Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Teaching social justice via science and math

These are some notes from a Teachers for Social Justice event I attended here in Chicago way back in March. Titled "Teaching and learning mathematics and science for social justice", the speakers discussed ways that social justice issues have been raised in the course of teaching chemistry and math at the Little Village/North Lawndale Social Justice High School. Again, these are notes, and may be verbatim (or close to) material from the main speakers, Daniel Morales-Doyle, Alejandra Frausto and Rico Gutstein.

What does it mean to teach social justice in science? Science is a way of grappling with identity. It provides a means for students to shift away from solely being consumers of knowledge and culture to also being producers of knowledge and culture. Science can also be used to de-mystify the objects of consumption.

In the chemistry class example, youth popular culture provides the entry point for social justice issues in the curriculum. Scientific concepts and experiments tie in with artifacts of popular culture and their production process (including environmental implications, the labor process, and the political and social conditions of production).

The (ideal) social issue science curriculum needs five components: A reference point to youth popular culture, engaging lab activities, a social justice issue, good science content, and rigorous academic skills. The successful curriculum relies on good pedagogy: clarity of purpose (to help students and their community), high expectations, caring, discipline, a good work ethic, consistency, modeling uncertainty and seeking additional information, passion, enthusiasm. [Discipline and punishment are two different things.] Good pedagogy also values student knowledge ("foreground their knowledge").

For younger science students, teachers can help students visualize what a scientist is (and help them visualize themselves as scientists). Teachers should help students maintain (or encourage in them) a curiosity about the natural world. Teachers should build student confidence in the student's observations and thinking.

The speakers handed out a diagram of "Critical Praxis in Chemistry" that portrayed a cycle on inquiry. The cycle begins with a problem in popular culture. This is followed by learning about chemistry theory to support the inquiry into the popular culture problem. Chemistry theory is supported and enhanced by experiments, conducted in series of threes, or triads. Experiment one introduces a concept; experiment two builds skills, and experiment three has students exploring and inquiring about the unit problem. The learning/experimenting stages may go through multiple iterations. The fourth stage of the cycle comprises assessment and action -- students are asked "to apply their newly constructed knowledge of nature to produce culture that may affect changes in the problems [they] have identified." This in turn may initiate a new cycle of investigation.

The speakers provided several examples of "critical chemistry" in practice. One example, "The Science of Bling", begins with the unit question, "How is the value of diamonds justified by their physical and chemical properties?" The question connects to youth culture through engagement and wedding rings, hip-hop, fashion, and films like Bling and Blood Diamond. Social justice issues include conflict diamonds and the exploitation of natural resources in developing countries. Key chemistry concepts include the chemical and physical properties and classification of matter. For an authentic assessment, students write a pre- and post-unit "Love Letter" to a hypothetical fiance(e) about the issue of a diamond engagement ring.

Social justice issues in math are introduced in a similar way. Math is used to help students understand social reality. Units begin with authentic problems that students encounter in their community. Rico Gutstein described a unit that he did with high school students on predatory lending. The impetus for the unit arose from one student's family facing foreclosure. The math component included concepts like principal and interest, growth rates, compounding, budgeting and so on. Gutstein also described an investigation students did into the 2004 elections which addressed probability and the possibility that the presidential election was stolen (students produced an editorial raising these questions as a result of their work). Gutstein has elsewhere described a unit on racial profiling which incorporated probability concepts. An important element of "social justice math" is that it should tie into the lives of students. [Personal aside - This places an additional burden on the teacher to collect the necessary data and research to ensure a productive unit for the students.]


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