Recognizing And Responding To Complexity: Cultural Border Crossing Into Science

(Symposium 2: Learning)

Glen S. Aikenhead
Curriculum Studies
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, SK, S7N 0X1

Published in

Globalization of Science Education: International Conference on Science Education

(pages 101-106 )

Seoul, Korea

May 26-30, 1997

Organized by the Korean Education Development Institute

Co-Sponsored by ICASE and UNESCO


I thoroughly agree with the thesis of Prof. Gunstone's (1997) keynote presentation: "a failure to recognise complexity diminishes the quality of science education." This shall be my thesis as well. Prof. Gunstone insightfully illustrates significant problems facing reform in science education; problems that arise from oversimplifying student learning and from oversimplifying instructional approaches towards that learning. He argues, correctly, that the content of learning has been badly oversimplified and the process of learning has been harmfully oversimplified. However, these issues of content and process are themselves an oversimplification of student learning because they represent primarily a psychological focus. Missing is the complexity of context: the social context and the cultural context that students confront in their science classrooms daily.

The purpose of my presentation is to build upon Prof. Gunstone's excellent overview of the content and process of student learning, and to broaden our view so that we can recognize the complexity of culture in student learning. If we fail to recognize that learning takes place in the context of culture (such as the cultural differences between a student's home culture and the culture of school science), then we shall seriously diminish the quality of the global reform we seek for science education.

Space limitations caused Prof. Gunstone to focus only on the psychology of learning (conceptual change, Piagetian studies, use of analogies, and metacognition). Similar space limitations will cause me to ignore the sociology of learning. Thus, neither Prof. Gunstone nor I address (1) the politics of curriculum development (Fensham, 1992), (2) the social context of learning, such as classroom learning environments, social constructivism, and situated cognition (Tobin & Fraser, 1997), or (3) the social context of the curriculum, such as science-technology-society (STS) curriculum innovations (Solomon & Aikenhead, 1994). Reform in science education must not ignore the complexity represented by the sociology of learning. Other presentations at this conference will take up this challenge.

A Cultural Perspective on Student Learning

My paper addresses the cultural context of learning. This encompasses both the psychology and sociology of learning. Research in cultural anthropology gives us a rich understanding of student learning; an understanding that represents complexity but at the same time makes complexity accessible and manageable because we can intuitively understand it. A cultural perspective on student learning rests on a number of points, summarized here but detailed elsewhere (Aikenhead, 1996, 1997):

1. Culture is conceptualized generally as "an ordered system of meaning and symbols, in terms of which social interaction takes place" (Geertz, 1973, p. 5); and more specifically as "the norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions of a group" (Phelan et al., 1991, p. 228).

2. Science, itself a microculture of Western or Euro-American culture, is potentially open to anyone who has been enculturated into that microculture (Pickering, 1992).

3. Schools and science classrooms have their own microcultures, and both are highly influenced by a society's dominant culture.

4. Students have cultural identities that are significantly tied primarily to the culture of their family, community, and peers.

5. Cultural differences can exist between a student's cultural identity and the microcultures of the school, of school science, and of science itself.

6. Teaching is cultural transmission (Spindler, 1987).

7. Learning is culture acquisition (Wolcott, 1991). To learn science in the psychological sense described by Prof. Gunstone is to acquire the culture of science -- the norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions of the scientific community.

8. Moving from one cultural setting to another (e.g. from home to school, or from a peer group to a science classroom) is conceived as cultural border crossing (Aikenhead, 1996). Such borders seem invisible when cultural difference between the two settings is small, but these borders can be a major problem when cultural differences are large.

9. For students whose cultural identity harmonizes with the microculture of science, the process of cultural transmission (science teaching) is enculturation (Hawkins & Pea, 1987). Scientific thinking enhances a student's everyday thinking.

10. For students whose cultural identity is at odds with the microculture of science, the process of cultural transmission is assimilation (Jegede, 1995), "assimilation" in an anthropological sense, not in the Piagetian sense. Scientific thinking dominates a student's everyday thinking. Students most often resist assimilation and instead play a school game that allows them to get high marks without understanding the content in a meaningful way. The game has identifiable rules -- Fatima's rules (Larson, 1995). Prof. Gunstone acknowledged the school game when he spoke about students' rote memorization of a rhetoric-of-conclusions curriculum.

11. Another learning process, acculturation, describes learning science as borrowing or adapting some content from the culture of science because that content appears useful to students in their everyday lives. Students replace some of their preconceptions by constructing science conceptions. Everyday thinking is an integrated combination of commonsense thinking and some scientific thinking.

12. For some students, their cultural identity harmonizes with the school culture but not with the culture of science. These students can learn the content of the culture of science in a way similar to an anthropologist learning a foreign culture. The culture of science is understood (just as anthropologists understand another culture), but scientific thinking does not guide the students' everyday thinking; yet these students can do either type of thinking, depending on the context. This process of learning I have called "anthropological" learning of science. It recognizes that many preconceptions are highly useful to students in certain contexts. Thus, when students learn scientific explanations, they learn to contextualize those explanations as belonging to a tribe of scientists, and at the same time, students are invited to use their preconceptions in appropriate everyday contexts (but not scientific contexts). This amounts to concept proliferation, rather than concept replacement (Solomon, 1987).

These ideas (summarized in Tables 1 and 2) are the complexities we must recognize so we do not diminish the quality of science education when we engage in global reform.

In an international forum such as this conference, we naturally recognize and are sensitive to the cultural differences between ourselves and our colleagues. Similarly, the quality of students' learning in science classrooms will depend on a teacher's recognition and sensitivity to the cultural differences between a student's everyday world and the worlds of science and school science.


Researchers in science education and in cultural anthropology have investigated the quality of students' learning. Over the past 20 years, research in developing countries has identified problems experienced by students whose non-Western cultural identity is very different from the culture of Western science (Baker & Taylor, 1995; Jegede, 1995; Pomeray, 1994). Similar research with minority students in Western countries has also discovered obstacles for students. Allen (1995), for instance, documented worldview differences between Kickapoo Native American students and their science instruction; differences that make cultural border crossings perilous for many students. One ubiquitous finding from research on student learning was summarized by Hennessy (1993, p. 9): "crossing over from one domain of meaning to another is exceedingly hard." Crossing over requires students to think differently. The capacity or motivation to think differently in different cultural settings is a well known human phenomenon.

However, such capacities and motivations are not equally shared among all humans, as anthropologists Phelan et al. (1991) discovered when they investigated students' movement between the worlds of their families, peer groups, schools, and classrooms:

Many adolescents are left to navigate transitions without direct assistance from persons in any of their contexts, most notably the school. Further, young people's success in managing these transitions varies widely. (p. 224)

Phelan et al.'s data suggest that differences between students' worlds create four types of transitions: congruent worlds support smooth transitions, different worlds require transitions to be managed, diverse worlds lead to hazardous transitions, and highly discordant worlds cause students to resist transitions which therefore become virtually impossible.

Costa (1995) provides a link between Phelan et al.'s anthropological study of schools and the specific issues faced by science educators. Based on the words and actions of 43 high school science students enroled in two Californian schools with diverse student populations, Costa concluded:

Although there was great variety in students' descriptions of their worlds and the world of science, there were also distinctive patterns among the relationships between students' worlds of family and friends and their success in school and in science classrooms. (p. 316)

These patterns in the ease with which students move into the culture of science were described in terms of familiar student characteristics, and then clustered into five categories (summarized here in a context of cultural border crossing): (1) "Potential Scientists" cross borders into school science so smoothly and naturally that the borders appear invisible; (2) "Other Smart Kids" manage their border crossing so well that few express any sense of science being a foreign culture; (3) "'I Don't Know' Students" confront hazardous border crossings but learn to cope and survive; (4) "Outsiders" tend to be alienated from school itself and so border crossing into school science is virtually impossible; and (5) "Inside Outsiders" find border crossing into the culture of school to be almost impossible because of overt discrimination at the school level, even though the students possessed an intense curiosity about the natural world. The last two categories are beyond the scope of this paper and will not be considered here. Impossible border crossings necessitate school reform that lies outside the jurisdiction of reform in science education.

Costa's research provides a framework which helps us recognize and respond to the complexities of learning. For example, learning is enculturation only for Potential Scientists. We should not oversimplify learning by assuming that it is enculturation into science for all students. We must recognize student differences suggested by Other Smart Kids and by "I Don't Know" Students. Reform should want all students to "master and critique scientific ways of knowing without, in the process, sacrificing their own personally and culturally constructed ways of knowing" (O'Loughlin, 1992, p. 791). Reform needs to avoid assimilation and needs to circumvent Fatima's rules. Acculturation and "anthropological" learning are possible alternatives to pursue. Potential Scientists will continue to be engaged in enculturation, but this does not work for Other Smart Kids and "I Don't Know" Students for whom learning science is a cross-culture event.

The capacity or motivation to master and critique scientific ways of knowing seems to depend on the ease with which students cross cultural borders between their everyday worlds and the world of science. One implication, therefore, is to develop instructional materials that: (1) make border crossings explicit for students, (2) facilitate those border crossings, (3) substantiate the validity of students' personally and culturally constructed ways of knowing, and (4) teach the knowledge, skills, and values of Western science in the context of science's cultural roles (social, political, economic, etc.)


Students' experiences with school science can be thought of as cultural border crossing events. They can be smooth (for which learning is enculturation), or manageable or hazardous (for which learning can be "anthropological" or acculturation). When border crossings into the culture of science are not smooth, students find themselves in a cross-cultural classroom. Their border crossings may be facilitated by a teacher consciously moving back and forth between the everyday world and the science world; switching language conventions explicitly, switching conceptualizations explicitly, switching values explicitly, and switching epistemologies explicitly.

A cultural perspective on learning science also suggests that learning results from the ever changing interaction among: (1) the personal orientations of a student (the domain of psychology and psychological constructivism); (2) the social ecology of the classroom (the domain of sociology and social constructivism); (3) the microcultures of a student's family, community, tribe, peers, school, mass media, etc.; (4) the culture of his or her nation; and (5) the microcultures of science and school science. Much more research and development is needed to understand these complexities more clearly. Recognizing and responding to these complexities will give us a refreshingly new understanding for reform in science education.


Aikenhead, G.S. (1996). Science education: Border crossing into the subculture of science. Studies in Science Education, 27, 1-52.

Aikenhead, G.S. (1997). Toward a First Nations cross-cultural science and technology curriculum. Science Education, 81, 217-238.

Allen, N.J. (1995, April). "Voices from the bridge:" Kickapoo Indian students and science education: A worldview comparison. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, San Francisco.

Baker, D., & Taylor, P.C.S. (1995). The effect of culture on the learning of science in non-western countries: The results of an integrated research review. International Journal of Science Education, 17(6), 695-704.

Costa, V.B. (1995). When science is "another world": Relationships between worlds of family, friends, school, and science. Science Education, 79(3), 313-333.

Fensham, P.J. (1992). Science and technology. In P.W. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of research on curriculum (pp. 789-829). New York: Macmillan.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books.

Gunstone, R. (1997, May). Using learning research to reform science education: Recognizing and responding to complexity. A paper presented at the International Conference on Science Education: "Globalization of Science Education," Seoul, Korea.

Hawkins, J., & Pea, R.D. (1987). Tools for bridging the cultures of everyday and scientific thinking. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 24(4), 291-307.

Hennessy, S. (1993). Situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship: Implications for classroom learning. Studies in Science Education, 22, 1-41.

Jegede, O. (1995). Collateral learning and the eco-cultural paradigm in science and mathematics education in Africa. Studies in Science Education, 25, 97-137.

Larson, J.O. (1995, April). Fatima's rules and other elements of an unintended chemistry curriculum. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, San Francisco.

O'Loughlin, M. (1992). Rethinking science education: Beyond Piagetian constructivism toward a sociocultural model of teaching and learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29(8), 791-820.

Phelan, P., Davidson, A., & Cao, H. (1991). Students' multiple worlds: Negotiating the boundaries of family, peer, and school cultures. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 22(3), 224-250.

Pickering, A. (Ed.) (1992). Science as practice and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pomeroy, D. (1994). Science education and cultural diversity: Mapping the field. Studies in Science Education, 24, 49-73.

Solomon, J. (1987). Social influences on the construction of pupil's understanding of science. Studies in Science Education, 14, 63-82.

Solomon, J., & Aikenhead, G.S. (Eds.). (1994). STS education: International perspectives on reform. New York: Teachers College Press.

Spindler, G. (1987). Education and cultural process: Anthropological approaches (2nd Ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Tobin, K., & Fraser, B. (Eds). (1997). International handbook of science education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Wolcott, H.F. (1991). Propriospect and the acquisition of culture. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 22(3), 251-273.

Table 1. The Conventional School Science Curriculum


Cultural transmission of canonical science content (the knowledge, values, and skills used by the scientific community).


Enculturation: a student learns the canonical content of science, which is in harmony with her/his indigenous view of the world, by incorporating that content into a personal view of the world. Scientific thinking enhances a person's everyday thinking.

Assimilation: a student learns the canonical content of science, which is at odds with her/his indigenous views of the world, by replacing or marginalizing those indigenous views. Scientific thinking dominates a person's everyday thinking.

Fatima's rules: school "games" played by a student and teacher allow students to get passing or high grades without understanding the course content in a meaningful way, the way the community assumes students understand it. Scientific thinking does not exist for a student and hence it does not connect with a person's everyday thinking.

Table 2. Science Instruction/Learning from a Cultural Perspective


Empowerment of students (1) to appropriate knowledge, values and skills from science and technology to further the diverse personal goals of those students; and (2) to appreciate the social and cultural aspects of Western science and technology as well as aspects of students' indigenous science and technology.


Enculturation: a student learns the canonical content of science, which is in harmony with her/his indigenous view of the world, by incorporating that content into a personal view of the world. Scientific thinking enhances a person's everyday thinking.

Autonomous acculturation: a student borrows or adapts (incorporates) some content from Western science and technology because the content appears useful to him/her, thereby replacing some of those former indigenous views. Everyday thinking is an integrated combination of commonsense thinking and some science/technology thinking.

"Anthropological" instruction/learning: a student learns the canonical content of subculture science similar to an anthropologist learning the ways of a foreign culture. The subculture of science is a repository to be raided, but its thinking does not connect with a person's everyday thinking, yet a person can do either type of thinking, depending on the context.