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Changing the Classroom Using The Feminist Critique of Science

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Changing the Classroom

Using The Feminist Critique of Science


A feminist walks into the principal’s office at her local elementary school, and slaps down on the desk a thick packet.

“What’s this?” The principal asks dubiously, looking up from a computer screen filled with attendance records and test scores.

“My plan,” The feminist shoots back, cocking a hip as she points imperviously at the packet, “To apply the feminist critique to our science classrooms. It’ll revolutionize the way we look at science! No longer will our classrooms be filled with mundane memorization or idealized folk heroism. How does that help students? It doesn’t, we know that! It excludes them! We must give students a fighting chance to be incorporated into the learning process. I propose we think like feminists! Really dig in there and make some changes!”

“The..feminist critique?” The principal parrots, utterly perplexed. He wasn’t even through his first cup of coffee.

The feminist planted her hands on her hip and frowned, “The feminist critique! I’m saying ditch the old boy’s club and give some other people a chance to call the shots for a while. Whatever happened to trying to understand science? To making scientists socially responsible for what they do? To a simple conversation in the classroom? We need to teach kids, and we need to teach them while they’re young, that science isn’t set in stone.”

“Whoa, whoa.” Things were starting to sink in, and the principal rolled his eyes, “Conversation in the classroom? Let’s not get hysterical here.”

Such is the plight of the feminist critique of science. When people hear the word “feminist critique,” the assumption would be that people are trying to feminize science by putting little pink ribbons in its hair. Or that by feminizing science what is being advocated is a watering down of science to make it more palatable for women, more easily digested for those without naturally ‘scientific minds.’ Carrying through with this line of thought, it is assumed that feminists are trying to make science less about understanding truths, about making discoveries and pushing forward, and instead are more keen on making science into a more ‘touchy feely’ discipline.

To those who think the above, I have a quick phrase to give you an inkling of how I felt for years in a scientific classroom. Coincidently, it also covers my sentiments for your above assumptions.

You are the weakest link. Good bye.

The feminist critique is not about deflating or weakening science. It would not make science impotent by adding a dash of estrogen. If anything, it will make it stronger. The best way to strengthen the discipline is by implementing the feminist critique, specifically, to the science classroom. Thus the purpose of this essay is to clarify how the feminist critique can be used in the science classroom at the very earliest stages of development, namely, the elementary level. Why the elementary level? It only seems logical to introduce science as it should be when science is first taught. There is no doubt that the earlier one begins the education of science, the more you will get in the end.

However, before we begin discussing how to remodel the science classroom with the feminist critique, it is important to define the feminist critique. To begin with, there is no handbook on the feminist critique. There is not an all-inclusive feminist handbook. The very essence of feminism is providing multiple perspectives, as feminism is drawn out of the problem of trying to pigeonhole everyone into one model. “Feminism…provokes questions about undeserved power differentials in society.” [i] Feminism, and the feminist critique, is about recognizing that as our society stands now not everyone is equal. Not everyone has the same opportunities as everyone else.

One of the contrasts between what we can call “traditional science” as opposed to “feminized science” is that, stereotypically, traditional science is about trying to fashion everyone into a singular way of thinking. Students are taught that there is a black and white definition of right and wrong. Put another way, traditional science is about teaching not just scientific principles, but about teaching what science itself is, about the culture of science.

In the traditional science model, scientists are objective observers. Scientists, according to the traditional scientists, use such tools as the scientific method to become processing machines of science. It is believed that such things as the scientific method… “[have] been constructed exactly to permit the identification and elimination of social values in the natural sciences.”[ii] Their mission is to observe nature. They are devoid of social values, of social frameworks, of outside influences. They rely on hard data. Scientists are not concerned with ‘soft’ data, such as social beliefs or qualitative data. They prefer ‘hard’ data, something with numbers and quantitative results. ‘Hard’ sciences, like physics, strive towards universality with respect to being without cultural context. ‘Hard’ science is defensive about the inclusion of the feminist critique into its discipline, as Sandra Harding illustrates with this quote:

“’Feminism is about people and society: the natural sciences are about neither; hence, feminism can have no relevance to the logic or content of the natural sciences.’ One line of thinking behind this argument is that researchers are far more likely to import their social values into studies of other humans than into the study of stars, rocks, rats, or trees.”[iii]

Londa Schiebinger addresses this as well. In our society, there is a stigma against addressing issues of scientific significance with anything less than ‘hard data’ as she describes it. ‘Hard’ sciences, those sciences where men are dominate in both the field and the discourse, are given more prestige than ‘soft’ sciences that rely on more “open-ended epistemological structure.”[iv] There is a stigma that the ‘soft’ sciences are lesser than those of the ‘hard’ sciences, in part due to their different methodology. [v] It is important to recognize this bias against the approach that ‘soft’ sciences take as opposed ‘hard’ sciences, if we are to work towards changing the classroom.

Part of the feminist critique of science is then that we must recognize that right now, as much as we are teaching ‘science’ in our classrooms, we are also teaching about ‘the culture of science,’ a culture that is not inclusive. There is no way of getting around it, for as much as ‘hard’ sciences wish to believe that the scientific method frees them of the cultural context, scholars from Sandra Harding to Karen Barad to Donna Harraway clearly demonstrate in their respective articles that this is not the case.[vi]

Let us continue demonstrating some of the contrast between ‘science now’ and what ‘science could be’ using the lens of the feminist critique as our guide. In order to illustrate some of the points that the feminist critique opposes, let us take an example of an elementary school classroom, since that is the goal of this essay.

Today, the children walk into their fifth grade astronomy class. They are going to learn about the moon. They sit down at their desks, and they are handed little booklets about the moon. The teacher begins the lesson by talking about the space program, about Neil Armstrong and the landing on the moon, just to give some back story and some personal interest to the lesson. They then go on to talk about the various geomorphic characteristics about the moon. Afterwards, the children are given a little quiz to demonstrate that they learned about the moon today. Sounds plausible, right? Seems innocent, yes?

Yet this one example demonstrates so many of the things that the feminist critique could be used to improve how science is taught. First, children are taught about the folklore of science, the heroes who are mostly white men, the ideological characteristics that these characters have. Secondly, the children learn that they are passive vessels in this education of science, that they are meant to absorb the information presented to them and then regurgitate it afterwards. From this we see that there is a hierarchy as to how the knowledge is distributed within this science classroom, with the figurehead of the teacher at the front, the textbook, and then, at the bottom, the students. Where is the flexibility? The opportunity to play with the knowledge?

“The very kind of thinking that will improve the content of science, they argue, is the kind of thinking each professor needs to foster in students: critical thinking, problem-solving, engagement with real world issues.”[vii]

Engagement is the key word, particularly at an elementary school level. We must give the students an opportunity to become active participants in the classroom. Furthermore, we must also provide them with tangible examples of science in action. This is not to say we should use what Barad called ‘kitchen’ physics.[viii] I am not asking us to simplify science so that it can be applied to every day occurrences. Nonetheless it is important for students to be allowed the opportunity to draw science into their lives and make it their own. By doing so, they will benefit more adeptly from science. More importantly, if they are not taught this in elementary school, they will continue down a trajectory where they remain passive observers of science.

In order to feel more inclusive in the classroom, some people would want to make science class entertaining, such as relying on feature films to illustrate fun facts about physics. While science can be fun, we need not make science a spectacle and sacrifice an actual understanding of science. As Barad cautions, we do not need more “Physics for Poets” classes,[ix] classes whose sole purpose is to make science entertaining and yet lack substance. Instead of teaching with science fiction novels and movies, instead of using puppet science, science should be related to the context of people’s lives. The feminism critique brings into the question that many women have asked when they take a science course, and that is ‘Why?’ ‘Why am I learning this?’ the question goes, and with the way science classrooms are taught now, the answer turns into, ‘I don’t know why I am learning this. I don’t know how it related to my world. Thus science does not relate to me.’

It would not be a difficult task to answer the why and provide students with their own agency. For instance, with pre-med college students taking a required physics course, the class could be taking the example of cancer research and then working back to show the physics involved in that example. For our elementary school students, that could be inviting them to make a pulley, having the students then test the pulley, and then helping the students discover the physics behind why the pulley does what it does. It is important to take into consideration the audience to which you are teaching, not just that you are teaching science.

The title of this piece is how the feminist critique can be applied to the elementary school classroom. It is hard to summarize the feminist critique in such a short paper, and even harder to demonstrate how to concretely apply that to elementary schools. That would be a doctoral thesis. However, we have mentioned why it is important to target the elementary school classroom, and that is because this is where science is often encountered for the first time. It is the place where students learn not only why an apple falls, but also what this strange thing called a “science classroom” is for the first time. It is where girls and boys learn how science works and relates to them. It is where they risk learning that the science classroom is not for them, that the culture of science as it stands now is not designed to include them. [x] We need to be aware that science has its own culture, and that we are not propagating objective, aloof values but the values of science.

The feminist critique of science then can be used to reconnect with children. It is not just about including girls, but about including everyone, inviting multiple ways of doing. We need to teach students, and we need to teach them while it is new to them, that science is not about equations and hard facts, that it is not just about memorization. We need to remember that science is about discovery. That it is about providing students the tools with which they can learn and enjoy learning. The science does not need to be simplified or razzle-dazzled in order to make it inclusive. To reiterate what was said earlier, we must remodel it to incorporate critical thinking, problem solving, and engagement. That is how the feminist critique can be used to remodel the elementary school classroom.



[i] “Feminism has never been monolithic. In fact, it is quite common at women’s studies conferences to see references to feminisms because there is recognition that feminism represents a wide array of ideological, scholarly, and political viewpoints. Nonetheless, feminists share a common understanding that women have historically been devalued and denied full equality. Feminism therefore provokes questions about undeserved power differentials in society.” “Frequently Asked Questions About Feminist Science Studies.” Women and Scientific Literacy: Building Two-Way Streets. The Association of American Colleges and Universities. 1999. pg 2.

[ii] Harding, Sandra. “Why ‘Physics’ Is a Bad Model for Physics.” Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pg 79.

[iii] Harding, Sandra. pg 79.

[iv] Schiebinger, Londa. “Physics and Math.” Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Pg 161-162.

[v] “Many physicists would probably be the first to agree that this hierarchy of the sciences also follows a scale of intelligence: physics is tough, hard, and analytical, not for the faint of heart. Its analytical methods and presumed ability to reduce complex phenomena to simple principles have been taken as the model to which all other sciences should aspire.” Schiebinger, Londa.. pg 162.

[vi] Harraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Femisim and Science.

[vii] “Frequently Asked Questions About Feminist Science Studies.” pg 7.

[viii] Barad, Karen. “Scientific LiertacyàAgential Literacy= (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibly.” Feminist Science Studies, ed. Mayberry et. Al., 2001. Pg 227.

[ix] “Often even more problematic is the genre of courses carrying the designation ‘Physics for Poets’. These courses are often random and idiosyncratic pastiches of the ‘relevance coated’ and ‘context coated’ approach in which a host of different topics are presented with a uniform disregard for rigor.” Barad, Karen. pg 228. Further on pg 239.

[x] “..the overwhelming majority of girls have made the decision not to study physics before they have ever encountered a physics course or a physicist.” Rusaki, Mary Beth. “How Stereotypes About Science Affect the Participation of Women.” pg 2.

See also Chapter 1 of “Gender Inclusive Game Design.”

See also pg 4 “Early Influences” by Women Physicts Speak Again.