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Education as a Fragmented Culture: A Field Study

K16 Collaborations Minisymposium 2008

Observations and Interpretations on Educational Fragmentation

  Paul Grobstein and 2008 Science as Inquiry Institute colleagues



Over fifty years ago, C.P. Snow called attention to what he regarded as an undesirable fragmentation in intellectual life, a "two cultures" split with sciences and humanities relatively disconnected from each other. I was interested in the extent to which this fragmentation still exists and whether there was an additional fragmentation between the "academic" and the "non-academic", both perhaps contributing to students feeling that school work as a whole was not well integrated with their lives in general. To explore this question, I chose to try and assess the unconscious understandings of a group of precollege and college educators.



A group of K12 and college educators and two college undergraduates, all participants in the 2008 Science as Inquiry Institute at Bryn Mawr College, were asked to write the first three words that came to mind when prompted with "Science for onself", "Science for your students," Humanities for yourself", "Humanities for your students", "Things beyond the combination of science and humanities for yourself," "Things beyond the combination of science and humanities for your students". For further details see Minisymposium Program Notes.





Sciences Humanities Beyond S & H self students self students self students
experiments lab language reading people friendship
new info raisins lives history reality trips
facts questions reading stories love conversation
explore play test listen graduation graduation
fun suspense boring talk finals finals
research fun sit down boring alma mater alma mater
learning fun reading socialization faith friends
work activities writing work family family
fun junk exposure long health future
lab fun learn work interest growth
money recess talk boring expand horizons reading
coats jump ancient listen excitement knowledge
sandbox exams reading papers horse friends
exams problem sets history reading art interests
models memorization philosophy bibliography friends relaxation
job fun communication don't know confusion socialization
technology hard work experience not relevant ? interests
improve environmentnt projects grading boring ? awareness
experiment groups people environment creativity change
nature activity life studies    
exploring fun        
fun fun who who watershed mind set
exploration investigate what what mind set change
discovery think when why behavior behavior
sillyness sillyness structured what is it? happiness structure
play hard controlling writing peace love
happy boring seeking hard belonging understanding
living fun English ? study newness
non-living animals meaning ? outside unknown
light hallway books ? exploration world
life work reading can't NA recess
open study persuasion do NA sleep
explore homework writing it NA  
inquiry hoop people easy love school
explore boring art open hate friends
life fun literature fun food/wine fun
drama fun people fun love family
life wonder soft life community friends
sterile quandry complex joy relationships free play
knowledge learning to think relaxation reading sports video games
order basic knowledge beauty history puzzles myspace
thinking how things work books art   cell phones
work work different hurdle home life
fun fun unknown unknown love friends
new goal reading tedious food cell phones



Before turning to a discussion of the findings themselves, two aspects of methodology need to be addressed. The first is that the sample size was quite small, and in no way should be regarded as representative of K16 educators as a whole: all participants had a commitment to and many had substantial experience as science educators, with a very low representation of people with commitments to and experience as educators in other areas of the curriculum. Both issues will be further discussed as appropriate in connection with particular interpretations of the observations made.

Three important presumptions of these studies is that culture is significantly influenced by an ensemble of individual behaviors, that individual behavior is strongly influenced by the "adaptive unconscious", and that the adaptive unconscious can be effectively assayed by a process of "free association." Space precludes a complete consideration of the legitimacy of any of these three assumptions. Suffice it to say there is adequate support for each of the assumptions in general so long as certain procedural safeguards are followed, and that appropriate attention was given to the needed safeguards. Perhaps the most important remaining concern is the issue of whether educational culture is more affected by "thoughtful and deliberative processes" than by the cognitive unconscious. I suspect it is not, but that question requires a different kind of observations than those provided in this study, and needs to be kept in mind in thinking about the points made below.

There continues to be a two cultures split

This is apparent most obviously in the greater relative frequency with which words with negative and passive connotations ("boring,"tedious,"structured," "controlling") appeared in connection with humanities, as well as the a significant number of participants who were indifferent to or puzzled by the term itself. The non-random sample of the population is directly relevant here. It is conceivable that a group of teachers with primary experience and commitment in the humanities would show less evidence of a two cultures split. My guess though is that one would see with such a group a similar set of responses in reverse, with a relatively higher frequency of words with negative and passive connotations appearing in connection with science. Regardless, the observations reported here do, at a minimum, show that there persists a two cultures divide in the cognitive cognitive unconsciousnesses of a significant number of educators having a primary commitment in the sciences. Notice though that there is a wide variation around any population average. Some teachers used words with similarly positive connotations for both sciences and humanities. It would be interesting in future work to see whether there is any correlation of this with, for example, teaching level, and how both individual and modal responses shift over time.

There is as well an "academic"/"non-academic" split.

This is most apparent in the relatively high frequency of social and emotive words ("people," "love," "faith," family,"community" and the like) in the Beyond Science and Humanities list and the near complete absence in the other two lists. Though less clearly different given the small numbers, it seems also noteworthy that "creativity" and "expand horizons" do not appear in the first two pairs of list but do in the third.

Summary and Implications

Within the limits of the methodology of this set of observations, it seems to show that the educational community continues to be fragmented in at least ways: a sciences humanities split, and an "academic/non-academic" split. Further work is needed to address the question of whether this fragmentation in turn contributes to students feeling that their school activities do not relate well to their lives in general but it seems likely that the fragmentation plays some role in this. For these reasons, I recommend that greater efforts be made to provide time and resources for K16 educators from different disciplinary backgrounds to spend time together sharing thoughts about curriculum and pedagogical practice, and perhaps even developing some courses in common. There is a clear need as well for greater interaction with "non-academic" professionals in curricular design and pedagogical practice.


Cynthia Henderson's picture

video projects

Learning how to make a video was absolutely fascinating.These tools are helpful in enhancing students' learning as well as teaching.The technology is available but is constantly changing.The ability to create our own story is foremost.

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