Transforming science teaching through social activism: Is it a viable goal?

There was a very interesting new comment made on an earlier post entitited Should science teaching be political: A Humanistic Question.  In that post I explored the ideas of researcher Wildson dos Santos, who had published an article: Scientific literacy: A Freirean perspective as a radical view of humanistic science education.

In the comment made, and in the view of dos Santos, science education is challenged to rethink the nature of scientific literacy as more than simply an understanding (as measured on end-of-course and other types of high-stakes examinations) of canonical science as defined in the National Science Education Standards.

There are  science teachers who believe that science education should be transformative—that is, an experience in which students become involved in socio-political action—indeed, become involved in social activism.  One such teacher is Barbara Broadway, who was a high school chemistry teacher in a Dekalb County (GA) school.  One of the projects I recall that she was engaging her students had to do with an exploration of the water chemistry of small stream near their high school.  She was not only interested in having the students learn how to sample and analyze water from the stream, but take action on the results of their study.  In the first year of this study, her students identified a number of heavy metals in the stream that shouldn’t have been there.  They decided to sample water at locations upstream from their school, and during their investigation, they found that a company was dumping wastes directly into the stream—they found the source of the heavy metals.  The social action in this case was NOT going to the local newspaper and reporting the results.  No, what the students & their teacher did was to go directly to the company and share the results of their research.  In this case, the company admited they were dumping waste directly into the stream, and would indeed stop the activity. The students, with their teacher, were at the center of a socio-political action, and in this case experienced the fruits of their research.

This is a good example of humanistic science education, as described by science education researcher Glen Aikenhead in his book Science Education for Everyday Life.  In the case cited here, we see S-T-S, context-based science teaching in action.  The comment that was made on dos Santos’ research is relevant here, and I quote a part of the comment (which you can read in full here):

However, in applying the ideas of Freire and dos Santos to a US public school context, it seems we need to focus more heavily on the development of critical consciousness in the local context than dos Santos does in his article. While I very much agree with dos Santos call for a focus on studying issues around the world, I think that the strongest initial buy in we can get from students is to first meet them where they are by valuing and honoring their knowledge, culture, interests, and linguistic assets that they bring tot he classroom. I think we too often ask students to tell us how they think the science we’re teaching them applies to their lives (and get blank stares) and should make efforts to start from their understanding or context and then move with them into the science that applies to them. This requires some level of uncertainty and being a learner alongside the students.

Humanistic science education draws on a number of theoretical fields of study.  One that I emphasize here is the field of critical pedagogy, which has been heavily influenced by the work of Paulo Freire.   According to critical pedagogy teachers (progressives, humanists), the classroom becomes the environment were new knowledge, grounded in the experiences of students and teachers alike, occurs through meaningful dialog, and activity.  Being heavily influenced by John Dewey, much of the work that those of us who worked on the Global Thinking Project was focused on helping students become “citizen scientists,” or fighters for the environment, as Dr. Galina Manke, School 710 and the Russian Academy of Education, put it.  To some degree, this group was interested in a reconstructive curriculum, one that advocated a student-centered approach.  Our “critical pedagogy” approach is contrasted with the traditional model shown in Table 1.

The Traditional Model The Global Thinking Model
• Traditional, mechanized thinking   

• Individualistic–although students may at times work together in groups, interdependence typically is not a goal.

• Dependence–teacher-directed instructional model establishes a dependent social system.

• Hierarchical—choice-made-for-you. Rarely do students choose content or methodology for their investigations

• Emphasis on literacy: knowing facts, skills, concepts

• Emphasis on content; acquiring the right body of knowledge

• Learning encourages recall, and is analytical and linear

• Innovative, flexible thinking   

• Cooperative–students work collaboratively in small teams to think and take action together

• Interdependence–a synergic system is established in groups within a classroom, and within global communities of practice.

• Right-to-choose—students are involved in choice-making including problem and topic selection, as well as solutions; reflects the action processes of grassroots organizations

• A new literacy insofar as “knowledge” relates to human needs, the needs of the environment and the social needs of the earth’s population and other living species

• Emphasis on anticipation and participation; on inquiry, learning how to learn, and how to ask questions

• Learning encourages creative thinking, and is holistic and intuitive

Table 1. The Paradigm Shift from the Traditional Model of Teaching to the Global Thinking or Critical Model of Teaching

The goal of the GTP curriculum, which was localized in each classroom, but was connected globally via the GTP Website, was to create a transformative environment where students would be engaged in social-activist projects.  For a little more than a decade, the teachers and students who were involved in the GTP explored their own environments, uncovered problems, and attempted to be involved in socio-political solutions through communal activities.

This is a “critical day” in that it is the 100th day of President Barack Obama’s presidency.  Are we poised for a period of reform in science education where social activism and the transformative potential of science teaching might be invoked?  It should also be noted that the media is full of itself by its penchant to grade our President’s first 100 days in office.  Let me publically give my President high marks, and an overall grade of “A.”

Now that you know my bias, I am concerned that the US Department of Education will continue the course taken by the previous administration—-more of NCLB.  Most states in the nation use high-stakes tests to assess the progress of students and teachers.  This over emphasis on tests and achievement scores puts the artistry of teaching at risk, and lessens the potential for “critical reform.”  

In the wake of this, is there any possibility for “critical” reform?  

What do you think?

The Artistry of Science Teaching: It isn’t enough to simply boost beginning teachers’ pay!

I want to follow up from yesterday’s discussion of Georgia’s plan to boost beginning science teachers pay.  I am prompted to do so because of the compelling comment on yesterday’s post by Quin Harrell.  Here is how he began his comment:

While I agree with pay increases for math and science teachers, I totally disagree with a pay incease for only new teachers. What about the science teachers, especially in high school, who have been struggling for the last two decades to teach science to students who have been led to believe that science is not “really important because of increased emphasis on reading and math? Should these teachers get overlooked for an increase in pay?

And as Quin implied, this really isn’t about pay, but about the professional qualities that enable teachers (new as well as veterans) to help students become successful in learning science.  Unfortunately in Georgia, student performance as measured on high stakes tests, is the driving force in determining teacher effectiveness.  But I would argue the professional expertise of science teachers is a better and more significant place to focus our attention.

I would also argue that teaching is professional artistry.  Artistry in science teaching isn’t something that one acquires in professional training programs, but developed over time through real experiences with colleagues and students.  Rooted in professional artistry is the idea that science teachers (any teacher for that matter) constructs knowledge about teaching and learning rather than adopting the knowledge claims of others.  Teaching is a tough endeavor, as is learning, and it takes an attitude of commitment with ones willingness to experiment, tinker, explore, ask questions, collaborate with peers to become a successful science teacher.

In the last 15 years of my work at Georgia State University, I became involved with several alternative science and mathematics teacher education programs (TRIPS (A Research-Practice Program developed by Lovely H. Billups), Alternative Teacher Preparation Program in Foreign Language, Mathematics & Science, and TEEMS), some situated at GSU, and others within the public schools (Atlanta City, and DeKalb County).  The exhuberance that came from this work was the attitude of experimentation that prevailed amongst the faculty at GSU, the mentor teachers with in the school districts, and students who were attracted to these alternative programs.

One of the common factors across all of these program was how significant learning to teach from experience and reflection was in the context of real classrooms.  And this of course meant that a successful teacher education program was a collaborative effort involving beginning teachers with practicing mentor teachers.  Artistry in teaching is a developmental process that takes place in the classroom and requires creative courage.  According to some researchers and practicing teachers, professional artistry is the manifestation of creative courage in our encounters with students.  Simply paying beginners more money will not ensure any of this.

In his doctoral research, former high science teacher Tom Brown, now a professor of science education at Kennesaw State University found that caring is one of the most important aspects of professional artistry.  In his dissertation research, Dr. Brown put it this way:

This may sound too warm and fuzzy but I honestly believe that my most important role as a teacher is to care for my students as individuals.  As we all know, high schools can be very impersonal places and many students have a difficult time finding a way to fit in comfortably.  It is our job as educators to reach out to our kids and be empathetic and encouraging (as quoted in Hassard & Dias, p. 12, 2009).

Finally I would add a quote that supports something that Quin Harrell alluded to in his comment on yesterday’s post, and that is that a major reform in teaching is needed.  Eliot Eisner, author of Arts and the Creation of Mind, suggest that we need a paradigm shift in educational reform and teaching and puts it this way:

It may be that by shifting the paradigm of education reform and teaching from one modeled after the clock-like-character of the assembly line into one that is closer to the studio or innovative science laboratory might provide us with a vision that better suits the capacities and the futures of the students we teach (as quoted in Hassard & Dias, p. 12, 2009).

What is you view of teaching?  Is it artistry? Or am I dreaming?

Georgia to boost pay of new math & science teachers: Some issues

The Georgia General Assembly passed a bill (HB 280) which the Governor signed relating to the employment and pay for mathematics and science teachers.  The bill would boost new math & science teachers’ salaries by paying these new teachers the same salary as a fifth year teacher.  In effect, the boost would be about $4,561 and would mean that beginning math & science teachers in Georgia starting next year would earn $37,985.  The bill states that the teacher’s salary would then continue to rise a step for every year for five years.  After this period of time, these teachers’ salaries would be tied to student performance.  The bill for this reads as follows:

After five years, such teacher may continue to be attributed one additional year of creditable service on the salary schedule each year if he or she meets or exceeds student achievement criteria established by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

Although I am happy for the new math & science teachers, I have some real concerns about tying teacher salary to student achievement.  There are many factors that can be used to determine teacher  effectiveness.  Student achievement is only one such factor.  In a March 22 post, I argued that student science achievement is only one measure of teacher effectiveness.

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement has a feature on the first page of its website that is like the scoreboard you would see if you visited the statistics page of the Major League Baseball (MLB) website.  There in lights would be the standings of each division in each of the two leagues.  You would know exactly where your team stands simply by looking at the online the scoreboard.

Indeed, The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement has a link to the GES—that’s Georgia’s Education Scoreboard.  No kidding!  gesIf you click on it, up pops a scorecard comparing Georgia to the South East States (you can also click on a link to compare Georgia to the nation and look at prior years ).  Instead of batting average, games won, and lost, you will find statistics for categories including 4th grade math achievement, reading achievement, 8th grade math achievement, reading achievement, average ACT composite score, average SAT compostive score, high school grduation rate, bachelor’s degree holders.  Georgia wins some and loses some.  It is really interesting data.  But….hold on.

Most of what the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement touts makes one raise serious questions.  For example: How does one go about tying student achievement to teacher salary?  Trying to tie teacher salary to student achievement is not easy to validate as one might think.  The people in this office think it is.   For example, they have a post on their site in which they moan about National Board Certified Teachers.  What they claim is that the research does not support the notion that NBCTs are “master teachers.”  But according to NBCT, the National Research Council published a research study assessing “accomplished teaching (NBCT), and these teachers do indeed impact the learning environment and student learning.   In fact the data is quite overwhelming as to the effectiveness of NBCTers.  Click here to read more.

What is the problem here in Georgia?  Actually, what the Office of Student Achievement wants to do is reneg on the promise made to NBCTers in Georgia and instead install their own version of a “board certified” teacher.   Why?  Well, this is because Georgia has its own version of NBCT, and it’s called the Georgia Master Teacher Certification, and it is tied to student achievement based on standardized tests or on classroom assessments.  Hello behaviorism 101.

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, the Georgia Department of Education, and the Georgia Professional Standards Commission controls the system of education, and the philosophy is rooted in behavioral psychology—a kind of large scale stimulus-response initiative.  It’s at odds with the philosophy of this blog which supports a humanistic and holistic view of teaching that is rooted in humanistic psychology and social constructivism.  Much of the innovation in science and mathematics education over the past 20 years has been based on these research paradigms.

I support the boost in salary for math and science teachers.  But I don’t agree that their salary after five years should be based on student achievement.  Do you think I am out of line here?  Am I missing something?  What do you think?

From Earthday to Earthmonth: A Holistic Approach to Science Teaching

On Wednesday (Today) we celebrate Earthday, founded on April 22, 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson, and around the world it is a day that focuses on educating all of us for the environment with activities, celebrations, conferences, and programs.

earth_hands-3You can visit the Earthday Network to explore a myriad of resources that are available to us to further our understanding and involvement in environmental education and environmental science activities, as well as political & economic developments.

In the past 40 years the significance of Earthday has changed from of environmental awareness to mainstream developments in environmental policy that will shape our future.  Within this time frame, the EPA was created, laws were passed to clean the air, water, and land, scientists reported results of studies pointing to climate change and global warming, and the present US administration has appointed a very powerful group of environmental scientists and activitists to head the Office of Science and Technology, the Department of Energy, the EPA, and Interior.

In the last half dozen blog posts, I’ve explored the theories proposed by Vladimir Vernadsky, author of The Biosphere (read the complete book here), a book published in 1926, that laid the foundation for work that was to follow by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. Vernadsky developed the concept of “biosphere” calling attention to a “sphere of life” which, according to him, came about from biogeochemical processes between living and non-living matter. Lovelock and Margulis proposed the Gaia hypothesis suggesting that living organisms maintain the chemical balance of air, seas, and soil that ensure their own existence. That life creates and maintains environmental conditions favorable to its existence was called the Gaia Hypothesis. For these two pioneering scientists, Gaia is like a living cell.  The scientific & theoretical underpinnings for an Earthday can be found in the work of these researchers, and many others.


The launching of a Global Environmental Summit in Moscow
The launching of a Global Environmental Summit in Moscow

For many years I was involved with the development of the Global Thinking Project (GTP).  Basing our work environmental science as underscored by Vernadsky, Lovelock and Margulis, we designed curriculum to foster global thinking among students around the globe.  One of the signature activities of the GTP was real time, face-to-face “global environmental summits” which were held over the years in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Atlanta.


American and Russian students and their teachers discuss "strategy" prior to making a presentation at a "global environmental summit" in Atlanta
American and Russian students and their teachers discuss "strategy" prior to making a presentation at a "global environmental summit" in Atlanta

The summits were carried out amonst one hundred American and Russian students, who had lived in each others’ homes for two three-week periods, participated in environmental research activities in American and Russian communities, and lived in the context of each others culture.  The summits brought them together to resolve environmental topics and to write declarations.  We described the student’s activity as that of a “citizen scientist,” one who combines the process of science with public policy decision making.

In the GTP curriculum, one of the “projects” that was based on the global environmental summits, was a project which we labeled Project Earth Month (you can find the entire project at this link).  Project Earth Month was an open-ended project that encourages students to identify an important environmental topic, design investigations, and take action on their findings.  Earth Month was traditionally held during the month of April so as to be part of local Earth Day activities.

You might want to follow this link to Project Earth Month to find out what procedures were used with the students, and read about some of the work that GTPers did in connection with this project.


Earthday Network: Its mission is to broaden and diversify the environmental movement worldwide, and to mobilize it as the most effective vehicle for promoting a healthy, sustainable environment.

Project Earth Month: A GTP environmental science research activity.

Environmental Science on the Net: The Global Thinking Project: Text containing the curriculum of the GTP.

Environmental Protection Agency

Holistic Teaching: Integrating ideas of Vernadsky & Lovelock into science teaching

The opening sentence in John Miller’s book, The Holistic Curriculum is that holistic education attempts to bring education into alignment with the fundamental realities of nature. Nature at its core is holistic,interrelated and dynamic. As such we have much to learn about curriculum from environmental education, and the science-technology-society (STS) movement (each developed In previous posts.

The essence of Vernadsky’s concept of the biosphere, and Lovelock’s Gaia theory reflect Miller’s construct.

However, curriculum, for the most part, has been broken into fragmented pieces, even within a single discipline, such as our own field of science. The National Science Education Standards reflect this compartmentalization of content (as shown below). Although in the text of the Standards, the authors emphasize that science should be taught by using an inquiry approach, the overriding outcome is the empahsis on discrete, non-contextual, standards, divided into these categories:

  • Unifying concepts and processes in science.
  • Science as inquiry
  • Physical science.
  • Life science.
  • Earth and space science.
  • Science and technology.
  • Science in personal and social perspectives.
  • History and nature of science.

I want to explore here the notion of holistic curriculum and teaching as an implication of the theory of the biosphere as developed by Vernadsky in Russia, and the Gaia theory by Lovelock in England, and Margulis in the USA.

My own experience in applying holistic ideas of Gaia, the biosphere, and curriculum came together in the development of the Global Thinking Project (GTP). We developed cross-cultural and holistic curriculum materials that focused on global thinking. Our strategy was to get students involved in real-world problems and to work together collaboratively within their own classrooms, and using the Internet, with schools in other cultures. The holistic ideas of Vernadsky and Lovelock were integrated into the GTP philosophy.

Both Vernadsky’s biosphere, and Lovelock/Margulis’ Gaia imply interrelationships, symbiosis, synthesis, a system, if you will. To apply these ideas to science teaching means designing lessons that help students think in wholes, to see and develop relationships among concepts and ideas, and involve and connect students to real problems and issues.

In the GTP, we traced the historical roots of global thinking to Albert Einstein’s statement shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “everything has changed save our mode of thinking.” Although he didn’t say it directly, Einstein knew that humanity would have to learn to think in wholes. He knew that hardly anthing is independent and freestanding; rather virtually everything is part of some larger system. This would require a new mode of thinking.

And there were others who invoked the same message. Andrei Sarkharov, the Soviet physicist, advised his government that atmospheric testing of nucelar weapons must be suspended if humanity were to sustain itself in the “nuclear age.” At the same time, Rachel Carson warned all citizens that a year may come when appears a “silent spring.” Her book described the interconnections in the biosphere, and the deadly effects of some chemical sprays on the pyramid of life. earthAnd then there was the photograph of Earth taken by astronauts on their way to moon when they looked back at the “blue planet” and saw at once that the Earth was whole, and a new perspective in thinking was needed—global thinking.

The Global Thinking Project, which was an active project from 1990 – 2002, developed a web-assisted global communication and collaboration program enabling elementary, middle and high school students to pursue environmental studies that focused on problems facing communities around the world. The GTP was organized around seven “Projects” including: Project Hello, Project Green Classroom, Project Clean Air, Project Solid Waste, Project Water Watch, Project Soil, and Project Earth Month.

In the activity shown in this image, American and Russian students work together to explain visually how the biosphere works.  Using photographs, and arrows, they had to create a web of ideas.
In the activity shown in this image, American and Russian students work together to explain visually how the biosphere works. Using photographs, and arrows, they had to create a web of ideas.

In Project Hello of the GTP curriculum, one of the first activities that students were engaged in was “Earth as a Living System.” This activity introduced the concept that the Earth can be viewed as a living organism (Gaia theory), with the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and heliosphere interacting to form a functioning whole. We went on to say that changes that affect any one of these subsystems (temperature of the atmosphere, for example) necessarily affect them all. Click on this link for the full details on the activity, and the materials you need to carry it out with your students.

I’ll explore holistic teaching in the coming days, and also make more connections to Vernadsky’s theory of the biosphere, and Lovelock’s Theory of Gaia.


Jack Hassard & Julie Weisberg. Environmental Science on the Net: The Global Thinking Project. 1999. Good Year Books

Nir Orion. A Holistic Approach for Science Education for All. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology, 2007, 3(2), 111-118

John Miller. The Holistic Curriculum. University of Toronto Press, 2007