Research Matters - to the Science
Creating a Multicultural Learning Environment in
Alejandro J. Gallard, Science Education, Florida State
University, Tallahassee, FL 32306
Most science teachers do not need to be reminded that creating a
learning environment for today's science students is an increasingly
complex problem. We are faced with dramatic changes in student
demographics. As an example, Newsweek (1991) reported that:
.....more than 5 million children of immigrants are
expected to enter US public schools during the 1990's. About 3.5
million schoolchildren are from homes where English is not the
first language. More than 150 languages are represented in schools
nationwide (p. 57).
The wide assortment of languages, customs and experiences,
associated with today's immigration movement, are very different from
what has been experienced in past like movements. Yesterday's
immigrants were European and constituted a large part of the minority
population in the US. For these immigrants the teaching styles,
images in textbooks, teachers and schools encountered in the US were
extensions of those which characterized their homelands. In contrast,
today's immigrants emanate from such places as the Caribbean, Latin
America, Mideast and Southeast Asia. For these people, the
traditional images associated with education differ markedly from
those which apply to white, European, cultures. However, the images
encountered in present classrooms derive from white, European
traditions (Beane, 1988). Because the present anthropological,
linguistic and sociological context is so diverse, it becomes vital
for science teachers to address the different languages, customs, and
experiences (multiperspectives ) that students bring to science
The multiperspective change our classrooms' populations have
undergone have a substantial impact on science teachers striving to
create a classroom environment in which all students can learn.
According to Tobin (1991) learning in science:
....is regarded as an interpretive process of making
sense of experience in terms of extant knowledge. The heart of the
learning process is the negotiation of meaning. Learners must be
given opportunities to make sense of what is learned by
negotiating meaning; comparing what is known to new experience,
and resolving discrepancies between what is known and what seems
to be implied by new experiences.
Therefore, learning is a result of students making sense of the
world they live in. This process is complicated if a student's basis
for making sense is radically different from how others in the
classroom are making sense. For instance, a Caucasian, middle class
American student and a Hispanic migrant student may read the same
textual information on plants. Because of the Caucasian's
experiences, he may focus on plants as aesthetics extensions of his
home or school when constructing meaning. On the other hand, the
migrant Hispanic student will interpret the information in light of
his fieldwork experience. In both instances construction is correct
because it has been determined by the learners' cultural context.
However, the Caucasian's efforts at making sense may more closely
resemble what a science teacher who has not had any fieldwork
experience may consider as correct responses. This includes the
languages that both students use to make sense and as they
communicate what they have learned to others as well. The implication
is that students need to work in a classroom environment that enables
and encourages them to use their cultural tools. These tools include
language, cognitive referents which include myths, personal beliefs
and metaphors, images, preferred learning styles, and the time and
space to apply extant knowledge to problem-solving situations.
It is important for us as science teachers to realize that a
student's knowledge is a result of her/him interacting and making
sense of the culture in which she/he lives. Even though students have
immigrated to the US, their cultural experiences are an important
component of this extant knowledge. Thus, it becomes incumbent on us
as science teachers to find ways that students may use their
knowledge, or views of the world, in ways that draw on their prior
cultural experiences. Staying with our example of a student with
fieldwork experience we could have him share with his classmates his
knowledge about plants to include the vocabulary he uses to
distinguish plant parts or even plants themselves.
One's own words, based on personal experiences to describe, interpret
and understand science phenomena is referred to by Cobern (1991) as a
way of looking at the world which is based on
.... the foundational beliefs, i.e., presupposition about
the world that support both common sense and scientific
theories-that is a world view. (p.7) A world view defines the
self. It sets the boundaries of who and what I am. It also defines
everything that is not me, including my relationships to the human
and non-human environments (p. 9).
Thus, a student world view, of which language plays a major role,
is the major source of cognitive tools she/he brings to science
classrooms as she/he goes about trying to make sense of the science
that is being taught.
Making sense is a critical factor to consider; because interpretation
of a science lesson will be in accord with each individual student's
world view, students can interpret the same science phenomena in many
different ways. Cobern (1991) offers the following excellent
illustration of how varied interpretation may be.
Three men went to see Niagara Falls. One was an Indian
from India, one was a Chinese, and one an American. On seeing the
falls, the Indian, as a matter of course, thought of this god,
manifested in this grandeur of nature. The Chinese simply wished
to have a little hut beside the falls, where he might invite a
friend or two, serve tea, and enjoy conversation. The
American, however, on viewing the falls, immediately asked himself
what could be done to make the most of such an enormous amount of
energy (p. 50).
The Role of Communication
In the US, the use of a language other than English for
instructional purposes has been of great controversy. Researchers
such as Cummins (1981, 1986), Cuevas (1984), Hakuta (1986), Ramirez
(in press), and Walsh (1991) have demonstrated that students' use of
their primary language in the classroom adds to their ability to
learn and excel in the English language.
These authors are referring to limited English proficient students
attending bilingual classrooms where teaching and learning is in the
student's native language and English.
A major reason that limited English proficient students eventually
excel in English, by using their primary language, is that these
students are provided the opportunities to develop major conceptual
understandings of what they are trying to learn as opposed to trying
to learn vocabulary words that are detached from real contexts.
Conceptual understanding begins when direct experiences are discussed
in terms of language that is the everyday language of the student.
Once experiences are understood in this way the language of science
can be added; the language of science is then connected through
everyday language, and to the students' direct experiences. Thus, it
seems that we need to create and maintain science classrooms that are
rich in opportunities for students to use their native language as
they attempt to make sense of the world.
It is important for us to keep in mind that "communication is culture
bound. Students with different cultural norms are at risk if teachers
have little knowledge, sensitivity, or appreciation of the diversity
in communication styles" (Taylor, 1987, p.1). Perhaps student
communication, in our science classrooms, is a matter of whether we
stress learning (as learning previously has been defined) or
vocabulary accumulation. Cummins (1981) refers to this as the
difference between a classroom environment that emphasize
context-embedded versus context-reduced communication.
Context-embedded communication derives from interpersonal
involvement in a shared reality that reduces the need for explicit
linguistic elaboration of the message. Context-reduced
communication, on the other hand, derive from the fact that this
shared reality cannot be assumed and thus linguistic messages must
be elaborated precisely and explicitly so that the risk of
misinterpretation is minimized (p. 11).
The notion of context-embedded communication seems to fit neatly
with making sense of science phenomena through diverse, multi-sensory
experiences and working in cooperative groups. Students in a
context-embedded classroom would have an opportunity to explore
science in a manner that emphasizes conceptual understanding and not
The Milieu of Science Teaching and
In many cases integrating a student's culture into school activities
has been confined to activities such as celebrating Cinco de Mayo,
Black History Month, or the Chinese New Year. Such activities are
often designed to assist students in the majority culture to better
understand the cultures of minority groups. However, "neat
multicultural activities" fail to meet the learning needs of
culturally diverse students, in science classrooms. Lessons that
acknowledge cultural differences must be a daily part of the science
curriculum; such lessons should not be reserved for special
enrichment activities. In order to meet the learning needs of
culturally diverse students, we must provide, in every lesson we plan
to teach, regular opportunities for all students to make sense of
their experiences in ways that are personally meaningful. Science
activities planned in this manner will necessitate the use of all the
languages students bring into the classroom. This would be especially
important for limited English proficient students. A way of
facilitating the use of many languages is through cooperative
grouping with classmates who speak the same language thus providing
them with opportunities to negotiate meaning. After students have
used their own experiences to construct new meanings they should then
be provided opportunities to negotiate meaning in English.
The idea of facilitating cultural experiences that are familiar to
minorities of color or language should not be limited to the
classroom but extended to the whole school. For example, when working
with Hispanic students, Lucas, Henze, and Donato (1990) recommend (1)
valuing the students' cultures, (2) setting high expectations, (3)
emphasizing parental involvement (4) offering courses in three modes
for: students who do not speak English; beginning English speakers;
and fluent English learners.
We also need to think of ways that facilitate students examining
science knowledge in historical, social and multicultural contexts;
activities that integrate a science curriculum associated with
scientific advances identified with non-Western cultures, or
comparing science in different cultures. For example, instead of
introducing the contributions of George Washington Carver only during
Black History month, his scientific contributions should be key
elements when such topics as botany, agribusiness or biotechnology
emerge in the classroom.
If the suggestions are initiated, the students' multiperspective
become the basis for not only teaching but the whole of the school's
culture. Pugh (1990) summarized these points by suggesting that
teachers consider the following:
1. Science is not free of cultural influence.
2. Science textbooks are not free of racism.
3. History and development of science should not be solely
attributed to European cultures.
The ideas mentioned by Pugh center around the notion that in
science and science teaching there is no written rule that a
particular view directly and easily connects into the life experience
of all students.
Perhaps one of the most difficult issues for a science teacher to
deal with is developing ways to encourage learning through
facilitating students' use of extant knowledge, which includes
culture, and language, in a multi-cultural setting. Adding to the
complexity of a multi-cultural classroom is the notion that the
discipline of science has its own culture and language, and so does
the science teacher. The key to comprehending this milieu is to
understand that learning, which is the process of making sense, is
culture dependent. Specifically, if we provide students with
opportunities to make sense of science phenomena through diverse,
multi-sensory incidents, learning will take place. Thus, students
would be able to use their experiences, which include language and
culture, as they interpret science phenomena. Students would then be
able to compare what they know to these new experiences and find ways
to make sense of them.
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Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
is a publication of NARST