A Time for Radical Change
By Scott Ferguson and Charissa V. Jones
There is a major disparity among California's demographics in science education. In 2019, a mere 14% of Black students and 19% of all Latinx students met state science standards compared to 43% of White and 44% of Asian Americans (California Department of Education, 2020). While partly due to testing the recently adopted Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), these significant differences show that we need a major restructuring of our educational system (Kahli, 2020). We believe that the establishment of new classroom relationships, environmental justice, and culturally responsive teaching methods such as radical pedagogy can help to close this gap.
New Classroom Paradigms
Science education can be improved through the establishment of more dynamic relations between students and teachers, such as suggested by radical pedagogy. Historically, teachers were the dispensers of knowledge and spoke with authority to teach content-based science in a lecture form (Fiere, 1968). This so-called “banking system” places students as vessels to be filled by teachers. An antiquated system, it has been criticized as entrenching power for the elite by placing the teacher as an authority above and greater than the students. Despite the historical creation of our educational system by white people, that system is upheld across all communities. All students must then conform to a single “model” student, which has historically been the assumed standard of American dominant culture or “whiteness” (Hammond, 2014; Harris, 1995). The White American Dominant Culture grants advantages to white people in such a way that they don't have to think about their racial identity because they live within a society where whiteness (the customs, cultures, beliefs, communication expectations, etc. of white people) is normalized. They have the privilege to navigate society and have the standard/norm as well as feeling normal in their interactions. However, this system can change.
Paulo Fiere (1968) encouraged educational relationships to decentralize teachers from the ‘dispenser of knowledge’ to active facilitation of their students' learning. To ensure diverse students’ success, participants and teachers must enter into new dialogues in which back and forth discussions of relevant topics are highly encouraged (Bell Hooks, 1994). Culturally relevant teaching (CRT) is accomplished by asking questions and honoring each student's experiences as valuable and valid. CRT requires risk. It requires teachers to risk letting go of being seen as authority figures or experts, being transparent about what they don’t know, and viewing students as the content experts of their own lived experiences and cultures (Gay, 2002). It requires students to risk being vulnerable enough to bring their whole selves to the classroom and trusting their teachers and classmates will see them. Students become valued sources of knowledge and both learners and teachers. Teachers also become students when they’re learning from the knowledge of their students. Mutual respect and trust are the foundation of this relationship; this respect must be earned not given to the teacher due to power dynamics. In this new relationship with my students, I am a more impactful educator. Foundational to this new classroom dynamic is the implementation of student-centered lessons that encourage their discovery of concepts.
Environmental Literacy & Next Generation Science Standards
Environmental literacy, or understanding unifying environmental concepts, and science lessons must connect to students’ lived experiences. Educators can reimagine schoolyards and parks as outdoor labs where students connect lived experiences to NGSS. Students can study local wildlife adaptations in their community to learn about evolution. We encourage teachers to have students use nature journals to map local system interactions and study plants and animals. The creation of school gardens can combat food deserts and provide local healthier, fresh food for the community.
NGSS emphasizes teaching beyond memorizing content. The standards center the processes of science and the nature of science. While NGSS alone is insufficient to bridge California’s achievement gaps, it creates a framework by which educators can create culturally relevant lessons for students. To encourage interest in environmental literacy, students can study local environmental justice issues such as food deserts, high rates of air and water pollution, proximity to toxic waste dumps, and their effects on decreasing life expectancies of people of color. Students then create solutions that can mitigate the impact of human actions on the environment, mirroring such standards as HS-ESS3-4 or HS-LS2-7.
Not only is the retention of science lessons higher when CRT engages students, but this new system also encourages a generation of civically engaged, scientifically literate citizens. Studies have shown that undocumented students become more politically active with civics education (Rogers et al., 2008). Effective science lessons must also do this. Our students need to be able to identify and navigate massive amounts of information and misinformation. Empowering students to become the drivers of their education will make science more engaging, create greater place-based attachment, and promote pro-environmental stewardship behaviors.
The Way Forward
The Monterey Bay Aquarium encourages students to connect to their community and become change-makers. Our students create experiments to study the wetlands of Elkhorn Slough. We encourage leadership in middle and high schoolers through our multiple teen programs. Additionally, students of our professional development participants have created solutions to climate change and plastic pollution. The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean, achieved through the empowerment of young people, professional development for teachers, and promoting a passion for nature.
The goal of education never should have been the rote memorization of facts; it should prepare students to think critically, understand the world around them, and improve it. If students are empowered through inquiry-based, culturally-relevant environmental lessons; they will be difference makers in their community whose education creates a better world for themselves and their families. This can only happen if students are connected to greater social movements, and see their backyards and parks as part of a greater ecosystem. While this restructuring of our education system will not be easy, if accomplished, our students will create a better, more equitable world.
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Master's of Biological Science, in progress, Miami University
Bachelor's of the Arts in Environmental Science, Willamette University
Charissa V. Jones
Oregon State University