November 4, 2005 Draft

Self-Conscious and Independent:
An Exploration Into and Out of the
Limit Conditions of Science Education

Anne Dalke was very difficult for me to understand that so many of my sixth graders already saw themselves as outsiders, and therefore, not entitled to this country's plums. You can't be an achiever and an outsider at the same time. I think these children need to be courted, to be won over, to be reassured that they are entitled to those plums, and to driven toward success. Margaret Robertson, Philadelphia Public School Teacher

Science has the potential to be what we all collectively need as we evolve into a world wide community: a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride. For this to happen, we all need to work much harder to not only reduce the perception of science as a specialized and isolated activity of the few but to make it in fact the product and property of all human beings. Paul Grobstein, Director, Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College, Revisiting Science in Culture

I am a literary critic who--with great good will and a lot of energy--took on this work with Wil Franklin, a colleague in biology. In the summer of 2005, Wil and I co-directed an institute for K-12 public school teachers supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. We called our project, which was hosted by Bryn Mawr College, and is fully archived at, "Making Sense of Change: Hands-on Science Across the Curriculum." Our group was quite varied in terms of preparation and engagement: some of the participants had very little science background; others had masters' in science education. The classes they themselves taught spanned kindergarten to high school. Some of them were long-time veterans of earlier institutes sponsored by the College, while others had no such experience. Some thought of change as "an old friend"; for others it was a "challenge," "terrifying," to be avoided in a search for what was stable and lasting.

What we uncovered, in working with these teachers, is an understanding of how contemporary science education--the progressive, innovative, hands-on, inquiry-based classroom science of the past decade, which has been so deliberative in its attempts to bring those traditionally "outside" science "into" its various fields--has fallen short. It will be the argument of this essay that attempts as well-intentioned and well-funded as our our own have failed to take account of a central facet of human psychic and economic development: the Catch-22 of the persistent human impulse to put oneself "out," to refuse incorporation into any system that presumes to "know" or "predict" the direction of self-growth.

The articulation of this great irony, that the act of recognition is always an act of "determinateness" and "fixing," and thus will always be resisted, goes back at least as far as Hegel's 1807 essay on "Lordship and Bondage." It has been updated repeatedly in ethnographic work on education, perhaps most cogently in Paul Willis's 1977 study, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Willis demonstrates that the "lads" in his study "disqualify themselves from the middle class," "self-produce themselves as workers "by defining themselves, in antagonism, as others of bourgeois culture (xii). But Hegel's essay also provides, presciently, a cogent analysis of how a student might move out of the sort of "self-damanation" that Willis laments (3), beyond the seemingly inevitable stand-off between recognition and resistance: "precisely in labour where there seemed to be merely some outsider's mind and ideas involved, the bondsman becomes aware...of having and being a 'mind of his own.'"

During our work with the Philadelphia teachers, we recovered two Hegelian insights. First: however "out" the inside, as it is incorporated, another outside is always generated alongside. (As Stanley Fish says so clearly in a larger pedagogical context, difference is "the remainder that escape the drawing of any line, no matter how generous...the lesson [is] its irreducibility"). As importantly, we also found that, precisely by participating with our students in that "dance of the irreducible," we were all enabled to engage productively in what Hegel calls the "formative process of self-enfranchisement." We structure this essay, accordingly, around a sequence of scenes from our summer's classroom, scenes which illustrate, qualify, re-arrange and extend the stages Hegel articulates in The Phenomenology of Mind, those of mutual recognition, opposition, consciousness, labor, and from that, self-enfranchisement. The dialectic we have to trace is a complicated but eventually, a hopeful one.

I. Duplicated Self-Consciousness

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change
Is Change.
Octavia Butler. "Earthseed: The Books of the Living."
Parable of the Sower (1993)
"The only lasting truth is Christ. Therefore, on Christ, The Solid Rock, I stand. God is not change. He is stability....God always was, is, and will be. God is stable. Change is constant." Miss T. (Public High school principal and participant in Summer Institute)

The reliable framework for our exploration of change consisted of these few elements: The two of us were present for every session during the two-week period. We framed each day with introductory lectures and activities, and concluded each one by requiring participants to record and reflect on their experiences in a web forum. We supplemented our own presentations, each day, by bringing in a different guest teacher to represent a different disciplinary perspective; visitors included a physicist, a geologist, a chemist, a biologist, a psychologist and a computer scientist. This arrangement provided us with a rich opportunity for expanding our education in science education; we were able, for six hours every day, to observe what worked and what didn't, how hands-on learning engaged the teachers, and what happened when they weren't engaged.

The best of the classes, we came to see, did three things: they addressed a topic which interested the participants (and which they thought would interest their students); they framed it in terms of big questions and profound issues; and they demonstrated it in concrete manipulatable experiences--not experiments in the conventional sense of scripts to be followed, but as open-ended explorations. Taken together, the ten days of the Institute proved a model of interactive science teaching, meeting the challenge described in Science as Story Telling in Action of moving toward science seen as

The account we offer here of how we made sense of what didn't work in the summer institute on "making sense of change" is framed, in other words, in the context of a great deal that did. But since it is in the places where we fall short that we all have the most to learn, we focus our attention, here, on those. To begin in the beginning....

We had planned deliberatively for our opening class on cosmology, with an awareness of and eagerness to know more about where Institute participants were "coming from." We asked all of them, before they arrived on campus, to post on-line an account of how they would go about describing the beginning of the universe to their class--or to to their own children at a certain age: How would they get started? How would they tell the story? What would they emphasize? In the opening session, we illustrated the dynamic interaction of "constancy built on change," which we had chosen as the theme for the Institute, with the image of the faulted shale-limestone block which sits outside the Bryn Mawr Science Building, in commemoration of the founding of the Department of Geology here: an ironically "solid" record of historical pressure and stress. We also spoke about our own--markedly different--relationships to constancy and change. (I was raised in a stable, somewhat stultifying, environment, and found myself drawn eventually into science education because of its unremitting skepticism and openness to new possibility. Wil, on the other hand, was raised in an unstable, and unsettling, place, and found himself drawn early to science because of its ability to elucidate patterns that were constant and predictable.)

As we concluded our opening presentation, we asked participants to write on-line, and then to read aloud to the group, a short story about some change they made--or chose not to make--in their teaching or learning or life. One of the teachers, who wrote about Christ as "the only lasting truth," refused to read her contribution to the group: "We are not children. Adults don't like to be read to, and I try to respect what people want." Her irritation at being asked to perform her own relationship to change was our first indication that our attempts to gather all participants into a single story--however commodious, how complex and paradoxical--were going to be continually frustrated.

We knew, from past Institutes, that participants valued the respect they earned as colleagues who had a great deal to teach us; following Hegel (though at the time we didn't realize we were following Hegel) we expected that, this time 'round, we would all recognize ourselves "as mutually recognizing one another." What we had not realized was Hegel's further insight--that the initial move in this game involves an instinctive reaction to others as antithetical to our own self-fulfillment, opponents or competitors with us in the game of recognition; as he says, "self-consciousness is primarily...self-identity by exclusion of every other from itself." When we first tried to draw a circle that included all participants, one of them immediately excluded herself.

We were reminded, during the initial hours of the Institute, of the desire of all humans to be free, the desire, even of teachers, to reclaim from the structure of a school day what Willis calls "principles of mobility and self-direction" (27)--if only by coming late to a session, or checking out in the rear of the room, by playing a game of computer solitaire. Trying to "integrate" all the participants into our lesson plans, we found them "differentiating" (Willis's terms, again, 63), critically separating "self" from the institution of education, holding in reserve that which they were determined to keep "private" (65).

Those acts of differentiation continued throughout the morning's presentation on cosmology, which left many of the participants "getting lost in the stars"; one observed that she "would still need more information on how to apply this difficult topic....I would have some difficulty bringing the language down to a middle or even to an elementary level"; another observed "that these topics are quite interesting for those who already inclined to study the space sciences. But for those who only possess a passing interest, these topics may be a little too abstract. The techniques for measurements that support what we are learning in this area are perhaps equally too advanced."

It was not until the afternoon session that we found ways to make these concepts engaging to their students: cosmology that was experiential as well as observational, interactive as well as visual, things they might ask their students to do with the movement of their own bodies, or other manipulatable objects, which would help them get a grip on the accelerating movement of bodies through space. The three activities we used in the afternoon were

Each exercise both resembled and was distinct from the one before. The more concrete (and larger) teaching-and-learning issues we came away with (and returned to frequently in the course of the Institute) had to do with questions about "causing changes." We can "force them," as these exercises forced us to "change" our appearance. But what are the ways of motivating change "from the inside"? Of getting students who are "competitive," or just not interested, to think about "collaborating" to make accurate reports and interpretations of data? Of starting with what does interest them....?

And what were ways of engaging their teachers and principals, some of whom had already "checked out" of the Institute?

II. Self-Cancellation

This is an example of ... one of the two most common forms of chemical reactions. In an acid/base reaction an acid gets neutralized by a base to form water and a salt. The acids are usually easy to identify as they have a low pH in water, and their chemical formula always has at least one "H". Bases are harder to identify without knowing a lot more chemistry. The most common base is hydroxide ion -OH which is found in drain cleaning products like "Drano" or "Red Devil." In this reaction the base is the carbonate ion, CO3-2. It reacts with H+ of acetic acid to form carbonic acid, H2CO3, which mostly turns into carbon dioxide and water. In this experiment our purpose is to demonstrate the effect of acid rain on limestone, a major constituent of marble. (From Terry Newirth, Hand-On Science and Math: A Collection of Lesson Plans for Middle Schools)
I enjoyed measuring and being methodical. Our children thrive off specific clear directions. By modeling appropriate techniques the students will increase their knowledge and the importance of being careful and specific. Connie Williams, Institute participant

...we return to the experiment format with expectated results. My poor brain is smoking!!!!!! How can the concept of getting it less wrong translate to experimantation and safety rules? Are we as teacher setting ur kids up to be afraid of science and afraid to get it wrong? What happens to creativity and facilitated, gradually scafoldded discovery?...I feel that today's lab return us to the correct answer, experiment format. HELP!!!!!!!!!! Is this what it feel like to our students to move from a more abstract style techer to a more linear, conservative style teacher?????????? Antoinette Solimon, Institute participant

Hegel explains rather quickly that the first move in the game of recognition--destroying others to affirm ourselves--is contradictory: a person whom we have destroyed (or, less violently, dismissed) is not capable of giving us the recognition we seek, so we instinctively move to another strategy. We try for a one-way recognition with ourselves (we hope!) on top and the other in a situation of dependency. In retrospect, it seems that this may well have been the dynamic which underlay both the second and third days of the Institute. One of our guest presenters was an experienced chemist, who had taught many institutes for K-12 teachers, and prepared a booklet of hands-on experiments suitable for use with middle schoolers. She carefully guided participants through each of the experiments (turning a copper penny into "silver," then "gold"; inflating balloons with carbon dioxide; measuring the effect of an acid solution on marble chips). The effect was of a traditional classroom, with scripted activities and predictable outcomes, clearly differentiated roles of leader and followers, teacher and students; there was no new data collected, no interrogation of the terms of the experiments performed. Conversation in the on-line forum focused on the usefulness of making mistakes:

"it is important not to assess the students on their results, because as I experienced first hand today, experiments sometimes do fail. It would be more important to be certain that the students understand what happened to the penny, the color of the water, or the water in the test tube and why. It would also be useful if some students' experiments were not sucessful, so that as a class, we can examine what happened to make them not work. (Although a comfortable, safe, non-threatening environment must exist in order for this to occur...) I often tell students that more is learned from mistakes than if they got it right the first time, because they must go back and examine what they did in order to LEARN how to do it right!! "

But there was also some further discussion about the usefulness of such scripted experiments that raised some interesting general issues about education:

Is it appropriate/desireable to start [with a set of unexamined presumptions]? Might it be better to present the material to be observed without any "story"? with as little "story" as possible? To try to "direct" users as little as possible, just giving them something to make observations on, develop stories about themselves, play with? What are the likely pros and cons, for different audiences, of the two different approaches? Are there ways to better strike a balance between them? Another participant pointed out that such experiments were located very far away from what most interested most of his students: "What is made out of marble, that our students care about? What would it distress them to lose? Can we use that as an incentive to learn?" It was precisely this last question--or perhaps, even more insistently, its counter-question--what makes us resist learning?--which seemed to underlie the opposition which became so pronounced among our participants during the third day of the Institute. That day, a psychologist (who also had a lot of experience both teaching elementary school and working with K-12 teachers) visited our classroom, to show us how behaviorists, following the principles of reinforcement, can "guarantee" a change in behaviors. She explained first that developmental psychologists don't know much about how change happens (they have no idea, for instance, how kids make the shift from thinking that others know what they know, to realizing that they may be thinking differently). She then defined the concepts of "reinforcement" (anything that will increase the likelihood of a behavior; teachers are not very good at predicting what is reinforcing for a younger generation) and of "extinction" (taking away the reinforcer). She also explained that "rebound" is to be expected (the behavior will "spike" before it ceases), the problem with punishment (the opposite of reinforcement: actively decreasing the frequency of a behavior), and the usual failure to replace the unwanted behavior with "something else."

It was our colleague's intention, in this presentation, to offer participants some useable tools for managing student behavior in classrooms where behavior is often a problem. But the teachers' own resistence to taking up these "tools" was universal--and nearly deafening:

Throughout these responses, we heard a vociforous insistance on what one of our lecturers called once called "The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior": "under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases." Our participants were rejecting some of the useful techniques behaviorism might offer them for classroom management, in order to retain--both for themselves and their students--the sort of variability intrinsic to human beings, which Fyodor Dostoevsky described so strikingly in Notes from Underground in 1864:

science itself will teach man... that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ... so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature....even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point.... the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!

This key-note--heard as a refusal to be defined by others' intentions for oneself, a refusal to perform within the framework of the scripts written by others, even if the option is given to vary and revise those scripts--was sounded several times during the second week of the Institute, particularly in response to a session Wil offered, called When Caterpillars Make Choices. Learning about the instinctual behavior of caterpillars provoked participants to insist both that they always offered their students choices, and that their self-willed students as often refused to chose wisely or well:

What was the logic tying together these two counter- (and seemingly oppositional) convictions: teachers, who will not hold themselves responsible for controlling their students' behaviors, hold their students responsible for choosing not to control themselves?

III. The Self in Labour

"Science: to see what has not yet been seen, to conceive what has not yet been conceived"
(From Science as Storytelling in Action)

The most important "turn" in Hegel's essay occurs when he explains that the strategy of one-way recognition is misguided: the master depends entirely on the slave for her recognition as master. The slave is actually in a better position than the master, as far as possibilities for development are concerned, because of his ability to express himself in the world, through means of his labor. Slaves learn self-recognition, and self-enfranchisement, not in response to those who tell them what to do (and not to do), but in the work that they perform. It is they who are capable of acting in, and on, the world, of being productive, and who in that productivity find themselves mastering the world. (Willis demonstrates this in the 20th century, as he traces the movement of working-class "lads" from the classroom, where they are purely oppositional, to the shop floor, where they are engaged in production.) It seemed to us, at first, that precisely this phenomenon--actively contributing to the data-gathering and observation-making that is the work of science, and to the pedagogical innovation that is teaching students to do the same--would enable our participants to move beyond the conventional "resistence" that students demonstrate in relationship to their teachers. The classes which succeeded best seemed to be those in which participants were asked, not to attempt replicating an experiment in which the results were already known, but rather to gather data for new ways of organizing the world.

They flourished, for example, in the "evolution revolution" designed for them by a colleague in biology, who asked them to sort and classify (that is, find patterns) among a wide diversity of life forms, according to schemes which made sense to them, and then to acknowledge the relative validity of each scheme. They were guided by another colleague in geology to understand the complexities of "global change" by describing what they knew, experientially, about what happens in their classrooms: What causes a change in attention span? What happens if a perturbation--a distraction--occurs? Helped to recognize their classrooms as systems, they were able to extrapolate to the complexity of systems underlying climate change, and how small changes in one area can have very large effects in another. They could even begin to imagine continents as "scum," too low in density to sink, "bobbing around and eroding off." They were invited, by another colleague in computer science, through "water-based computation" (a demonstration of the "logic of addition," in which water was poured onto a free-swinging aluminum sheet) and by programming with "Alice" (an object-based way to teach the properties, methods and functions of computing), to move from computer "literacy" (having some skills with a set of applications) to "fluency": "getting the concepts behind the applications, being capable of applying these skills in various contexts." Both of these exercises were composed of multiple trials and errors, with plenty of time and space for asking questions about what was working (or not), and why (or why not).

But as the Institute moved through its second week, we found ourselves asking if the amount of "change" which had taken place wasn't minimal. That this was the case was obvious to us when we invited participants to "make change" with a bowl of loose coins. Explaining that the word "change" derives from a Old French/Portugese/Spanish/Latin word cambi-um meaning exchange, or barter (=bend, turn, turn back), that the "first" meaning of "to change" is "to substitute," and the seventh is money of a lower denomination given in exchange for a larger coin, or the balance that remains over and is returned when anything is paid for by a piece of money greater than its price, we told participants to calculate the sum total of change they made:

In short, we made very little profit in that experiment. And--by this point in the week--we were feeling as though we had made very little "change" by means of the Institute. But then....

IV. Self-Enfranchisement

...we ourselves are the things we can most easily change, and so changing ourselves is the quickest and easiest way to get things less wrong. (One of the instructors in the Institute)

"This institute is different from other professional development workshops. We're not just learning isolated lesson plans. Everything fits together." (One of the participants in the institute)

We had ended the first week of the Institute with a mini-symposium, during which the K-12 teachers talked about their needs, college and university administrators talked about the various collaborative possibilities they had to offer, and the groups talked together about how they might better communicate with one another about needs and resources to meet them, about home and school functions, about ways to engage students and widen their horizons, to see them as more than students. We talked together about the high turnover rate among urban teachers, and about the need for more education into both classroom management and parent/teacher relationship. We talked about opening up our classrooms, to one another, to the world, making them less private, more public--and revisable.

Picking up one theme from the mini-symposium, the discomfort of many parents with their children's schools, we looked together that afternoon at the ways in which changes in teaching and changes in students can lead to uncomfortable changes in the family and community. In lieu of a course in "methodology" or "applied psychology" (which one of our participants suggested teachers needed, in order to learn how to communicate with parents), we did some role-playing. We asked participants to perform an encounter between parents and their child, who has just learned something new at school--something that goes against what he has been taught at home. How to negotiate the divide?

Asked later what they thought about the possibility of human choice, participants responded:

  • I provide a variety of choices for my students ....
  • I enjoy watching students make choices in school. You can... almost see the wheels turning in their mind....
  • choices are willful and often deliberate
  • we all have choices
  • we create an atmosphere that overflows with choices for our students
  • humans must be set apart from other beings in being able to choose
  • certain demonstrations of behavior are... actually deterministic.... we see this as detailed by the knee jerk reaction. ... Is educating others really that simple?... I think not. There are countless variables ...crucial to the learning process.
  • I have had to make the choice not to be discouraged, not to give up too many times.
  • It's important that young people feel they have choices.....We have to let children know that it is possible to live with all sorts of visible and invisible scars and life can still be worthwhile. It is all about choosing.
  • Years ago, I heard a preacher define freedom ... a set of bounderies, (chioces) that allow us safety.
  • Following up on these observations, on the last day of the Institute, we asked each participant to perform for all of us what has changed for them in the course of the program. We invited them to think of this finale as an chance to experiment with "performative assessment": How could they demonstrate what they had been learning and doing, and what they would go on to do with it? The challenge had been posed earlier in the week, when one of the participants observed that, "Standardized tests are thought to be most effective, but there is no comparable way of assessing inquiry-based education." We decided to take this observation as a description of a possibility: "It's not a barrier. It's an opportunity for the agent to interact with its environment. It changes its environment."

    What was most remarkable to us, in these performances, was their range; there were poems and songs, collages and new lesson plans. We want to highlight just two of them here: a chemistry teacher's lesson about The Cheese Ball Solvent, and a biology teacher's class on Assessing What We Know about Tyrannosaurs.

    V. Concluding: Changing the Environment of Science Education

    What is choice?
    A change taking place.

    What is choice?
    Acting outside a set of instructions.

    Chemistry: the satisfaction of making something happen that should, vs. the surprise of something happening that shouldn't

    In the beginning, Wil and I had a (contradictory? paradoxical?) vision of "constant change"-- from cosmology to computers, from the largest scale to the smallest, from the most profound to the most technical, from the earliest to the most recent. We wanted to explore with a group of interested teachers both ways of stabilizing what we know ("making it sticky") and the inevitability of change ("without getting stuck") on every imaginable level: cosmological, geological, chemical, biological, ecological, psychological, literary and technological.

    We learned some hard things during the course of the Institute. We heard, for instance, teachers' observations that

    But we also heard some very powerful things:

    As we figured out subsequently, during a recent session on Stories of Teaching and Learning, there's no way for a teacher to offer "exposure" without imposing. Students may be changed by our exposing them to different ways of thinking and exploring the world, and we cannot control the outcomes of these interactions. Whatever our intent, we become significant causal agents. The consequences of creating open classrooms and treating everyone individually can be quite disruptive.

    We believe that, in the long run, the more people can think for themselves, the better off they will be, and we used the Summer Institute to maximize the possibility that participants could do that, helping K-12 teachers become who they wanted to be. Whatever we did, they chose to resist. Thereby we all become more fully ourselves--both within and outside of science education.

    Making Sense of Change: Summer Institute on Hands-On Science
    Working Group on Emergence