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Dealing with the democratic aspects in science education
Växjö University, Faculty of Mathematics/Science/Technology, School of Technology and Design. Kemiavdelningen.
2008 (English)Conference paper, Published paper (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Dealing with the Democratic Aspects in Science Education

Barbro Gustafsson, PhD-student and lecturer, School of Education, Växjö University, S-351 95 Växjö, Sweden.

Background, Aims and Framework

Teachers’ main tasks can be summarized in the form of an overarching, two-part assignment: to present subject matter and to foster independent, democratic members of society. This is sometimes called “the double assignment”, comprising a subject matter (or knowledge) assignment and a democracy assignment. I see the relationship between scientific subject matter and democracy in dialectical terms. On the surface, the concepts might appear to contradict one another. However, similar to other conceptual pairs such as theory–practice, body–soul, individual–society and humankind–nature, they are united and mutually dependent by virtue of an inner relationship (Israel, 1980). I refer to Hegel’s dialectical view that involves striving to understand the commonalities among apparent opposites; my goal is to highlight the integrating whole by emphasizing the subject matter–democracy relationship in science education.

You could say that the subject matter task is in itself a democracy task, seeing that pupils who understand the subject matter of their education are better equipped to manage in their daily lives and to take an active part in democratic decisions. The democratic assignment is, however, about much more – it is about using democratic forms and communicative interaction with others to foster attitudes that are in line with the fundamental values of society.

In my work as a teacher educator, for three years I had the opportunity to meet all of Växjö University’s student teachers during their first semester of study. During a course in Sustainable Development, the students were reading the book Naturvetenskap som allmänbildning [The Natural Sciences as General Education] (Sjøberg, 2000). One of the points that are highlighted in the author’s arguments for learning science is that knowledge in science is needed for democratic reasons.

The student teachers were then asked to write down their reflections on their own view of the need for scientific literacy. The texts reflected their experiences of what science education has been like, but also their hopes about what it could be like in the future.

An analysis of the texts shows that for many of the student teachers, science education was boring and outdated. For this reason they do not care for further studies in the natural sciences. For these students, it was not enough to be able to explain how things work in a scientifically or technically correct manner – which they believe that educational practice has focused on so far. They did not become engaged. Many of them feel that they have not been trained to argue, discuss, or take a stance because most topics, particularly within physics and chemistry, are already “proven and established.” The argument that scientific literacy and science education contribute to the democratic development of individuals and society seems unfamiliar to the students. Many of them describe the opposite situation, that is, that more than any other subject, science education is characterized by authoritarian content and methods. Nor have they really understood the legitimacy of the natural sciences in the schools. The teacher students wish for a type of science education in which communication, ethical and moral reasoning, and existential and emotional issues are included. These experiences of student teachers became the starting point for my work.

The purpose of my presentation is to highlight the relationship between teachers’ subject-matter and democracy assignments, and to show how dialogue-oriented educational efforts may be used to integrate both assignments in science education.

I deal with the following questions:

• How can the subject-matter and democracy assignments be united in science education?

• How can dialogue in education help prepare pre-service teachers to better manage the dual responsibility to teach subject matter and foster democratic citizens?

The idea that dialogue and communication are important for learning subject matter and for democratic development has compelled me to combine democracy theory in the form of the deliberative dialogue model with theories about learning, communication and socialization. My interpretation of the term “socialization” is not limited to order, subordination and adaptation in relation to a given system (for example, society or the schools), in which normative frameworks specify what is correct, right, and morally acceptable behavior within the system. In education, socialization must involve the ability and willingness to show consideration for others outside one’s own given framework, according to the principles of “Enlightened understanding” (Dahl, 1989).

Conclusions and Implications

Based on research on the importance of dialogue for learning subject matter and for democratic development, I propose dialogue-based efforts to help bridge the gap between subject matter and democracy in science education. By democracy, I mainly refer to deliberative processes in which the participants – in mutual communication – test the tenability of each other’s arguments seen from a universal perspective (Benhabib, 2002; Englund, 2006; Gutmann & Thompson, 1996). The idea of the importance of democratic dialogue for both learning and democracy implies that such dialogue can be seen as an opportunity to integrate the subject-matter and democracy assignments in teaching practice.

The philosophical aspect of my argument rests on the idea that dialogue can be seen in part as a democratic goal in itself, and in part as a method for achieving learning objectives within a given subject. Because deliberative discussions require a certain knowledge of subject matter, I believe that the combination offers possibilities for both scientific and democratic development.

I also argue that student teachers should practice this type of integrative effort within the framework of the subject didactics component of their teacher training. For this reason I highlight the educational possibilities inherent in deliberative discussions about authentic or fictitious “socio-scientific issues” (Kolstø, 2001; Ratcliffe & Grace, 2003; Sadler & Donnelly, 2006) in teacher training. “Socio-scientific issues” are questions in which the problems involve scientific facts as well as sociological (normative) and subjective value aspects.

While I do not subscribe to the idea of a universal method, I do believe that teaching should be varied in order to offer different pathways to learning. One possible pathway to explore is deliberative discussions, in which pupils and even pre-service science teachers in training are given opportunities to improve their argumentation skills, their ability to take a stance, and to develop democratic skills via discussions of complex issues related to the natural sciences. Deliberative discussions can provide the opportunity to change perspectives, with an eye toward pedagogic discourse in science education, and with the goal to unite the dual assignment – knowledge of subject matter and democratic development. During their didactics training, student teachers can, for example, plan, carry out and evaluate discussion-based efforts.

However, the idea of deliberative discussions must also be critically evaluated. It is a relatively controlled procedure, which may seem rather dubious when seen from the perspective of democratic freedom. For example, the participants must agree upon the rules of order for the discussions as well as agree to follow them. To this end, they must treat each participant’s argument with respect, tolerance and sensitivity. Those who engage in a deliberative discussion must also be able to present a common ground, a form of consensus, even if it can be a question of a temporary agreement. Critics of this consensus-oriented focus point out that the explicit aim to reach an agreement in a discussion can be a hinder to critical argumentation, and thus impede the discussion. Another viewpoint is that the unavoidable power structures between different pupils – and between teachers and pupils – render genuinely deliberative discussions impossible. Additionally, the relatively out-of-the-way role of the teacher in deliberative discussions has also been questioned. In this case, I agree with Englund’s (2006) view that teachers certainly must not abdicate from their actual (subject-matter) and formal authority. When using deliberative discussions in teaching, the traditional tasks of planning and leading classroom work and answering pupils’ questions still remain. However, through their choice of material and methods, teachers – together with their pupils – can create the conditions for a “discursive situation” in which the participants agree about the guidelines of mutual respect and a willingness to understand (ibid. p. 513).

The increased use of deliberative discussions in science education would be somewhat time consuming. However, could reducing the time devoted to other elements be counterbalanced by qualitative improvements through the discussions? It is fully conceivable that discussing complex and topical “socio-scientific issues” could increase the interest in science. Discussion-based teaching can therefore be an example of one of the various changes that Osborne and Dillon (Osborne & Dillon, 2008) see as necessary in order to reverse the trend of declining recruitments to natural science education.

The potential of deliberative discussions must be evaluated against the background of the challenges I have described here. The evaluation should offer the freedom to deviate from certain aspects of the ideal behind deliberative discussions, in order to evaluate their potential in classroom situations.

The daunting and delicate task of evaluating whether or not deliberative discussions really do contribute to both democratic development and in-depth knowledge in science remains to be examined empirically. I will present some preliminary results from an empirical study including three classes in upper secondary school, studying Nature and Environment A [Naturkunskap A]. The students were discussing two “socio-scientific issues” concerning the greenhouse effect, using the guidelines from the teaching scenario presented by Gustafsson (2007, p. 115-116). In this study, the aim is to evaluate what is said and to interpret what is left unsaid, as well as how the discussions contribute to pupils’ scientific literacy and their democratic development. How scientific knowledge is used and how democracy aspects are expressed in the discussions are areas of particular interest.

Bibliography

Benhabib, S. (2002). The claims of culture : equality and diversity in the global era. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Dahl, R. A. (1989). Democracy and its critics. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Englund, T. (2006). Deliberative communication: a pragmatist proposal. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38(5), 503-520.

Gustafsson, B. (2007). Naturvetenskaplig undervisning och det dubbla uppdraget. NorDiNa, 3(2), 107-120.

Gutmann, A., & Thompson, D. F. (1996). Democracy and disagreement : why moral conflict cannot be avoided in politics, and what should be done about it. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Israel, J. (1980). Språkets dialektik och dialektikens språk. Stockholm: Esselte studium.

Kolstø, S. D. (2001). Science Education for Citizenship. Thoughtful Decision-Making About Science-Related Social Issues., University of Oslo, Oslo.

Osborne, J., & Dillon, J. (2008). Science Education in Europe. A report to the Nuffield foundation. from http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/fileLibrary/pdf/Sci_Ed_in_Europe_Report_Final.pdf

Ratcliffe, M., & Grace, M. (2003). Science education for citizenship : teaching socio-scientific issues. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Sadler, T. D., & Donnelly, L. A. (2006). Socioscientific Argumentation: The effects of content knowledge and morality. International Journal of Science Education, 28(12), 1463-1489.

Sjøberg, S. (2000). Naturvetenskap som allmänbildning : en kritisk ämnesdidaktik. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2008.
Keywords [en]
demkrati, deliberationer, dialog
National Category
Pedagogical Work
Research subject
Pedagogics and Educational Sciences, Pedagogics
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:vxu:diva-3515OAI: oai:DiVA.org:vxu-3515DiVA, id: diva2:203471
Note
Presentation vid "The 9th Nordic Research Symposium on Science Education" 11 − 15 juni 2008 i Reykjavik, IslandAvailable from: 2008-09-09 Created: 2008-09-09 Last updated: 2010-12-03Bibliographically approved

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