Colouring in the detail on a black and white issue

27th September 1996 at 01:00
In the light of evidence that African Caribbean boys are failing, Reva Klein looks at practical ways of presenting science in a global context

A woman tells the story of how, as a child, some classmates pricked her finger after a science lesson to see what colour her blood was. Childish curiosity? Sure. But it goes beyond that. The woman telling the story was one of the few black children at her school. Changing for PE, she attracted small crowds hoping to catch sight of her tail.

Science and race are interesting bedfellows. Many science teachers will insist that they sleep in separate rooms: that science is not constrained by culture or society; that it transcends these realms and deals instead with universal absolutes. Clearly, this is not the case. White men in white coats, particularly of the 19th and 20th centuries, have devised race theories to serve their social and political times.

The publication of The Bell Curve two years ago showed how controversial and ultimately destructive the raceintelligence debate continues to be.

If science itself has been projected as belonging to the dominant white male western culture, so too has the teaching of it in schools. Science teachers, according to a former member of the profession, see themselves as scientists first and teachers second. They are largely male, almost always white and according to Steve Thorp, a former science teacher himself, "particularly badly served . . . by the positive developments that took place" in the wake of the 1985 Swann Report which, among other things, promoted anti-racist and multicultural teaching in all curriculum areas.

What impact this self-imposed colour-blindness has had on science teaching is open to debate. What we do know is that African Caribbean boys are failing in science as well as in maths. In Birmingham, one of the only LEAs to go public on its ethnically monitored GCSE results, 1995 figures showed that only 12.4 per cent of black Caribbean boys received A to C grades in science (as opposed to 28.6 per cent of black African boys, 44.1 per cent of Indian boys and 36.9 per cent of white boys).

These figures, the most recent available, were brought to light last June by the African Caribbean Network for Science and Technology. Last month's publication of a review commissioned by the Office for Standards in Education has borne out these findings.

Why African Caribbean boys are doing so poorly is a complex matter about which theorists will continue to theorise and researchers research for a long time to come - as they must. We need to know the reasons, to deconstruct the stereotypes, to analyse the problem within socio-economic contexts. We need to understand the classroom dynamics, to look at other countries, to compare and contrast, all as a way of learning why these boys are failing.

And we must also do something about reversing this trend now, before another generation of African Caribbean boys loses out on education and job opportunities.

Schools need to analyse their own practice when it comes to the teaching of science (and maths), to look at who is succeeding as well as who is failing, to look at how they can engage the unengaged, to make science the dynamic, challenging and relevant subject that it should be. An essential starting point is presenting science as a global discipline that reflects the diversity of all peoples of the world in terms not just of achievement but of its day-in, day-out manifestations.

Water is not simply two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen: it is an element that is easily accessible in some parts of the world and scarcer in others. Some people walk miles for it, others queue at standpipes in cities, some are regularly flooded by it, some waste it as it pours from their taps.

Students of all cultures and backgrounds respond to subjects delivered in ways that speak to them. When they are presented with images and examples of people who look like themselves or who share a common background or religion, the subject becomes more immediate. They feel that it speaks to them, personally.

After years of being derided as "trendy" and banished to the pedagogic wilderness, multicultural and anti-racist teaching methods are finally being recalled as essential components of the entitlement curriculum by the Department for Education.

But if this way of teaching is being rehabilitated, how are teachers supposed to carry it out? Luckily, the Association for Science Education's in-service training manual and handbook, both entitled Race, Equality and Science Teaching, offer as comprehensive a blueprint as you are likely to find anywhere.

The handbook, edited by Steve Thorp, Pratap Deshpande and Christine Edwards, is comprised of a range of articles written by primary and secondary specialists covering many key categories and issues, including secondary science teaching and the bilingual learner, early years and key stage 1 science, multicultural issues in teacher training and the issue of race in science teaching. The handbook also offers a wealth of ideas in the form of activity sheets and suggestions for discussions.

It begins by presenting science as an inclusive discipline. Says Steve Thorp, formerly an advisory teacher for multicultural education at Nottinghamshire and now a consultant in the field, "The western view of science is as a totally secular discipline, which excludes other viewpoints such as the Islamic idea of science, which is set within a cultural framework. This means that there are many hidden histories of individuals from minority backgrounds whose scientific achievements are not validated because they don't use the same methodologies as western scientists.

"What we're saying in the handbook is that science can and should be taught within a global context. We see it being done more and more in, say, geography, where teachers are using development education materials. But we have a way to go before we get there in science teaching."

In her chapter on "Classroom Science for Equality and Justice," Sharanjeet Shan-Rhandawa sets out criteria for self-evaluating the process of teaching and curriculum content, and includes the following points: Process: * Do your classroom organisation and dynamics encourage pupil participation?

* Can they freely and proudly bring their own knowledge and experience into the classroom?

* Is the atmosphere in your classroom conducive to discussions of "race" and racism? Do you feel that "race" and racism have a scientific basis?

* Do your pupils have the ownership of the images displayed in the classroom? What do the images reflect?

* If scientific explanation of evolution is in conflict with the pupils' cultural experience, would you value the alternate view equally?

Content: * Is the content presented in such a way as to eliminate ideas of white supremacy?

* Are any women shown to be performing tasks of high status and scientific value? Are these black or white?

* If a technological problem is posed, is there room to have a variety of correct answers or does the material give the impression that Eurocentric answers are the "norm" and the others are less progressive alternatives?

Sue Lyle's and Alyson Jenkins' chapter on "Making Global Connections Through Science and Science Teaching" offers examples of illustrating the value system which dominates western science and is the foundation of industrialised societies. By way of introduction, they write: "The social and political climate in which western science operates powerfully influences what research is done by determining what is valued and what is not. This also influences the ways in which science is applied, by politicians and industry, often to the detriment of the environment and people . . . It is important that teachers find ways of exploring moral and ethical dilemmas that scientific discoveries and technological developments can cause."

An activity on food, farming and soil is suggested which is suitable for Years 5-8 and covers AT1 - Scientific Investigation at all levels with appropriate activities; AT2 - Life and Living Processes, levels 2d, 3a,b, 4c,d; AT3 - Materials and their Properties, levels 3c, 4e. Two diagrams are distributed to each child (see Figures 1 and 2 below which are taken from of the handbook). Figure 1 illustrates the modern scientific way of planting and harvesting wheat; Figure 2 shows the traditional way. A third sheet labels each activity shown on the diagrams. The pupils are asked to discuss the diagrams and match the labels to the diagrams. The labels make statements such as: The high-yielding seeds need are amounts of fertiliser to grow properly; The cattle eat the husks of the seeds and manure the land at the same time.

Then users are asked to discuss the financial, social and environmental implications of the two different types of farming.

For example: * What money do farmers need to implement the two different types of farming? Think about money for machinery, seeds, chemicals, etc.

* How would farmers earn the money to buy the inputs they need for the mechanised system of farming?

* If a village changed from traditional methods to mechanisation what would that mean for work in the village?

* How does traditional farming look after the soil? What changes do the pupils think would happen to the soil if a mechanised system was implemented?" Follow-up discussion could focus on questioning why the scientific knowledge of those who took new farming methods and crops to the tropics was not applied to protect the soil and looking at the skills of the peasant farmers.

The authors cite this as a positive cross-curricular project bringing together the central role of soil to food production, economic and industrial awareness and environmental education "to help explore such concepts as causes and consequences, similarities and differences and interdependence. Children will also explore attitudes and values, their own and those of others".

Resources and organisations Association of Science Education, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AA. Tel: 01707 267411.

The African-Caribbean Network for Science and Technology. Under the directorship of Elizabeth Rasekoala, the Network works closely with parents and schools and distributes a short resource list for multicultural maths and science teaching. Contact Ms Rasekoala at 19 Dorchester Road, Swinton, Manchester M27 5PX. Tel: 161 727 9188.

Science in Primary Schools: The Multicultural Dimension edited by A Peacock. Macmillan Education 1991.

A Joint PrimarySecondary Integrated Science Scheme by J Siraj-Blatchford and J Loud. published by Open University Press 1990.

Eurocentrism and Myopia in Science Teaching by S Ashrif. From the autumn 1989 issue of Multicultural Teaching, published by Trentham Books.

Changing Science by Hannon, Ditchfield and Boyle. Hodder and Stoughton 1992.

Anti-Racist Science Teaching by Gill and Levidow. Free Association Books 1987.

Why on Earth - An Approach to Science with a Global Dimension at Key Stage 2 published by the Development Education Centre, Gillet Centre, 998 Bristol Road, Birmingham B29 6LE.

Ecology for Beginners by S Croall. Writers and Readers 1986.

The Earth Report edited by Goldsmith and Hildyard. Mitchell Beasley 1988.

Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern edited by I Sertima. Transaction Books 1985.

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