Multiculuralism in the Science Classroom
I thought about multiculturalism in my classess in a couple of different ways. The first is how the cultural make-up of my students and myself afftected how I taught my classes. The second is how I attempted to teach students to be aware and thoughtful of the effect of culture and society on the scientific process and the interprestation of scientific findings.
Dealing with differences in the classroom
Race and Ethnicity
At Friends Select, all of my classes were racially and ethnically
mixed, although all students seemed to be fairly well assimilated
into a white, middleclass culture. Given the small size of the school
and the emphasis placed on acceptance and friendship, I observed few
isolated racial or ethnic cliques in either the upper or middle school.
Friendships often seemed to cross these lines and were established
more on the basis of years spent at the school, being in the same
grade and/or mutual interests (sports, theater etc.). In my classes,
there were a handful of ESL students from countries such as Korea,
China and Sierra Leone. Although these students struggled with the
language and vocabulary, they were well accepted by their classmates
who often assisted them without being asked.
Most of my classes also had an equal number of male and female students.
In these classes I found that no one gender tended to dominate the
class, but rather that there were certain individuals that tended
to actively contribute and other who hung back. However, I my marine
biology class and my two sixth grade physical science classes were
comprised of over 75% female students. In these classes, I found that
the female students tended to dominate the class discussions, whereas
the male students often hung back and sometimes seemed distracted
I knew that on a basic level, I needed to acknowledge and deal with
differences in attitudes, strengths and learning styles that arose
from ethnic, racial and gender differences within my classes. I did
Had my class been more diverse or less attuned to a common culture, or
had I been of a very different culture from the majority of my students,
Iwould have had to have made changes in my approach. I would have needed
to have observed the school and classroom culture more closely before
beginning teaching and made a strong effort, at least initially, to maintain
a structure that students were accustombed to and undestood, even if it
felt foreign to me. I would have needed to spend more explict class time
on making my expectations and understandings clear. Not to do so would
inhibit communication across cultural boundaries. Depending on how the
students interacted with each other, I may also have needed to devote
more classroom time to creating situations in which students practiced
listening to each other and respecting each others' differences of opinions
and ideas. I may also have been more conscious of building group work
activities and activities and labs which had direct implications on students'
lives into my curriculum.
Science and Society: Creating awareness
A false sense of objectivity
As scientists, we are taught to believe that our disciplines are,
or at least, strive to be, objective and therefore, isolated from
the effects of culture and society. It is easy, as a science teacher
to dismiss or overlook the effects of culture, values and beliefs
on scientific research and the teaching of science. However, to do
so limits the level of understanding students are able to obtain within
the scientific disciplines and the scientific process. In fact, culture
and society affect every aspect of science. They are the forces that
shape the questions that are asked, the approaches that are developed
to answer these questions and, most importantly, how data, observations
and results are interpreted. These interpretations evolve into discoveries
that, in turn, shape the knowledge, actions and attitudes of society.
Students, Science and Society
The most common moan and groan regarding science that I heard from
my students was that there were so many things to memorize!
so many facts, terms, formulas and sequences of events, from the steps
of DNA replication to the stages in the development of an embryo.
Although I agree that it is true that students must learn these facts,
it is the process of doing science that should be the more central
focus of science classes. However, just being involved in the process,
is not enough either. I found that my students often lacked a self-awareness
of the assumptions, shaped by their own culture and experiences, that
they made when asking questions, designing experiments and interpreting
data. The students also readily accepted others' scientific findings
and opinions without any kind of critical questioning. I found that
fostering this self-awareness and critical thought became one of my
primary goals in creating a multicultural approach within my classroom.
By demanding that my students become more metacognatively aware and
see science as affected and shaped by society, they would come closer
to understanding their own cultural differences.
I worked to implement this approach into my classroom in the following ways:
There were a couple of labs and activities in which I made a special effort to encourage self-awareness and critical attitudes in my students. These lessons were Testing for the Mozart Effect with my sixth grade physical science classes and a project on environmental issues in Philadelphia with my seventh grade classes.