Hip-Hop Culture & Science Teaching: Progressive Education in Action

I’ve written several posts on this blog about Professor Christopher Emdin, Professor of Science Education, Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Emdin has worked for years in New York City schools with urban youth to help teachers change the way they work with their students to bring real meaning to the learning of science.  The kind of teaching environment that Emdin suggests for urban schools is a communal one. Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group. This type of teaching requires not only an understanding of the student’s culture, but the courage and willingness to create classrooms based on relationships, empathy, and understanding, and there is real evidence that to do this the best and most experienced teachers are needed.

Emdin provides insight for us as to go about being a teacher in urban classrooms. Because Emdin places great emphasis encouraging teachers to understand their urban students and he says this:

…it is necessary to understand how students know, feel, and experience the world by becoming familiar with where students come from and consciously immersing oneself in their culture. This immersion in student culture, even for teachers who may perceive themselves to be outsiders to hip-hop, simply requires taking the time to visit, observe, and study student culture.

Dr. Emdin suggests that classrooms should be viewed as a “space with its own reality.” In particular he urges us to focus on the “experiences of hip-hop participants as a conduit through which they can connect to science.” Using the concept “reality pedagogy” teaching in the urban classroom means creating a new dialogue where the student’s beliefs and behaviors are considered normal, and that the experiences within the hip-hop culture can actually be the way to learning science.

Dr. Emdin’s research and work with students is progressive education in action, and Emdin is doing the research to document his and his colleagues efforts.  According to John Dewey, learning environments that tend to be more informal than formal use elements of non-school learning that in the end bring the students closer to the [science] curriculum, perhaps making border crossings less hazardous. In this context, learning is tied to “use, to drama of doubt, need and discovery” (Fishman and McCarthy 1989).

Emdin has brought the culture of hip-hop into the classroom to create this kind of environment.   As Dewey, and now Emdin point out, in formal learning settings, scientific ideas & concepts are presented as if they were bricks, and we are tempted to try to pass out ideas, because like bricks, they are separable. Concepts are taught without a context, without connections, and without relevance to the students. Yes, there are some students who will learn science very well in formal environments. But many students, who will not benefit from such formality, thrive in informal learning environments. Working on topics of their own choice, collaborating in cooperative groups, or discussing the relevance of the content—each of these ideas will give to the informality of the classroom.

And this is the heart of Emdin’s work.  In this video, Dr. Emdin explains how he integrates hip-culture, the Obama Effect, and urban science education based on his theory of communal learning.


Recently Dr. Emdin published a ground-breaking book entitled Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation. The book provides essential tools for the urban science educator and researcher, according to the publisher. But it is much more than that.

Christopher Emdin say this about the philosophy that under-girds urban science education:

In urban classroom, the culture of the school is generally different from the culture of the students. In addition, a majority of students are either African American or Latino/a while their teachers are mostly White. Culturally, urban youth are mostly immersed in a generally communal and distinctly hip-hop based way of knowing and being. By this, I mean that the shared realities that come with being socioeconomically deprived areas brings urban youth together in ways that transcend race/ethnicity and embraces their collective connections to hip-hop. Concurrently, hip-hop is falsely interpreted as being counter to the objectives of school, or seen as “outside of” school culture.

In the current conversation about educational reform, and in particular, science education reform, the thinking reflected in Emdin’s book should be fundamental reading for science teachers and teacher educators, as well the corporate types that are aggressively pushing the corporate take over of schooling which relies on a very traditional model of teaching.

Hip Hop and Science Teaching–Reform from the inside Out

In a New York Times article , Dr. Emdin was interviewed about his new project, which will target grades 9-12, and will cover sciences ranging from biology to physics.  The program will use hip-hop to teach science in 10 New York City public schools.  In the NYT’s article, Emdin explains the nature of the innovation which will take place starting in January 2013:

 On a recent afternoon in his office at Teachers College, Dr. Emdin likened the skills required for success in science to those of a good rapper: curiosity, keen observation, an ability to use metaphor and draw connections. Moreover, he said, the medium itself provided a model that could be more effective than traditional science instruction, in which teachers stand in front of classes delivering information, then judge students by their ability to repeat it on tests.By contrast, in what is known as a hip-hop “cypher,” participants stand in a circle and take turns rapping, often supporting or playing off one another’s rhymes.

“A hip-hop cypher is the perfect pedagogical moment, where someone’s at the helm of a conversation, and then one person stops and another picks up,” Dr. Emdin said, his checked bow tie bobbing under his chin. “There’s equal turns at talking. When somebody has a great line, the whole audience makes a ‘whoo,’ which is positive reinforcement.”

The innovative approach to reform was initiated when Dr. Emdin met  a famous musician.  Here is how it happened:

Christopher Emdin is a Columbia University professor who likes to declaim Newton’s laws in rhyme.GZA is a member of the Wu-Tang Clan who left school in 10th grade. When the two men met this summer, at a radio show hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, they started talking about science and education — particularly, why science classrooms were failing to engage many African-American and Latino students, who together make up 70 percent of New York City’s student body.

GZA had recently completed work at MIT and Harvard to develop a solo album on the “cosmos.”  The two met later. They discovered a shared interest in merging their two worlds: GZA by bringing science into hip-hop; Dr. Emdin by bringing hip-hop into the science classroom.

The project will involve ten New York City high schools. According to the New York Times article,  starting in January, the 10 schools, with support from Dr. Emdin and his graduate students, will experiment with cyphers and rhymes to teach basic science concepts — one class per school, one day per week. The students will write rhymes in lieu of papers; the best rhymes, as judged by GZA, will appear on Rap Genius, beside the lyrics of popular hits. The program fits into a broader educational movement to use students’ outside interests to engage them in class work.

Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation. The school was learner-centered, and the curriculum was organized as an interdisciplinary approach to education. Teachers designed activities based on a theory of growth stages, and the activities engaged students in self-development and mutual respect. Dewey advocated the idea that thinking was an active process involving experimentation and problem solving. He also espoused the idea that the school had a political role as an instrument for social change.

In our own view, Dr. Emdin has furthered Dewey’s ideas, and created a pedagogy that engages students in science using their own cultural knowledge and experience.  Now, that’s reform.

What are your views on Dr. Emdin’s work in science education with urban youth?

The Hip-Hop Generation: Implications for Teacher Preparation

The current wave of reform in science education, including teacher preparation, is not in the best interests of the diverse cultures that make up the population of the United States. The reform is standards- and test-based, and seeks to create schooling that ignores differences in people, and instead creates an outline (read that “standards”) of what is to learned for all students regardless of where they live.

While doing research for The Art of Teaching Science, I became aware of Dr. Christopher Emdin’s research on science education in urban classroom.

The first publication I read was entitled Exploring the context of urban science classrooms and in this research, Emdin studied the concepts of corporate and communal classroom organizations and how these paradigms affected student learning in high school chemistry.

His work has implications for the way we prepare teachers.  Let’s take a look.

Corporate vs Communal Teaching

Corporate classroom organization occurs when students and teachers are involved with subject matter and functioning that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate classes is to maintain order and to achieve specific results, such as scores on achievement tests.

Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.

Recently Dr. Emdin published a ground-breaking book entitled Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation. The book provides essential tools for the urban science educator and researcher, according to the publisher. But it is much more than that.

Christopher Emdin say this about the philosophy that under-girds his book:

In urban classroom, the culture of the school is generally different from the culture of the students. In addition, a majority of students are either African American or Latino/a while their teachers are mostly White. Culturally, urban youth are mostly immersed in a generally communal and distinctly hip-hop based way of knowing and being. By this, I mean that the shared realities that come with being socioeconomically deprived areas brings urban youth together in ways that transcend race/ethnicity and embraces their collective connections to hip-hop. Concurrently, hip-hop is falsely interpreted as being counter to the objectives of school, or seen as “outside of” school culture.

In the current conversation about educational reform, and in particular, science education reform, the thinking reflected in Emdin’s book should be fundamental reading for science teachers and teacher educators, as well the corporate types that are aggressively pushing the corporate take over of schooling which relies on a very traditional model of teaching.

Hip-Hop and Reform of Education

As I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, my interest was piqued after reading Emdin’s research comparing and contrasting the corporate vs the communal organization of classrooms. I would expand this to include whole school systems.

The danger we face is that American education is being led to adopt and solidify, through common standards and common assessments, a corporate management style of classrooms and schools. Teachers and students are together in the service of reaching the goals and objectives (standards) set by outside groups.  To meet these standards, the same organizations have developed bubble type achievement tests, and mandated that all students should reach the same level of proficiency regardless of where they live.

Emdin’s approach is to encourage classrooms that are organized as communal systems in which teachers and students work with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

It is obvious that the corporate approach would see hip-hop as something outside of schooling, and reject it as a legitimate form of communication inside education. Of course, this is a huge mistake. One of the biggest problems that beginning teachers have who are hired to teach in urban classrooms is their lack of knowledge of their students’ culture, and how to work with students in a culture very different than their own.

The school board in Cobb County, Georgia recently turned down the superintendent’s request to hire 50 Teach for America (TFA) teachers and place them in south Cobb schools, which reflect the urban culture described above, especially since most of the students in these schools are Latino/a. The decision needless to say was a controversial one. The TFA is a large corporate entity that places “teachers” in full time teaching positions in urban schools. However the TFA teachers have no prior training in teaching other than a four week summer program prior to employment. TFA will tell you that their teachers help urban students learn more (on achievement tests) than other beginning teachers. There is little to no evidence to support this. But because TFA teachers are from prestigious schools and are bright and smart, the common sense notion is that they are the kind of teachers needed for urban schools, like the schools in South Cobb.

Not so according to many teachers in Cobb County and its school board. Not only is there is a budget shortage in Cobb (as in most other districts), but by hiring 50 TFA teachers would mean that 50 experienced teachers would have to go. Those who embrace the TFA mantra tell us that they will deliver the best and the brightest, and the most inexperienced professionals for America’s urban schools. Its not solving the problem, and the teachers and school board in Cobb made the right decision.

Communal Teaching and Reform

The kind of teaching environment that Emdin suggests for urban schools is a communal one. Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group. This type of teaching requires not only an understanding of the student’s culture, but the courage and willingness to create classrooms that are based on relationships, empathy, and understanding, and there is substantial evidence that in order to do this the best and most experienced teachers are needed.

Putting unlicensed and inexperienced teachers in urban classrooms is more of an experiment being carried out by TFA rather than a solution to urban schooling.  It fosters a corporate classroom.

Emdin provides insight for us as to go about being a teacher in urban classrooms. Because Emdin places great emphasis encouraging teachers to understand their urban students and he says this:

it is necessary to understand how students know, feel, and experience the world by becoming familiar with where students come from and consciously immersing oneself in their culture. This immersion in student culture, even for teachers who may perceive themselves to be outsiders to hip-hop, simply requires taking the time to visit, observe, and study student culture.

Dr. Emdin suggests that classrooms should be viewed as a “space with its own reality.” In particular he urges us to focus on the “experiences of hip-hop participants as a conduit through which they can connect to science.” Using the concept “reality pedagogy,” teaching in the urban classroom means creating a new dialogue in which the student’s beliefs and behaviors are considered normal, and that the experiences within the hip-hop culture can actually be the way to learning science.

Emdin’s work suggests that clinical teacher preparation programs should engage teacher education students with urban students to appreciate differences, and learn how to teach (science) in context.  Communal urban classrooms, which emphasize interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group, would provide the environment for teacher education students to cross borders, and learn from the inside-out.

You might want to follow this link to a review of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation by Jose M. Rios in Democracy & Education.


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Hip Hop Generation: Humanizing Urban Science Education

The current wave of reform in science education is not in the best interests of the diverse cultures that comprise the population of the United States.  The reform is standards- and test-based, and seeks to create schooling that ignores differences in people, and instead creates an outline of what is to learned for all students regardless of where they live.

During my career as a teacher, I have been an advocate for humanistic education, which is a person-centered approach in which teachers create environments that are experiential and ones in which discovering, valuing, and exploring underscore the activities of students.

While doing research for the first edition of the Art of Teaching Science, I became aware of Dr. Christopher Emdin, through his research in science education.  In particular it was Emdin’s research that focused on science education in urban classrooms.

In the first publication that I found written by Dr. Emdin, entitled Exploring the context of urban science classrooms the concepts of corporate and communal classroom organizations were introduced.

Corporate vs Communal Teaching

Corporate classroom organization occurs when students and teachers are involved with subject matter and functioning that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction.  The primary goal in corporate classes is to maintain order and to achieve specific results, such as scores on achievement tests.

Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.

Hip-Hop Generation

Find Christopher Emdin's Book on Amazon

Recently Dr. Emdin published a ground-breaking book entitled Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation.  The book provides essential tools for the urban science educator and researcher, according to the publisher.  But it is much more than that.

Christopher Emdin say this about the philosophy that under-girds his book:

In urban classroom, the culture of the school is generally different from the culture of the students.  In addition, a majority of students are either African American or Latino/a while their teachers are mostly White.  Culturally, urban youth are mostly immersed in a generally communal and distinctly hip-hop based way of knowing and being.  By this, I mean that the shared realities that come with being socioeconomically deprived areas brings urban youth together in ways that transcend race/ethnicity and embraces their collective connections to hip-hop.  Concurrently, hip-hop is falsely interpreted as being counter to the objectives of school, or seen as “outside of” school culture.

In the current conversation about educational reform, and in particular, science education reform, the thinking reflected in Emdin’s book should be fundamental reading for science teachers and teacher educators, as well the corporate types that are aggressively pushing the corporate take over of schooling which relies on a very traditional model of teaching.

Hip-Hop and Reform of Education

As I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, my interest was piqued after reading Emdin’s research comparing and contrasting the corporate vs the communal organization of classrooms.  I would expand this to include whole school systems.

The danger we face is that American education is being led to adopt and solidify, through common standards and common assessments, a corporate management style of classrooms and schools.  Teachers and students are together in the service of reaching the goals and objectives (standards) set by outside groups (although only one group wrote the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and English/Language arts & the same company is writing the common science standards—Achieve, Inc.).  To meet these standards, the same organizations have developed bubble type achievement tests, and mandated that all students should reach the same level of proficiency regardless of where they live.

Emdin’s approach is to encourage classrooms that are organized as communal systems in which teachers and students work with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

It is obvious that the corporate approach would see hip-hop as something outside of schooling, and reject it as a legitimate form of communication inside education.  Of course, this is a huge mistake.  One of the biggest problems that beginning teachers have who are hired to teach in urban classrooms is their lack of knowledge of their students’ culture, and how to work with students in a culture very different than their own.

The county in which I live in Georgia just turned down the superintendent’s request to hire 50 Teach for America Teachers and place them in south Cobb schools, which reflect the urban culture described above, especially since most of the students in these schools are Latino/a.  The decision needless to say was a controversial one.  The TFA is a large corporate entity that places “teachers” in full time teaching positions in urban schools.  However the TFA teachers have no prior training in teaching other than a four week summer program prior to employment.  TFA will tell you that their teachers help urban students learn more (on achievement tests) than other beginning teachers.  There is little to no evidence to support this.  But because TFA teachers are from prestigious schools and are bright and smart, the common sense notion is that they are the kind of teachers needed for urban schools, like the schools in South Cobb.

Not so according to many teachers in Cobb County and its school board.  Not only is there is a budget shortage in Cobb (as in most other districts), but by hiring 50 TFA teachers would mean that 50 experienced teachers would have to go.  Those who embrace the TFA mantra tell us that they will deliver the best and the brightest, and the most inexperienced professionals for America’s urban schools.   Its not solving the problem, and the teachers and school board in Cobb made the right decision.

Communal Teaching and Reform

The kind of teaching environment that Emdin suggests for urban schools is a communal one.  Communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  This type of teaching requires not only an understanding of the student’s culture, but the courage and willingness to create classrooms that are based on relationships, empathy, and understanding, and there is substantial evidence that in order to do this the best and most experienced teachers are needed.  Putting unlicensed and inexperienced teachers in urban classrooms is more of an experiment being carried out by TFA rather than a solution to urban schooling.

Emdin provides insight for us as to go about being a teacher in urban classrooms.  Because Emdin places great emphasis encouraging teachers to understand their urban students and he says this:

…it is necessary to understand how students know, feel, and experience the world by becoming familiar with where students come from and consciously immersing oneself in their culture.  This immersion in student culture, even for teachers who may perceive themselves to be outsiders to hip-hop, simply requires taking the time to visit, observe, and study student culture.

Dr. Emdin suggests that classrooms should be viewed as a “space with its own reality.”  In particular he urges us to focus on the “experiences of hip-hop participants as a conduit through which they can connect to science.”  Using the concept “reality pedagogy” teaching in the urban classroom means creating a new dialogue in which the student’s beliefs and behaviors are considered normal, and that the experiences within the hip-hop culture can actually be the way to learning science.

You might want to follow this link to a review of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation by Jose M. Rios in Democracy & Education.

What do you think about Dr. Emdin’s ideas about teaching and learning in the urban classroom?  What experiences would you like to share with us about teaching?

Corporate Science Education Standards—Far From the Classroom

I got a Tweet from Christopher Emdin, Professor at Columbia University Teachers College linking me to his recent article on the Huffington Post entitled 5 Reasons Why Public School Teachers are Occupying Wall Street.  His reasons, which I will list below, resonated with me with regard to the way in which corporate boards, through organizations such as Achieve are taking over public education by creating a single curriculum that will be defined by the Common Core State Standards.  Such standards already exist in mathematics and English/language arts, and science education standards are currently underdevelopment.

Although the organizers of the standards movement will tell you that teachers are involved in the process, they do not sit on the boards that make the policy decisions, and they are not part of the process that led to the standards movement in the first place.  Their voices are rarely heard, and when teachers do speak out, they put themselves at risk.

In this context, I think you will find Dr. Emdin’s article on why teachers are involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City encouraging and important.  You can read his article here, but here are the 5 reasons he gives for teachers participation:

  1. Teachers are fearful about the future of their students.
  2. Teachers are taking a stand against irresponsible investments and the closing of public schools.
  3. Teachers want the world to see the hidden problems that challenge urban public schools.
  4. Teachers want to show their connection to other pressing social issues.
  5. Teachers see Occupy Wall Street as a teaching opportunity.

The corporate movement to establish one set of standards in each content area is far from the realities of the classrooms, as Dr. Emdin points out in his article.  The standards movement is a stale substitution for curriculum, whereas the realities of day-to-day teaching involve teachers helping “to open students’ eyes to the possibilities that there is a more beautiful and equitable future than the present.”  To say this in a corporate board meeting discussing the merits of the Common Core State Standards would be heard with deaf ears.