what science is taught will not only enhance learning and promote success, but will also help students appreciate the liberating power of science for solving problems, addressing inequalities, and understanding our world.


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