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?

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?

When It Comes to Science Education Reform, Are We Stuck in the Muck?

Education reform in general, and science education specifically is based on a standards-based reform (SBR) model that has its roots in outcome-based education (OBE).  The intent of OBE  in science education was largely student-centered, in that education was focused on measurable student performances, that are called outcomes.  In fact, many of the progressive models that have been discussed on this blog have been incorporated by outcome-based educators.  If you look at the literature of OBE, it generally agreed that standardized tests or high-stakes tests ought not be used in OBE systems.  Non-traditional forms of assessment such as portfolios, student logs, teacher observations and opinions should supersede high-stakes and standardized tests.

But the standard-based reform model that is at the center of educational reform uses the term Common Core State Standards which assumes that all students should learn the same material in each subject, and high-stakes tests should be used to assess learning.  Furthermore, in many states, teachers, administrators, and schools will be held accountable based on the test results by using a data-driven model called value-added teaching.

I never was a fan of outcomes-based education even though I worked on two projects based on the idea in the 1970s.  In the 1970s, the state of Florida was well ahead of the rest of the country in the development of an accountability model in teaching.  Through the Florida Assessment Project, a comprehensive set of science objectives (based on the cognitive psychology of Robert Gagne), and corresponding set of performance-based test items was developed.  The first set was designed for science, Grades 7 – 12 in 1972 under the direction of Dr. David Redfield at Florida State University.  I worked in residence at FSU as a Visiting Professor on the project, as well as a writer for the Intermediate Science Curriculum Project (ISCS).

When I returned from my tenure at FSU to Georgia State University I submitted a proposal to the Florida Department of Education to develop a comprehensive set of objectives and test items for science, Grades K- 6.  It was funded, and in 1973, we submitted the final product(3 very large documents) to the Florida Department of Education.  Florida had in place by 1973 a “standards-based” set of objectives and test items for science, Grades K – 12.

Since 1973, the U.S. has been centered on reform in education that is standards-based, and much of it can be traced back to the work of Dr. David Redfield at FSU.  For the next 15 years, many states developed their own performance-based objectives and test items, and in the 1990s, the AAAS and NSTA through the National Research Council developed the National Science Education Standards.

In 2011, the National Research Council published a new document, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, that has become the basis for a new generation of science standards. The new science standards (a set of content-based performance objectives) will be published in a year or two.

We have had three episodes of educational reform based on the development of sets of performance-based objectives in earth, life and physical science. Assessments, based on the objectives, are then designed to measure student performance (achievement).

Thinking Differently

Why don’t we think differently about educational reform?  Why do we keep repeating the same system of reform that doen’t appear to be working for many students?  Why do think that more of the same, but dressed up differently, will make any difference to a student living in poverty, or attending a school that doesn’t have the same resources as a school 20 miles away?

We don’t think differently because we are stuck in the mud.  But it is more than that.  There is a powerful core movement that is taking the “public” out of schools, and resting the power and control in the hands of a few corporate leaders who have backed the Common Core State Standards program at Achieve, and have also supported Charter Schools, School-Choice, and Common Assessments.  Oddly, in our liberal democracy, the reform movement looks more like a system in which all the power rests in a central command center, rather than in the school boards of the 15,000 school districts around the country.

Educational reform that will have meaning for students and teachers needs to be community (neighborhood, school, district) based, and needs to be in the hands of educators that are near the generation of youth that are being educated. There are ways to break us out of the mania of standards-based reform, and the drive to “test kids until they beg for mercy.” Here is one idea to think about.

Humanizing Education

In the spirit of Paola Freire, humanizing education is “the dialogic relationship between understanding the world and transforming it.”  Humanizing education is a reaction to the dehumanizing forces and practices that are imposed on students and teachers.  My own experience in humanizing education came about through my association with the Association for Humanistic Psychology, and then the Association for Humanistic Education, and courses that I taught for teachers at Georgia State University on humanistic and experiential education in 1970s and 1980s.  Oddly, much of my practical work in humanistic psychology took place in the Soviet Union as part of AHP’s Soviet-Exchange Project, which I headed after it was created by Francis Macy.

My first book, which was entitled Loving and Beyond: Science Teaching for the Humanistic Classroom (Goodyear, 1976), described my approach which I wrote with Dr. Joe Abruscato.

Humanizing education had to do with power, and showing people (in my case, teachers) how they could use their power to transform themselves, their classrooms, and their students.  Using the psychology of Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers, teachers confronted issues that stood in their way from liberating themselves within the context of traditional schools.  Teachers who embraced the humanistic vision worked to make their environment open and inviting to students and parents, and also expressed diverse views on how students can and should learn.

At the center of humanizing education is justice and equality, and this idea is developed in articles by Maxine Green in Humanizing Education, (Harvard University, 2010).  As I have written on this blog, the continued dehumanization of schools through the relentless insistence on test scores, and removal of teachers from the policy decisions that affect students and parents, is not the way to help the current and future generation of students.