Diversity and equity in science education

Children from racial and ethnic minority and low socioeconomic backgrounds are not reaching their full potential in science. Okhee Lee explains how equitable learning opportunities can close this achievement gap  

FOR ABOUT THREE DECADES, science educators in the U.S. have called for “science for all” as the principle of equity and excellence in science education. However, the promise of science for all cannot be attained while achievement gaps persist among students of diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. There is a critical need to identify standards-based science instruction with strong evidence of effectiveness for diverse student groups. In this article I offer the concept of equitable learning opportunities as a framework to discuss ways to promote desired science outcomes for all students. I describe two theoretical perspectives, cognitive science and cultural congruence, that offer insights about equitable learning opportunities for students from non-mainstream backgrounds.

What we know
● Provided with equitable learning opportunities, children from all backgrounds have the capacity to be successful in science.
● Two theoretical perspectives, cognitive science and cultural congruence, offer insights about equitable learning opportunities for students from non-mainstream backgrounds.
● Science instruction is more effective when it links the linguistic and cultural experiences of diverse student groups with scientific practices.

Equitable learning opportunities

Cognitive researchers’ changing views about children’s capabilities for learning science have been corroborated by classroom research. Even young children demonstrate sophisticated ideas about argument, evidence, and fair tests. Young children across cultures universally acquire substantial amounts of knowledge and fairly well-developed explanations of the natural world, while they also show areas of difficulties and misconceptions. This new understanding challenges the traditional view that children must reach a certain age or developmental stage to learn certain science concepts or skills. Our understanding has evolved from a deficit view that “children are not developmentally ready” to engage in scientific thinking to a view that “children are surprisingly competent.”

Similarly, science educators have shifted their views of racial or ethnic minority and low-SES students from a deficit view to a more equitable view that children from all backgrounds have the capacity to be successful in science. At the same time, research shows that there are areas of discontinuity or conflicts between these students’ cultural norms and practices and the norms and practices of science.

Research in both cognitive science and student diversity in science education indicates that all students come to school with prior knowledge grounded in their home languages and cultures. Equitable learning opportunities occur when school science: (a) values and respects the experiences that all students bring from their homes and communities, (b) provides learning experiences that enable students to integrate such experiences with the standard knowledge of academic disciplines, and (c) offers educational resources to support all students’ learning.

When provided with equitable learning opportunities, students from nonmainstream backgrounds can attain science outcomes comparable to their mainstream peers. These outcomes include attaining high levels of science achievement, adopting identities as science learners, demonstrating agency, and becoming bicultural and bilingual border-crossers by linking their own cultural and linguistic communities with the science learning community.

Classroom teaching

When we start from the evidence that high academic achievement in science is attainable by most children, we recognize that gaps in science outcomes among racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, or SES groups are a product of the different learning opportunities available to students. An important question for science educators is: What constitutes equitable learning opportunities? Among the growing number of research efforts to improve science outcomes of students from non-mainstream backgrounds, this article highlights two theoretical perspectives, cognitive science and cultural congruence.

A common premise underlies these two selected perspectives: science instruction is more effective when it links the linguistic and cultural experiences of diverse student groups with scientific practices. How this articulation is carried out, however, differs depending on the specific points of continuity or conflict between students’ cultural norms and practices and those of science. When students’ home cultures and the culture of science are continuous, teachers capitalize on students’ everyday thinking and knowledge as points to begin instruction. When these two cultures are discontinuous, teachers need to make the norms and practices of science explicit for students.

Cognitively based science instruction

An emerging body of literature based on cognitive science indicates that the ways of knowing and talking characteristic of racial or ethnic minority and low-SES students are generally continuous with the ways of knowing and talking characteristic of scientific communities. When teachers understand the complex dynamics at the points of contact between scientific practices and students’ everyday knowledge, they can identify and incorporate students’ cultural and linguistic experiences as intellectual resources for science learning. They can then provide opportunities for students to learn to use scientific language and participate in a science learning community.

Ann Rosebery and Beth Warren at the Chèche Konnen (which means “search for knowledge” in Haitian Creole) Center have promoted collaborative scientific inquiry with racial or linguistic minority and low-SES K–8 students to help them use language, think, and act as members of a science learning community. The students employ sense-making practices consistent with scientific practices: deep questions, vigorous argumentation, multiple perspectives, and innovative uses of everyday words to construct new meanings. As students engage in scientific inquiry, teachers can identify intersections between students’ everyday knowledge and scientific practices, and use these intersections as the basis for classroom teaching.

Culturally congruent science instruction

The cultural norms and practices of students from non-mainstream backgrounds are sometimes inconsistent with accepted scientific norms and practices. Cultural congruence occurs when teachers engage in culturally appropriate practices and utilize cultural artifacts, examples, analogies, and community resources familiar to students in classroom teaching. Furthermore, multicultural education literature argues that the school knowledge or the norms of classroom discourse are largely implicit and tacit, and thus not easily accessible to students who have not learned them at home. For students who are not from the mainstream culture, effective science teachers make the rules and norms of the culture of science explicit and enable students to cross cultural borders between their home cultures and the culture of science.

My framework of “instructional congruence” highlights the importance of developing congruence between students’ cultural and linguistic experiences and the specific demands of particular academic disciplines. Teaching benefits when the links between these two domains – the home and the academic – are articulated, especially when they contain potentially discontinuous elements. As students acquire the cultural competencies required for academic achievement, they may also require explicit instruction in science content if they are to build a knowledge repertoire that supports their academic success. Teachers move progressively from more explicit instruction to more student-exploratory strategies, gradually reducing assistance while encouraging students to take initiative and assume responsibility for their own learning.

Conclusion

Cognitive science and cultural congruence perspectives yield implications for science teaching for student diversity. From the cognitive science perspective, teachers need to identify points of contact where scientific practices are continuous with students’ everyday knowledge and build on such continuities to promote student learning. From the cultural congruence perspective, teachers need to make the norms and practices of science explicit for students, especially when such norms and practices are discontinuous with the norms and practices of their cultures. The evidence showing that gaps in science outcomes can be moderated when equitable learning opportunities are provided offers hope that the goal of science for all can be achieved.

About the author

Okhee Lee is a professor in the School of Education, University of Miami, Florida. Her research areas include science education, language and culture, and teacher education.

Author note This paper is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF Grant #ESI–0353331). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position, policy, or endorsement of the funding agency.

Further reading

Lee O (2002), Science Inquiry for Elementary Students from Diverse Backgrounds. In WG Secada (Ed.), Review of Research in Education, Vol. 26 (pp. 23–69). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Lee O and Buxton CA (2010), Diversity and Equity in Science Education: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Warren B, Ballenger C, Ogonowski M, Rosebery A, & Hudicourt-Barnes J (2001), Rethinking Diversity in Learning Science: The Logic of Everyday Language. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(5), 529–552.

Published

June 2010