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Science Education - Matters of Diversity

Paul Grobstein's picture
During the summer of 2008, Paul Grobstein, Luisana Taveras, a rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, and Julia Lewis, a rising senior majoring in Chemistry and Bryn Mawr College, will be thinking about science education and trying out ideas in a summer institute program with K-12 teachers. These forums are a place for ongoing thinking by the three of them, and any one else interested. To contribute your thoughts, use the forum entry form at the bottom of this and other forum pages. Postings will be checked to prevent spam and so may be delayed in appearing. An updated list of all forums in this series is available here.
Matters of Diversity

Humans differ in terms of a wide range of characteristics, including not only racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds but also sex/gender identities as well as prior experiences, preferred learning styles and forms of social interaction, and the ease with which they address various cognitive and emotional challenges. What are the most useful ways to think about/relate to classroom diversity? Is heterogenity a problem for science education (education generally) or an asset? In general? In particular contexts?

A timely, if slightly off subject  addendum


Paul Grobstein's picture

diversity: turning things around

Discussions of diversity in an educational context (and otherwise?) seem to me frequently to start from a presumption, conscious or unconscious, that there is a particular place one wants everyone to get to ("knowledge that is to be utilized to successfully tackle challenges in the real world", some "useful skill to have", and the like). And it strikes me that that presumption creates a whole series of ills ("teaching to the test", difference between classroom and "real world" skills/environments) and problems (what is diversity?, is diversity productive/efficient? ) that collectively suggest it may be worth reconsidering the presumption itself. Its further my sense that taking diversity itself seriously gives us a perhaps more productive way to think about where we want people to get to.

There is clearly still work to be done in getting everyone comfortable with the idea that students are different from one another in all sorts of ways that are relevant to the classroom, but we seem to be moving toward a recognition that "neurodiversity" is, at least, a classroom phenomenon that can't be ignored. The next question is what to do with/about it, and that in turn necessarily relates to what one is trying to achieve. IF the objective is, in one way or another, to get everyone to the same particular place, then one might think of diversity as a problem that needs to be overcome, or as a tool that can potentially be employed to further the objective. In either case, though, one's objective is, to one degree or another, to reduce neurodiversity.

Maybe though that is itself the core of the problem? Maybe educational systems should both start and end with the premise that diversity is not only inevitable but desireable? Maybe

"The more I learn, the more I realize more and more that how I think and feel is different"

ought to be regarded as not a surprise but rather as an indication of educational success? Start with a recognition of individual differences, use those as a tool to nurture further individual differences? That would not only ensure that "programs like Kaplan would be obsolete" but, more importantly, make classrooms more interesting not only for students but for teachers as well?

Classrooms not so much to give "increased awareness of themselves and their environment" but rather to enhance distinctive abilities and perspectives? THAT might help to give a more coherent understanding of what education is all about, one that would perhaps allow one to more productively thread one's way among what are at the moment uncertainties about a lot of issues of curriculum, pedagogical practice, and institutional organization.

Addendum ("more productively thread one's way ....")

  • students at the end of a course should not be evaluated on whether they can state/make use of a particular way of thinking about things, but rather on whether they can describe and use a way of thinking about things (one of many possible ones) that is for them new and "less wrong" than the one they started the course with, and can imagine and describe ways that in turn might prove to be an inadequate understanding
  • courses should begin and end by encouraging students to describe their current ways of thinking about whatever the material of the course is, with particular encouragement to express what is idiosyncratic to one's own understanding as well as what is similar to the understandings of others
  • commonalities in understandings and skills should to the extent possible be allowed to evolve from the interactions of different inquirers rather than being as a needed foundation without which individual inquiry can't proceed
LuisanaT's picture

Diversify the members in the discussion

More on an interdisciplinary →transdisciplinary education

After reading a posting made in the Neural and Behavioral Science senior seminar course talk about “mental diversity’s” ability to reduce the number of times people say “I agree” in a discussion I would like to propose another change to the way in which classes are set up. What if all senior seminar classes, or at the very least the discussion held there, involved students from other seminars. I thought of this because what I find to be a great thing about liberal arts colleges is the fact that students can enter a class with an incredibly wide range of knowledge gained from the many different the types of courses the school offers. And so to supplement the prerequisites associated with more advanced classes like senior seminar courses that move beyond establishing major concepts in a particular area of study and incorporates more discussion-based learning, similarly leveled classes should take part in conversations together to challenge current understandings even further and potentially in a new way.
LuisanaT's picture

A little extra

The same student that made the posting in the Neural and Behavior Science senior seminar course I referred to in the previous post I feel perfectly captures the essence of diversity in regards to all means of, for lack of a better word, productivity, especially in the educational system.

“…it’s important to celebrate what makes us different so that we can integrate those differences into our ways of thinking”
jrlewis's picture

an alternative way to increase diversity

An alternative way to develop and increase diversity of thought in a classroom, would be to replace the singularist pedagogy with a multiplist pedagogy. To teach students that there are multiple acceptable answers to a question. This educational scaffolding would better preserve diversity. However, not all interpretations of a problem or situation are admissible. Students need to learn criteria for determining which answers are admissible. In theory, an infinite number of acceptable interpretations exists. A multiplist aproach provides students with significantly more intellectual freedom than the traditional singularist style.
LuisanaT's picture

Looking at Varenne's response to Grobstein

I would like to argue that believing self-interest has to be coupled with the "examinations that are the prerequisites to entry into full adulthood" and successfully strive towards greater equality and liberty is underestimating the ambition students today have simply to learn and inquire. This idea is not putting enough faith into student motivation. For, it is a teacher’s job to compose different lesson plans and material to spark their student’s interests and try their best to sustain it by guiding, not to be confused with pulling, them along the ladder of the educational system.

To place even more responsibility on the hands of the teachers, it is very important that they introduce the students to the maximum amount of different studies of life in order to maximize the amount of students that eventually gain a keen interest in a certain area of study. Maintaining the motivation in both the students and teachers alike I feel will definitely overcompensate for the lost of the "altogether violent need for examinations." Public schools can still prosper even if the institution itself is not specialized to meet highly specific interests of only certain individuals; the fact that it allows students to exercise their minds in a productive way is what really counts towards being an effective institution. If anything, the "peripheral institutions of interest" can refer exclusively to the last level(s) of education.

jrlewis's picture

I was once lucky enough to

I was once lucky enough to sit in on an English Department meeting for a charter school in the Philadelphia. One of the teachers made the claim that the skills tested on the PSSAs and other standardized tests are not the same as those needed for the study of literature and rhetoric. He did not want to teach what he loosely termed "test taking skills." Another teacher responded that he found the standarized tests useful for organizing his curriculum. He argued that the students needed structure to learn complex analysis and skills.

I tend to agree with the first teacher and think you might too. However, I am unsure how to respond to the second teacher.

LuisanaT's picture

In a perfect world

In response to the second teacher’s opinion, I feel like using the rigid structure of the PSSA’s and other standardized examinations alike to formulate the curriculum is valid. For one thing, gaining the ability to critically read and retain information from multiple passages in a short period of time is a useful skill to have, especially when it comes to tackling the immense reading material in college. However, in no way does that justify the short dominance it holds in the classroom; the majority of the year is dedicated to test-taking strategies and various practice material, limiting the amount of learning that goes on in the academic year. For there is a big difference between learning how to “perfect” the (math, reading, writing, etc) skills students already have and solely learning how to best take the examination. I understand that the exams are meant to test a student’s current knowledge, but, and here is where one of the real problems arises, it should not be knowledge just learned specifically for the test.

In a perfect world, there would be a fairer distribution of time and effort spent teaching students skills and concepts that just also happen to prepare students for any standardized test. Here all students would learn, for example, to quickly sum up the function of each paragraph in a passage as they are reading it as a general reading comprehension strategy, not a test-taking one two months before the big exam. But since this world isn’t perfect, I for one did not explicitly learn to extract main ideas while reading until the SAT’s rolled around. If I have been trained to work in that efficient, effective matter ever since I started reading not only would I save time and money preparing for the SATs, a lot of what goes on in programs like KAPLAN would be obsolete, but I could have done exceptionally better on the exam.
LuisanaT's picture

Diversifying education



It is important to maintain some level of diversity in the educational system, both in the body of students and the competency of the teacher. For the extent to which the teacher comprehends what they teach, execute and demonstrate what they teach, and whether or not they further their knowledge on what it is they teach varies tremendously, producing profoundly different effects on the student’s learning.

The heterogeneity in the classroom, increases the possibility of arguing about concepts discussed and of someone making a mistake whihc is essential for the basic process of learning. But it is not enough to simply have a diverse group of individuals together like in a classroom or in a Staff Development meeting as it is to be open to the idea of false belief, the ability to understand that people can hold beliefs about the world that are wrong and identify them constructively. This kind of mentality is necessary especially for teachers because it makes them conscious of the fact that a student’s knowledge helps determine their behavior and therefore belief/attitude towards a certain concept discussed in class.

LuisanaT's picture

Questions about different schoolings

How effective is homeschooling and the variety found in the way that homeschooling can be conducted ( i.e. professional tutors, parent-teachers, online education)?

On a slightly different axis, what are we to say about single-sexed education with its blatant limitations on diversity? Yes, at least in Bryn Mawr’s and other all women’s college’s defense, there have been studies that have shown group setting composed entirely of women have shown to be very effective but that does not ignore the fact that it reinforces gender stereotypes, like those of the same sexed must stick together or perpetuating gender-based education (not offering home economics in all men’s institution) just to name a few.

And if we look more closely at specific single-sexed institutions like Bryn Mawr, why is male staff allowed in the campus? Another question is why is Bryn Mawr involved in the Tri-CO initiative?

How do men feel about working about working as part of Bryn Mawr’s faculty? Was it possibly because it was the best job opportunity, or some other convenience?

One last spin on things would have to consider specialization in the types of classes offered in a school let alone the entire school itself. Questions about the legitimacy behind having highly specified classes/institutions during the lower levels of education arise, in particular those of special ed and specialized classes. (When I say lower levels of education, I am referring to the level of education before one commits to specializing themselves in that particular field, where they are there simply to learn the basic knowledge of that field.) Is it really ok to have honor classes and such when they “stealing” the quicker learning individuals or special ed class “removing” the slower then average students from the standard class, lowering the amount of diversity and therefore type of challenge a text book or teacher alone can not bring to the class?

LuisanaT's picture

Good read on "mainstreaming"

jrlewis's picture

Single Sex Education

Single sex educational institutions do not just limit diversity; they discriminate. Bryn Mawr denies admission to candidates on the basis of their gender alone. Indirectly, women's colleges, amongst other institutions, support a definition of gender as being dual in nature. It is not immediately obvious how they treat people who present themselves as gender neutral or transitioning.
LuisanaT's picture

Premature thoughts on an ideal education system

Start students off in a “free-range” (“” refers to a safe environment in which is readily accessible on a daily basis) area to find themselves, make sense of the world, and come to some general conclusions about life on their own and with the guidance/facilitation of a person who has the skills of a teacher, guidance counselor, psychologist, and overall is a more experienced individual. This stage in the student’s education is to get to the heart of the function of school- to establish and develop knowledge that is to be utilized to successfully tackle challenges in the real world. For the real world is not organized, written in black and white or in stone, consistent, or predictable and so conditioning students to work in an environment that is like this is terribly misleading and therefore inappropriate.


The next stage will allow the students to be introduced to an immense selection of studies of life, allowing them to interact with each and generate new ideas and opinions about them. Once they have gained a particular interest in a certain area, have them go to a “specialized institution” to increase their knowledge there and hopefully come out with a career based on that study.

LuisanaT's picture

Ideal educational system continued

Computational thinking involves the process of working with abstractions which can hold a very close relationship with inquiry based skills. For while computational thinking considers multiple levels of abstractions, inquiry takes those abstractions and decomposes them through investigation, questioning, skepticism, and criticism. With that in mind, can the Three R's of lower-leveled education (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic) be amended to include, for lack of the best term, THINKING, a form of thinking that encompasses both a computational mentality using inquiry based skills?

LuisanaT's picture

In an ideal world in the VERY FAR future.

When all of the misconceptions/misunderstandings students have that is a RESULT from traditional, conventional education have been eliminated/”corrected,” what then will teachers teach? What I feel will happen is that teacher’s lesson plans would have to ONLY be contingent on what at that point are “crazy, mind-boggling, interesting“ observations to learn and therefore teach about which may be harder than hoped.
LuisanaT's picture

Continuing with the ideal

Giving students the “pay off” (the contrived answers) and when to give that “pay-off” are concepts that are both relative. For it is important that lower levels of education (elementary school as well as introductory courses) include more “pay-off” in order to build the student’s initial repertoire of factual knowledge/common sense/problem solving skills/etc. But it is crucial to pull out the scaffolding at the right time, which has to be at an early time.

So as students get older, the “pay-off” can be more philosophical, more open-ended, ultimately giving less “answers.” In a lot of educational situations, we are doing a disservice to students if teachers act like god- all-knowing, when assuring students that their conclusion is “correct” and absolute answer. This leaves no room for change in the way one can look at a question or for different ways to answer the same question appropriately.

As the student reaches highschoool and higher levels of education, teachers (and less common but just as important, students) feedback should be meant to make the students aware of how close their understanding is to being less wrong and still revisable.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Thinking as an educational objective

It is indeed interesting that the most common descriptions of educational objectives include neither "thinking" (see This isn't just my problem, friend) nor "inquiry skills" (see notes). I'm not sure that's synonomous with "computational thinking" but the latter can certainly contribute.
LuisanaT's picture

Why get the education

In order to get to a closer approximation of what the purpose of receiving an education should be, we should that a look at how our present attempts is not working. If we at look at the little environmental continuum students undergo described in the Learning Disabilities (LD) section of the Culture as Disability article, we can see that the way in which the education system gets more specific and intricate, the further away the students are from familiarizing him/herself with the reality that lies outside of those four walls, that pen and paper.

For as the authors of this essay puts it, “it is only in response to the arbitrary demands of the school culture ( i.e. score a perfect score on your SATs) that he is shown to be disabled,” to appear less than adequate in accomplishing (literally) unrealistic goals/ unnecessary tasks for surviving in everyday life.

My question is why is education- school in itself- a life separate from the everyday, more specifically, so isolated from the everyday life, is a totally different world? The fact that you must survive school before stepping into the arena that is the “real world” is in itself conceding to the extreme difference the two environments have to offer and expect from students. Although schooling is part of our everyday lives, it is definitely separate from the life we lead/who we are once we get out of the classroom door. Why then should it be expected that once these students successfully abide by all of the expectations placed on them by the school that they will also be prepared to strive in the rest of their life post-schooling?

In a lot of ways the way the education system is set up now can water down to gaining the “books smarts” but not supplementing it with any of the “street smarts” necessary to make it in the real world.

jrlewis's picture

I totally agree with you

I totally agree with you that there is a distinct set of skills required for success in school that may or may not be useful in the real world. In my educational experience, this unique environment was justified as a necessary step in my academic and social development. My school strived to be a more fair and idealistic environment than the real world. Since leaving high school I have struggled with the difference between how things are and how they should be.

If the purpose of education is to give the child/student increased awareness of themselves and their environment, the school-real world may be seen as a failure. However, it might be argued that the specialized school environment might be important for teaching students about such issues as social justice. There are charter schools in Philadelphia dedicated to a peace and social justice curriculum. Maybe it matters most, how the educational environment differs from the real world. Not all differences are bad.


jrlewis's picture

Diversity and Definitions

Perhaps this is a question more suited to a sociology or anthropology discussion, but I am wondering how does the concept of diversity define a person? How does it affect society's interpretation of a person? The multiple types of diversity present in a single person yield multiple admissible interpretations of that person. Or each element of diversity entails a single specific interpretation of a person. This implies the possibility of many interpretations yielding many distinct identities.

How does diversity affect a person's conception of themselves? The different elements of a person may be in direct conflict with one another. Or they may be complimentary. How does is awareness and understanding of oneself relate to interpretation?

jrlewis's picture

"tertia non datur" -the

"tertia non datur" -the third is not given

This idea might be useful when considering an object of interpretation and the its interpreter. What is the relationship between the two? Is there a hidden variable?

jrlewis's picture

Art and Race

In her article "Why Diversity for Diversity's Sake Won't Work," Jennifer Delton argues that the concept of "diversity hiring" is extremely problematic. The methodologies used to obtain a diverse workforce are arbitrary and racist. She states "as is the case with art and obscenity, they know race when they see it." The art of life. This metaphor treats art and race as objects of interpretation with respect to their appearance.

The appearance of a person does not entail one specific race or interpretation of their racial identity. For example, a young Chinese woman may have been adopted by an American family and raised with their cultural values. Her contribution to community or institutional diversity would differ significantly from a Chinese woman who was raised by Chinese parents who strove to preserve their culture rather than assimilating.

This metaphor is also applicable to class, gender, and sexual orientation amongst others. In this sense physical appearance may provide observations to be subsumed in an interpretation of personal identity. For example, someone may present as a man, but may have more complicated gender politics.

It is interesting to consider the role of the person interpreting race. The interpreter's conceptions of race may conflict with the object of interpretation. The two interpretations may be incommensurable or opposite in nature. Which interpretation should be accepted?

jrlewis's picture

Definition of Diversity

Loden and Rosener's book, WorkForce in America, provides a two tiered definition of diversity. The primary tier criteria are age, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, race, and sexual orientation. The second tier consists of educational background, geographic location, income level, marital status, military experiences, parental status, religious beliefs, and work experience.

This characterization of diversity differs significantly from the one used by Page and Putnam in their research. Their classification constrains the issue to class, ethnicity, and race. By so severely limiting their parameters, Page, Putnam, and other social scientists have oversimplified their model. The theories and results they have developed are interesting in terms of creativity and generativity.

However, their supporting evidence is not compelling because they have ignored too many significant variables. For example they do not address how sexual orientation relates to either educational achievement or civic engagement. In their article "Sexual Orientation and Educational Politics: Gay and Lesbian Representation in American Schools," Button, Rienzo, and Wald state that "some medical and educational professionals have called upon schools as primary socializing institutions to initiate policies and programs that address these obstacles to gay students' educational achievement and personal success."

Clearly, the situation is significantly more complex than the models Page and Putnam provide. It would be interesting to see whether or not their theories could be applied to a more realistic representation of civic engagement, education, and society.

jrlewis's picture

Diversity vs. Ability

Scott Page's is an advocate of affirmative action, who has taken a novel approach to proving the value of this controversial policy. He asserts that diversity is more advantageous than ability in a problem-solving context. This is a powerful claim, however, it is attached to a string of qualifiers.

In a paper co-authored with Lu Hong, he presents the mathematical model and proof for his argument. The model appears overly simplified. It is not clear that diversity is always more valuable than ability. I did not understand from the paper whether or not there was a minimum level of ability requisite for inclusion in the group of problems to be chosen at random. If there was such a criteria, it might detract from the strength of his assertion. Also, in the conclusion of the paper, the authors mention that their model does not take learning into account. Do they mean that the diversity of perspectives and heuristics in a problem solving community will either increase or decrease with learning? What sort of role are they proposing for education?

That sort of role do we think education should play with respect to diversity? In the traditional model of education, the student body was assumed to be homogeneous and the education students received was identical within a single school. Currently, with different teachers, tracking, electives, and differentiated instruction students educations within a single school may be diverse. How much does this educational diversity create diversity of perspectives and heuristics in potential problem solvers? How does this diversity interact with diversity due to race, gender, ethnicity, and more?

jrlewis's picture

Biological Perspective of Diversity

I have heard the argument that there is no biological evidence for human oppression. However, this was the first time I have read an account advocating diversity as an essential element for the perpetuation of the human species. This claim comes from the Theory of the Evolution.

I am curious about who was the audience intended for this article. Students? Educators? General Public? Might this paper be appropriate for use in a biology course? It is extremely relevant to discussions of biological diversity, ecology, and others. However, the claims the author makes, and the issues it addresses are more suitably discussed in a social science course. Or perhaps the field of psychology might to address the issue "how humans learn to perceive and evaluate threats as individuals and as groups". This paper collapses the issue of demarcation between the physical and social sciences. Should the physical sciences be used to address social issues? It raises a question about the role of science in society. Do the properties of the Theory of Evolution entail a philosophy of science?

Evolution is a well developed theory that summarizes a broad range of observations. Evolution is pertinent to physical sciences such as biology and social sciences such as anthropology. Is the theory of evolution a scientific theory? According to Karl Popper it is metaphysics, not a scientific. Thomas Kuhn would consider it a paradigm or a component of a paradigm in science. Does the theory of evolution have implications for fields other than science?

jrlewis's picture

Risks and Diversity

I sat at a horse show this weekend, watching a nervous eighteen year old compete in an unrestricted three-foot hunter division. Over a period of two days, with three courses set in two different rings, the woman failed to get her horse over a single jump. It was terrible to watch.

My initial reaction is that at least both horse and rider are unharmed physically. They are physically capable of competing again, jumping again, and somehow sorting out their problems. However, I am sure that they are not so pyschologically sound. The young woman was subjected to severe stress in the form of anxiety, disappointment, fear, and humiliation. The horse was frustrated and scared. She was not adequately prepared to compete at this level, that is why she chose not to participate. The mare exercised her own judgement in the situation.

Contrast this example, to one in which the horse absolutely obeyed the rider. The horse was unable to clear the jump and the rider was thrown. This was dangerous. There are some experiences that can not be learned from because the learner dies in the process. It is important to recognize that education is risky physically and psychologically.

I consider it to be the responsibility of the teacher to reduce the risk inherent in the process. However, this may prevent the education environment from representing the real world, by substituting a more ideal environment. The student should be made aware of the perils of the educational process. They should be encouraged to take an active role in reducing the precarious nature of their experiences. This is a meaningful form of participation in education and one that will benefit them in other areas of their lives.

However, it is impossible to remove all risk from the process of education. In a traditional classroom of a homogeneous student body, there are essentially only two judgments being considered, that of the student body and that of the teacher. There is no guarantee that these two judgments can deal with every educational hazard. Is there any way to further reduce the inherent risks? In a diverse classroom, each and every student offers a different judgment or opinion. As the number of people involved in the process of education increases, diversity of ability, experience, and values increases. The educational unit is expanded beyond the traditional student-teacher relationship to embrace a broader and more informed perspective. The group as a whole has a better judgment. They will be able to avoid a broader range of risks, making the experience safer and more profitable for all.

Now how do we implement this strategy in the classroom? How do we make everyone feel comfortable contributing? Is there one correct interpretation or many? If there are many, how do we decided which ones are admissible? Does this vary across different academic subjects?