Renegotiating the Culture of School Science

Draft: January 26, 2000

Glen S. Aikenhead

College of Education

University of Saskatchewan

Saskatoon, SK, S7N 0W0


A chapter in a forthcoming book dedicated to the memory of Ros Driver

Improving Science Education: The Contribution of Research

edited by

Robin Millar, John Leach, and Jonathan Osborne

Open University Press

This chapter presents a view of school science that emphasizes the interaction between Western science and the culture of students. A student's experience with school science is seen as a cultural event that strives to help students create new meaning about their world in terms of their cultural identity. I argue that only by taking a pluralistic cultural approach can the goal 'science for all' be attained.

The chapter shares with other chapters the rejection of school science that simply promotes social screening to maintain a privileged status quo (Apple, 1996) -- 'science for an elite.' However, the chapter moves beyond our current thinking about social constructivism particularly the enculturation of all students into Western science (Driver et al., 1994). Instead I offer a pluralistic multi-science approach for school science and the enculturation of students into their own life-worlds where their cultural identities form and evolve.

This innovation may seem controversial to some. My proposal to treat school science as a cultural phenomenon amounts to renegotiating what counts as scientific literacy in the school curriculum. The cultural literacy proposed in this chapter defines new territory for teaching and learning (in the tradition of Ros Driver's professional accomplishments), and is firmly grounded in an emerging research programme, cultural studies in science education (e.g. Aikenhead, 2000; Aikenhead and Jegede, 1999).

In a millennium publication, Beyond 2000, Millar and Osborne (1998: 2008) defined a scientifically literate person as one who is 'able to engage with the ideas and views which form such a central part of our common culture.' The phrase 'our common culture' inadvertently and tacitly casts the agenda for school science in terms of a mono-culture in which material progress is linked to the success of Western science -- science for a privileged class who determines what that mono-culture will be. Understandably Western science is therefore privileged knowledge in most schools. An alternative agenda views society as comprising many cultures and subcultures, each with an ideological agenda and each with a stake in what counts as knowledge in school science. By embracing this pluralistic cultural perspective on school science, we are open to hearing the voices of those conventionally under-represented. This cultural perspective frames a science-for-all purpose for school science, a purpose Millar and Osborne persuasively advocated.

A cultural perspective on science education is founded on several assumptions listed but not fleshed out here: (1) Western science is a cultural entity itself, one of many subcultures of Euro-American society; (2) people live and coexist within many subcultures identified by, for example, language, ethnicity, gender, social class, occupation, religion and geographic location; and people move from one subculture to another, a process called 'cultural border crossing;' (3) people's core cultural identities may be at odds with the culture of Western science to varying degrees; (4) science classrooms are subcultures of the school culture; (5) most students experience a change in culture when moving from their life-worlds into the world of school science; therefore, (6) learning science is a cross-cultural event for these students; (7) students are more successful if they receive help negotiating their cultural border crossings; and (8) this help can come from a teacher (a culture broker) who identifies the cultural borders to be crossed, who guides students back and forth across those borders, who gets students to make sense out of cultural conflicts that might arise, and who motivates students by drawing upon the impact Western science and technology have on the students' life-worlds (not upon the contribution Western science and technology have made to a mono-culture determined by a privileged class). On the other hand, some students (called 'Potential Scientists;' Costa, 1995) have identities and abilities that harmonize so closely with the culture of Western science that border crossing into school science is so smooth borders do not exist for them. The assumptions posited here are described in detail in Aikenhead (1996, 1997), Aikenhead and Jegede (1999) and Jegede and Aikenhead (1999).

A cultural perspective on school science is an unorthodox view for most science teachers, but it may turn out to be more intuitively practical than other perspectives on learning found in the research literature because in our daily lives we frequently move from one subculture to a quite different one (e.g. from a family setting to a parent-teacher meeting at school). As we do this, we negotiate cultural differences between the two social settings. Science teachers are intuitively familiar with this type of cultural phenomenon. The challenge will be to persuade teachers to transfer this intuition to classroom instruction.

What does it mean to treat school science as a cultural phenomenon? An answer is formulated here in two parts. First, student learning is described in three different ways, giving emphasis to a cultural way that celebrates the process 'coming to knowing.' Then the political dimensions of this innovation are explored in practical terms of power and influence over what counts as 'science' in the school science curriculum.

Levels of Meaning Found in School Science

Three levels of meaning described here range from (1) a shallow level, to (2) an in-depth level, and to (3) an even richer level that has cultural significance to students.

Shallow Learning

A superficial level of meaning of science tends to occur when a teacher's goal is simply to cover the curriculum for assessment purposes. For instance, Loughran and Derry (1997) found superficiality when they investigated students' reactions to a science teacher's concerted effort to teach for 'deep understanding.'

The need to develop a deep understanding of the subject may not have been viewed by them [the students] as being particularly important as progression through the schooling system could be achieved without it. In this case such a view appears to have been very well reinforced by Year 9. This is not to suggest that these students were poor learners, but rather that they had learnt how to learn sufficiently well to succeed in school without expending excessive time or effort. (p. 935)

Their teacher lamented, 'No matter how well I think I teach a topic, the students only seem to learn what they need to pass the test, then, after the test, they forget it all anyway' (p. 925).

This age-old problem of superficial learning was systematically studied by Larson (1995) when conducting research into students' unintended learning. She found students in a high school chemistry class who actually told her the rules they followed so they could pass Mr. London's chemistry class without really understanding much of chemistry. Larson called these rules 'Fatima's rules,' named after the most articulate informant in the class. For example, one of the rules advises us not to read the textbook but to memorize its bold faced words and phrases. Fatima's rules can include such coping or passive-resistance mechanisms as 'silence, accommodation, ingratiation, evasiveness and manipulation' (Atwater, 1996: 823). Meaningful learning does not result, but instead, mere 'communicative competence' (Kelly and Green, 1998). Gunstone and White (this volume) call it 'the game of schooling.' From a cultural perspective, Medvitz (1996: 5) recognized this as 'an accoutrement to specific rituals and practices of the science classroom.' Fatima's rules apply to most school subjects, of course, not just to science.

Students are not the only ones to play Fatima's rules, however. Classroom rituals and practices are usually staged by teachers. Tobin and McRobbie (1997: 366) documented a teacher's complicity in Fatima's rules: 'There was a close fit between the goals of Mr. Jacobs and those of the students and satisfaction with the emphasis on memorisation of facts and procedures to obtain the correct answers needed for success on tests and examinations.' Costa (1997) synthesized the work of Larson (1995) and Tobin and McRobbie (1997) with her own classroom research with Mr. Ellis, and concluded:

Mr. Ellis' students, like those of Mr. London and Mr. Jacobs, are not working on chemistry; they are working to get through chemistry. The subject does not matter. As a result, students negotiate treaties regarding the kind of work they will do in class. Their work is not so much productive as it is political. They do not need to be productive -- as in learning chemistry. They only need to be political -- as in being credited for working in chemistry. (p. 1020)

The three teachers (Ellis, London and Jacobs) exemplify the superficial teaching that can pass as legitimate instruction. This superficiality seems to be the status quo for many science classrooms worldwide (Black, this volume; Cross, 1997; Roth et al., 1999).

Some teachers may not realize the pervasive power of Fatima's rules. For instance, Meyer (1998) documented a grade 12 physics teacher's negative reaction to a student's 'success.' In the student's own words:

I remember physics. We had to do a provincial exam. I had failed the first term and I got 53 on the second term but the provincial exam counted 100% in the end. So the week before I sat down with the physics book and memorized, wrote the exam.... It's all gone now. But I got 82%. I remember my physics teacher being so upset with me because he didn't know how I did it. (p. 464)

In summary, a superficial level of meaning for school science focuses on language and content to pass standardized assessments. This serves students, teachers and parents who subscribe to the narrow goal of simply accumulating credentials for leaving school. Students and teachers will often go through the motions to make it appear as if meaningful learning has occurred, but at best, rote memorization of key terms and processes is only achieved temporarily (Fensham, this volume). This I call 'playing Fatima's rules.'

In-Depth Meaning Making

An in-depth level of meaning for a school science generally rejects Fatima's rules. This perspective is represented by most chapters in this book and is summarized here only for the purpose of contrasting it with a cultural perspective on school science.

The role of the curriculum is to 'help people in decision-making...and in feeling empowered to hold and express a view on issues which enter the arena of public debate' (Millar and Osborne, 1998: 2007). Hurd (1998) has made a similar proposal for school science. This level of meaning serves a small proportion of students (Potential Scientists; Costa, 1995) who are predisposed to acquiring an in-depth understanding of natural phenomena from a Western science point of view, a point of view that harmonizes with those students' worldviews. Teachers, however, are often faced with the challenge of motivating the rest of the students whose worldviews are quite different.

When in-depth meaning making is the goal, teachers will engage students in the construction of scientific knowledge. Worldwide, Gallagher (1998: 4) concluded, 'Another common element of science teaching is persuading students to embrace abstract scientific concepts as valid representations of the natural world, replacing common sense concepts they have constructed or learned from others.'

In contrast to this simple concept-replacement model of meaning making, a more sophisticated concept-proliferation model suggests that a new (scientific) concept is constructed within a new (scientific) context and added to a student's repertoire of specific contexts (Solomon, 1983) or to a student's 'conceptual profile' (Mortimer, 1995). Driver et al. (1994: 9) concur: 'We would not expect students necessarily to abandon their commonsense ideas as a result of science instruction.' Hewson and Lemberger (this volume) present evidence of concept-proliferation occurring when students learned to use several genetic models.

Solomon (1987) advanced the view that making meaning in school science should include the social construction of knowledge. Driver and her colleagues (1994) described the process this way:

Making meaning is ... a dialogic process involving persons-in-conversation, and learning is seen as the process by which individuals are introduced to a culture by more skilled members. ....The challenge lies in helping learners to appropriate these [Western scientific] models for themselves, to appreciate their domains of applicability and, within such domains, to be able to use them... The challenge is one of how to achieve such a process of enculturation successfully in the round of normal classroom life. (p. 7, italics added)

A social constructivist view of learning with its emphasis on 'enculturation' enjoys wide support from university science educators, including most authors of this book. However, as argued in the next section, the social constructivist view is limited by its preoccupation to enculturate all students into Western science.

Learning as a Cultural Phenomenon

I have argued elsewhere (Aikenhead, 1996) enculturation into Western science supports only those students (Potential Scientists) whose cultural identities harmonize with the culture of Western science. What happens to the vast majority of students who do not fit this description? When placed in a classroom where enculturation was the intended process, these students mistook enculturation as attempts at assimilation (forcing students to replace or marginalize their commonsense notions with scientific ones) even when concept-replacement was not their teacher's goal (Aikenhead, 1996). Concept-proliferation seems to fail when teachers, even social constructivist teachers, attempt to enculturate all students. Most students react by playing Fatima's rules.

A cultural perspective attempts to avoid the enculturation/assimilation pitfall wherein 'students are socialized into a particular community of knowledge, a process described as a cultural apprenticeship' (Driver et al., 1994: 11). Brickhouse, Lowery and Schultz (in press) argue that this community of practising scientists is too distant and irrelevant for most students, and that schools conventionally define this community of scientists too narrowly by ignoring the network of people who represent other communities of practice that interact with Western science, communities more in line with students forging personal identities.

To avoid inadvertent assimilation we need to expand (not replace) social constructivism into a cultural anthropological understanding of school science. We need to join Pickering (1992) and others in recognising Western science as a subculture itself. We need to treat learning as a culture-making process that engages students in who they are and where they are going (Stairs, 1993/94), not unlike other school subjects such as Language Arts. This cultural perspective differs from the social constructivist view of enculturation in which 'learners are supported in using scientific ways of knowing through social processes, making personal sense of scientific representations of phenomena in terms of their existing everyday knowledge' (Leach et al., 1997: 161). Although this view of enculturation is thoughtfully associated with everyday knowledge, it places Western science at the focus of instruction without acknowledging the cultural nature of science nor the need by most students to gain access to Western science through cultural border crossing. There are other learning processes besides enculturation. For instance, Aikenhead (1997) proposed autonomous acculturation and 'anthropological' learning that emphasize cross-cultural school science. These alternatives are associated with students' cultural identities.

Social constructivism and culture making have other defining differences in addition to the role played by enculturation in school science.

Culture making focuses on how various cultures and subcultures make different meanings of the natural world, including (but not limited to) the subculture of Western science. The meaning of 'science' in school science has now shifted from the conventional Western science found in social constructivism, to a multicultural meaning -- 'a rational perceiving of reality' (Ogawa, 1995: 588). Ogawa delineated several sciences that can function in the life of a student, all of which may have valid contexts for their use. Contexts include, for example, a student's own cultural identity, a community's indigenous or commonsense culture (including a community's notion of Western science), the domain of citizenship ('citizen science;' Jenkins, this volume; Layton et al., 1993) and the culture of Western science (including its impact on the other cultures). This pluralistic, multi-science, cultural perspective encompasses and extends a sociological constructivist view of meaning making. A cultural perspective shares with Driver et al. (1994: 11) the challenge to foster 'a critical perspective on scientific culture among students' by a teacher who acts as a 'tour guide mediating between children's everyday world and the world of science.' It also shares with Driver et al. the challenge to help students appropriate Western science for themselves and appreciate the domains within which Western science is applicable. But a cultural approach does not insist that every student proficiently use Western scientific knowledge in those domains, as enculturation does in a social constructivist approach.

Ogawa's (1995) multi-science view does not reject Western science by replacing it with other sciences (i.e. concept replacement). A multi-science view adds contexts to a student's repertoire of life-world contexts, with each context having an identifiably different view of natural phenomena (i.e. concept proliferation). This is a pluralistic, not a relativistic, account of natural phenomena. (A similar conclusion from a phenomenological perspective is advanced by Erickson, this volume.)

A simplified vignette will illustrate some features of this multi-science view. A child throws a ball into the air and catches it. Gunstone (1988) used this situation to illustrate constructivism. A diagram defined three points: (A) the ball rising, (B) the ball at the top of its arch, and (C) the ball falling. Students were asked, 'whether the force on the ball was up, down, or zero for the three positions shown on the diagram' (p. 74). In multi-science instruction students might be asked: What does our everyday common sense tell us about the force on the ball at positions A, B and C? The students' responses (typically: up, zero and down, respectively) are recorded on a chalk board with the left-hand side entitled, for instance, 'commonsense culture.' We know from research that the most frequent commonsense concept of force is equivalent to the scientific concept of momentum (Barbetta et al., 1985). Thus, the right-hand side of the chalk board (entitled 'culture of Western science') is introduced by the teacher who engages students in a need to communicate with a scientist, thus creating the need to know the term 'momentum' (rather than 'force') in the context of Western science discourse. A scientist would describe the momentum at A, B and C as pointing up, zero and down, respectively. Other activities (e.g. using balls with different masses and thrown at different speeds) are carried out, just as they would in a social constructivist classroom (Driver et al., 1994). Border crossing between the everyday world (left-hand side) and the world of Western science (right-hand side) is made smoother for students who (if forced to fend for themselves) would normally find the border crossing hazardous (Costa, 1995) and would tend to react by playing Fatima's rules (Aikenhead, 1996).

But the communication with a scientist does not end there. A puzzle is introduced by a teacher: 'Scientists imagine that something is tugging on the ball in the same direction (downwards) at A, B and C. What might that something be?' Of all the student responses, the one that is useful to scientists is the pull of gravity. Perhaps a foreign concept is being introduced to many students here, but it is contextualized within the culture of Western science (concept-proliferation). In the culture of science this pull of gravity is called a 'force.' A student's notebook page might look like Table 1. The Newtonian abstraction of force may be an interesting puzzle for the relatively few students who desire enculturation into Western science (Potential Scientists). For all students, however, the obvious double definition of 'force' would be discussed, along with other situations familiar to students in which the same word has completely different meanings depending on the context (see Gough, 1998, for several science examples). Further group activities are needed for students to use the various concepts and to practise border crossings back and forth between commonsense and Western science subcultures. Whenever someone uses the word 'force' in the science classroom, the speaker must somehow indicate which subculture, or which science, they are speaking in. In such conversations, students should not feel like an apprentice being encultured into Western science, but rather, they should feel a need to improve their personal understanding of their world, perhaps by acting like an anthropologist discovering things about a foreign culture. The example of the ball has only addressed two subcultures (common sense and Western science) and not a wider range of cultures as illustrated later in an example about summer clothes.


Table 1 fits here.


The issue of different discourses between subcultures is just one of many issues that arise when border crossing is made explicit for students. The domains of discourse analysis and language structure (Applebee, 1996; Bell, this volume; Gee, 1996), for instance, are generally encompassed by a cultural perspective, along with many other features of culture to which students must attend. For example, when consciously moving back and forth between different subcultures, in addition to switching their discourse and language structures, students often need to switch certain values, switch loyalties, switch epistemologies and switch ontologies (Tyson et al., 1997). All these differences are highlighted when we remember that the culture of Western science is rationalistically centred, decontextualized puzzle solving, while commonsense cultures are human centred, contextualized in social situations (Aikenhead, 1997).

When learning science in a multi-science curriculum, students not only study Western science because it has a significant impact on their community's culture (including, in some communities, a status of prestige, power, progress and privilege), but students learn other sciences (e.g. citizen science, or Aboriginal science if appropriate) for the purposes of (1) having a better grasp of their own culture and of the multicultural global village, and (2) engaging in practical action such as personal decision making, economic development and environmental responsibility (i.e. responsible citizenship; Fensham, this volume). Some students and teachers may resist a multi-science curriculum simply because they are uncomfortable negotiating the movement (border crossing) between one science and another. Others may resist it on ideological grounds (Cross, 1995, 1997).

A curriculum dedicated to teaching science as a cultural phenomenon will identify a network of communities in students' life-worlds, for example, the media, funding agencies, legal and political systems, environmental groups and industry. Each network interacts with communities of scientists. A network of communities reflects/distorts the culture of Western science into what Weinstein (1998) called 'science-as-culture:'

The meaning making that we call science happens in a way that is distributed over the society spatially and temporally. It happens through science fiction, it happens through laboratory work, ... it happens in hospitals, it happens in advertising, and it happens in schools. To emphasize this, I explicitly refer to science-as-culture rather than to just science. I do this as a reminder to the reader that I am concerned with science in all parts of the network and not just the laboratory, field station, and research institute. (p. 492, emphasis in the original)

Part of students' knowledge of their everyday world is science-as-culture, which is more than just pop culture (Solomon, 1998). The cultural contributions to society by Western science are partly embedded in science-as-culture. These cultural contributions need to be accessible to students in a context that affirms students' cultural identities, not in a context that encultures students into Western science. Although students' identities may cause them to reject an apprenticeship into Western science, students are likely open to embrace a critical perspective on both science-as-culture and Western science. Examining science-as-culture can be a supportive form of enculturation into students' commonsense (life-world) cultures.

Learning science as a cultural phenomenon is experienced as 'coming to knowing,' a phrase borrowed from First Nations educators. Coming to knowing occurs within a cultural setting linked to human action (Bell, this volume). Coming to knowing is reflected in John Dewey's (1916: 393) participatory learning: 'If the living, experiencing being is an intimate participant in the activities of the world to which it belongs, then knowledge is a mode of participation.' The world in which most students participate is not the world of Western science, but another world increasingly influenced by Western science and technology.

Coming to knowing engages students in their own cultural negotiations (Stairs, 1993/94). These negotiations involve students interacting with their cultural surroundings for the purpose of cultural development, such as enriching their cultural identity. A cross-cultural science class will engage students in their own cultural negotiations with several sciences found within school science. (Enculturation into only one science is not the agenda.) As students cross cultural borders into various sciences, students become more aware of (1) their own understanding of the physical and biological world, (2) their community's commonsense understanding (e.g. citizen science), (3) perhaps another subculture's or another culture's way of knowing (e.g. technology or Aboriginal science, respectively), and (4) the norms, beliefs, values and conventions of Western science. Science-as-culture can often provide a useful starting point.

When in contact with the four different sciences stated just above, students are free to take what makes sense to them. This appropriation is a meaning-making process of intercultural borrowing or adaptation which anthropologists call 'acculturation.' Acculturation occurs when people of one culture take on features of another culture that are attractive to them. (A simple example of acculturation would be Anglo-British homes habitually serving multinational dishes.) Acculturation can lead to participation and empowerment in a community without altering one's cultural allegiance, and therefore, neither enculturation nor assimilation occur (Aikenhead, 1997).

An example of a child throwing a ball into the air earlier illustrated some features of cross-cultural science teaching. Another example will show other characteristics of coming to knowing. Although the illustration by itself is not intended to be an exemplar of practice, it nevertheless illustrates the selection of school science content in a multi-science curriculum.

Summer clothes are on the minds of most adolescents. What are students' understandings related to choices in summer clothes (either personal or the community's commonsense ideas)? How have Western science and technology contributed to those choices and ideas? These questions can lead to another: How can we account for summers being hot? Here are four different answers, each taken from a different subculture. (1) Expressing their 'personal science' (Ogawa, 1995), students often explain that the earth is closer to the sun during the summer. (2) Western science textbooks (in North America, at least) offer the story that the 'direct' sun rays produce greater energy concentration than 'indirect' sun rays do (by a factor of 3.5, summer to winter, if we take time to calculate it for about 52 degrees latitude). (3) Some Aboriginal nations explain the phenomenon in terms of interrelationships between certain keepers of the earth and the law of circular interaction. (4) Common sense in the kitchen suggests that the longer the sun heats the earth each day, the hotter the earth becomes (by a factor of 2, summer to winter, at about 52 degree latitude). Coming to knowing about hot summers may involve negotiating borders between all these subcultures, rejecting ideas that are not defensible (the earth is closer to the sun in summer), and appropriating ideas that do make sense -- a process of acculturation.

In the case of hot summers, the abstract belief found in Western science textbooks (in North America, at least) leaves out the commonsense effect of time that the sun shines. But neither of these mechanistic explanations engages us in issues of values as Aboriginal explanations tend to do. For some cultural negotiators (intimate participants, to use Dewey's term), Western science's mechanistic knowledge may not be worth acculturating in the context of hot summers and cold winters, because the idea may not fit comfortably with a student's worldview or cultural identity. However, in classrooms dedicated to enculturation into Western science, mechanistic knowledge is expected to be appropriated by students, and in response, students often resort to playing Fatima's rules (Aikenhead, 1996).

One significant feature of cultural border crossing that bears repeating is the confusion that arises when one subculture uses the same word as another subculture (e.g. the word 'heat') but the word has a totally different meaning. Although concept-proliferation allows us to keep the word meanings of commonsense subcultures, concept-proliferation does not help clarify the cultural borders that need to be crossed to gain access to the word meaning within the subculture of Western science. Students' cultural negotiations need to be facilitated by making those cultural borders explicit and by helping students cross them (Jegede and Aikenhead, 1999).

In summary, learning science as a cultural phenomenon (coming to knowing) is an activity that involves students in an increasingly competent participation in a community of practice, by enriching students' self-identities within the context of their cultural identity (a process that engages students in who they are and where they are going). The community of practice for students engaged in culture making is not the Western scientific community as proposed by Driver et al. (1994) or by Millar and Osborne (1998), but instead it is the network of communities within which students' self-identities most commonly take shape.

Responses from Stakeholders

Social constructivists world wide tend to experience some resistance to their innovative ideas in schools (Black, this volume). A cultural view of school science proposed in this chapter will receive an even stronger reaction. For either of these innovations to succeed, they must take into account the reaction of stakeholders, particularly those who see themselves as being privileged by current traditional practices, such as the status quo of playing Fatima's rules. This section summarizes the political territory that school science innovators must face if they are to renegotiate the culture of school science.

The 20th century began with nature divided into physics, chemistry, biology and geology by an emerging community of scholars calling themselves scientists, but the century ended with nature viewed as a trans-disciplinary collage by communities of engineers, technologists, scientists and funding agencies (Latour, 1987). The 20th century began with the high school science curriculum divided into the content of physics, chemistry, biology and geology, taught to an intellectual and occupational elite. The century ended with a curriculum that adhered largely to its 19th century roots, in spite of many innovative attempts to change it (Fensham, 1992; Hurd, 1998). In short, school science has resisted co-evolving with Western science during the 20th century (Aikenhead, 1994; Cross, 1997).

This successful resistance suggests that school science must somehow be serving the interests of dominant stakeholders who enjoy social, economic and political power in society (Apple, 1996). 'The control over what counts as knowledge, and the control over the institutions where such knowledge is practised, allows for dominant interest groups to perpetuate and maintain their positions of dominance and advantage' (Jones et al., 1995: 194). Therefore, whoever attempts to renegotiate school science automatically threatens society's dominant stakeholders, the keepers of this status quo. Renegotiating school science is fundamentally a political event (Roberts, 1988) in which power is the currency of social change (Blades, 1997).

By recognising the successful influence exerted by the keepers of the status quo, we can become vigilant to their tacit control over the school science agenda that privileges 'science for an elite' over 'science for all.' These two agendas represent two ends of an ideological spectrum. The science-for-an-elite agenda is often couched in the discourse of raising standards and competing on international assessment tests. The science-for-all agenda is often expressed in the discourses of equity and of meaningful learning. These ideologies influence school practice in several contexts (Fensham, 1992). These contexts are summarized here.

National Context

School science trains future scientists and engineers. To be internationally competitive, the argument goes, a nation needs an elite pool of mathematicians, scientists and engineers. Corporate profits drive the engines of free enterprise in the global village. Fensham (1992) referred to this special interest in controlling school science as 'economic.' Ultimately school science is seen as maximizing corporate profits.

By responding to national interests, school science takes on a gatekeeping role by identifying and promoting talented students, and by employing a survival-of-the-fittest type of curriculum. Changes to this gatekeeping role are often resisted in the name of national security and economic competitiveness. However, an appraisal of these reasons exposes their false claims (summarized in Aikenhead, 1997; Gibbs and Fox, 1999). For instance, there are ample students in first year university science courses to meet the national needs of industrial nations. School science is not a significant factor in the production of national wealth.

Academic Context

University science departments are the gatekeepers to scientific, engineering and health professions. In turn, the science departments give school science the gatekeeping role of maintaining the integrity of scientific disciplines. 'Scientists, particularly in research institutions and universities, are now a power faction in society with a major interest in maintaining their discipline as an elite and important field' (Fensham, 1992: 793, italics in the original).

In keeping with this rather self-serving interest, some academic scientists portray their profession in terms of a platonic idealism that demands uncritical respect because their valid knowledge is superior to (has greater predictive validity than) other domains of knowledge. This extreme though common ideology is called 'scientism' (Smolicz and Nunan, 1975). Science teachers often harbour a strong allegiance to scientism by viewing science as: authoritarian, non-humanistic, objective, purely rational and empirical, universal, impersonal and unencumbered by the vulgarity of human imagination, dogma, judgements, or cultural values (Brickhouse, 1990; Gaskell, 1992; Smolicz and Nunan, 1975).

A wall of scientism will invariably confront science educators whenever they try to negotiate a sociological or cultural approach to school science that privileges science for all. Confrontations can surface as ad hominem arguments (e.g. associating innovative educators with Nazis; Matthews, 1997) or as a spirited defence of science's monopoly on truth (e.g. 'We believe that there is only one science, not Western, not indigenous, not even Maori. ... We agree that science is value-free knowledge about the world; ' Lederman, 1998: 132). These are extreme examples perhaps, but they do represent the lived experiences of students and education innovators whose interests are systemically marginalized by gatekeeping science curricula (Roth and McGinn, 1998). The academic community has successfully vetoed innovations that challenged the maintenance of its disciplines (Blades, 1997; Fensham, 1998). On the other hand, we must also recognize those scientists who have instigated science-for-all projects themselves (Brickhouse et al., this volume).

One political ploy to avoid academic vetoes is to enlist members of the scientific community who subscribe to a science-for-all ideology, and to marginalize the others before they marginalize you. Coopting the academic context is essential to successful negotiations.

Social, Economic and Political Context

The social, economic and political (SEP) context is populated by stakeholders who subscribe to national and academic interests for purely pragmatic reasons: to become credentialed, to gain access to post-secondary institutions, and hence, to join the privileged class (Apple, 1996). In Fensham's (1992) words:

The sciences, particularly the physical sciences, in many societies are gateway subjects that filter the relatively few students who are allowed to move into certain professions of high status, societal influence, and economic security. Because of the societal power associated with these positions, we can call this a political interest in schooling. (p. 793, italics in the original)

The ideology of rugged individualism blossoms here.

When attempting to rationalize a science-for-all curriculum, science educators often cite the need for a strong democracy, an equitable access to social power and a literate citizenry (e.g. Millar and Osborne, 1998). However, privileged stakeholders will translate these arguments into one issue only: sharing their SEP power. For most keepers of the status quo, sharing power is not negotiable. Therefore, successful negotiations over the culture of school science must somehow marginalize or coopt those stakeholders.

School Context

Most schools face the tension between, on the one hand, providing worthwhile and genuine experiences for all students, and on the other hand, serving as gatekeepers for national interests and for the integrity of a discipline. Moreover, the culture of a school is directly affected by the SEP status of the community it serves and by the middle-class aspirations held by many of the school's personnel, aspirations that rely on obedience, management techniques and narrow assessment policies (Anyon, 1981; Cross, 1995). We cannot renegotiate the culture of school science within a school hostile to a science-for-all curriculum. Therefore, successful negotiators must select appropriate schools.

Science Classroom Context

A science classroom can be as idiosyncratic as the individual teacher, and so there is always potential for renegotiating what counts as 'science' in school science for that teacher. Teachers make pedagogical decisions based on practical knowledge that holistically integrates culture-laden principles, values and worldviews (Duffee and Aikenhead, 1992). However, a teacher's loyalty to a limited number of ideologies and paradigms greatly reduces the variety of science classroom subcultures found the world over (Cross, 1997; Gallagher, 1998). In a case study of five rather typical high school science teachers in Canada, Aikenhead (1984) discovered a strong loyalty towards socializing students for post-secondary institutions where the teachers themselves had developed self-images and cultural identities:

From a teacher's perspective, if a teacher drastically altered the curriculum content, this would limit the student's ability to take courses for which the current course is a prerequisite; courses which would lead to good careers with social status. Even a lower ability student ought not to be severely cut off from taking courses that have potential for social status. (p. 182)

For these teachers to renegotiate their science curriculum, they would need to (1) change their values about teaching, (2) evaluate the socializing function of any new curriculum, and (3) reformulate the 'practical holistic, decision-making system that currently supports and sustains them on a day to day basis' (Aikenhead, 1984: 184).

Fensham (1992) identified interest groups who generally support teachers in favour of science for all:

There are clearly many ways in which the cultural and social life of groups in society are now influenced by technology and by knowledge and applications from the sciences. Science education can assist these groups to have a sense of control rather than of subservience and to take advantage of what science in these various ways has to offer them. (p. 793, italics in the original)

This point was developed in detail by Millar and Osborne (1998) when they included Fensham's cultural argument within their notion of scientific literacy.

The stakeholders in science classrooms with the least power to influence the curriculum are the students themselves. Students have interests in personal growth, satisfaction and self-esteem (Fensham, 1992). When their voices were heard in a national curriculum renewal project (Science Council of Canada, 1984), students uniformly criticized school science as being socially sterile, intellectually boring and invalid in its assessment of what they learnt in class. On the other hand, students can also be keepers of the status quo when they embrace Fatima's rules and the gatekeeping function of schools. These are often students well served by national, academic and SEP interests (Aikenhead, 1996). Student expectations are part of the political landscape and hence their voices must be part of the negotiation process. Like teachers, students must sense the benefit of an innovation.


As has already been stressed, the point of this chapter is not to sweep aside Western science and replace it with other sciences. Instead, the point is to negotiate a balance among several legitimate sciences important to a students' cultural identity (e.g. science-as-culture, citizen science and Western science). In doing so, we need to resolve the contradiction between a science-for-all goal for school science and the necessity that Western science be the only science in 'science for all.' Similarly Jenkins (this volume) argues for 'a more generous view of science in the school curriculum.' Because science content (Western or otherwise) determines in large measure the culture of school science, selecting that content is a process of negotiation that uses both rational criteria (Fensham, this volume) and the political power to ameliorate influences by various stakeholders (described just above).

The cross-cultural approach to school science proposed in this chapter is beginning to be implemented for Aboriginal students in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. With experience and empirical research, cross-cultural science education will mature as it develops richer descriptions of coming to knowing. I predict that this research programme will support any science educator committed to renegotiating the culture of school science for all students, not just for Aboriginal students.


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Table 1 A notebook page in cross-cultural instruction concerning a ball thrown into the air

Commonsense Culture Culture of Western Science
force direction at

A. up

B. zero

C. down

momentum direction at

A. up

B. zero

C. down

What's always tugging


no answer or gravity

force direction at

A. down

B. down

C. down