Teachers, Teaching Strategies, and Culture

(Symposium 3: Teaching Strategies)

Glen S. Aikenhead
Curriculum Studies
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, SK, S7N 0X1

Published in

Globalization of Science Education: International Conference on Science Education

(pages 133-136 )

Seoul, Korea

May 26-30, 1997

Organized by the Korean Education Development Institute

Co-Sponsored by ICASE and UNESCO

A Science Education Parable

"If the law of gravity is universal, then what is the force of attraction between two neutrons in a nucleus?" an inquisitive student asked.

"No, don't think about gravity in the nucleus," answered the teacher, "because strong and weak nuclear forces hold neutrons and protons together in the nucleus."


Teaching is not a theoretical act that has universal application, but a very practical act that takes place in specific classrooms with unique students. Teachers may draw upon theories of instruction as inspiration in an eclectic way, but success in the classroom depends on the decisions teachers make based on their practical knowledge about teaching. Therefore, the topic "teaching strategies" must not be taken out of context and treated as a universal to follow. Instead, "teaching strategies" must be contextualized as one part of a teacher's practical knowledge about instruction.

Research into this practical knowledge sheds light on some of its complexity (Duffee & Aikenhead, 1992). Decisions about what teaching strategies to use are invariably filtered through a teacher's image of a good teacher. Dilemmas arise when this image cannot be maintained, and stress results. Decisions about teaching strategies are guided by rules of practice, values, and beliefs that teachers have accumulated through past experiences. Decisions are strongly influenced by practical principles (rationales for action). Practical principles are related to the goals of teaching in the current situation, and involve reflection over the choices and constraints at hand. Decisions are also contextualized by the teachers' students, colleagues, school administration, physical and material environment, community, and legislation. The choice of what teaching strategy to use is potentially a very complex decision.

On the other hand, teaching can be seen as an act of cultural transmission (Spindler, 1987). The conventions of culture can greatly simplify choices that teachers make. For instance, the assignment to read and memorize the language of science is a cultural convention in many countries were thin walls between resource-poor classrooms of 70 or more students require silence, because the teachers in the adjacent classrooms should not be disturbed. Instructional innovations (such as requiring students to interact) that are developed in more affluent countries may seem foreign to the culture of the less affluent school. Interactive teaching strategies, therefore, cannot be misconstrued as being universals for teaching science.

The conventions of culture can also explain why changing teaching strategies involves more than technical training to manage, for example, interactive students. Reforming teaching strategies certainly causes changes in the microculture of a classroom which is embedded in a microculture of a school, which in turn is a living social icon of the culture of the community or nation. Jegede (1994) clarifies a problem found in African nations where the conventional respect for authority contradicts the scientific "habit of mind" of questioning current explanations about nature. Another teaching strategy associated with science education reform is inquiry. Scientific inquiry harbours values belonging to the culture of Western science. These values may be perceived as inappropriate for some classrooms. Rampal (1994) describes the tension and fear that ensued after inquiry was successfully introduced into a school in India. Even when this scientific inquiry solved a local puzzle for the community, students had to learn to cope with the community's backlash. My point is not to dismiss inquiry or other teaching strategies associated with reform. Rather, my point is that we need to recognize that teaching strategies must be discussed in the cultural context of culture transmission in a particular school.

A technical rational ideology (prevalent in many education systems in Western industrialized countries) isolates teaching strategies from their context of culture. Teachers are assumed to be educational technicians. Science education standards developed in such countries need to be scrutinized for their ideologies, the technical rational ideology and others (Fourez, 1989).

Science education worldwide is not culture-free, of course, and ideologies enrich every country's expectations of schools. Teaching strategies are, in part, expressions of those expectations. Therefore, if we are to reform science teaching in classrooms, we must also reform those ideologies that inhibit reform, ideologies that are subtly framed within the social structure of schools (the "hidden curriculum"). For example, some teaching strategies (a student-centred discussion of a local health issue, for instance) may only be successful when the hierarchical authority relationship between teacher and students is modified. By cultural convention, the original authority relationship may sustain a teacher's image of good teaching, and may sustain a fundamental ideology of the community and country. Science education reform, if taken seriously, is ideological reform. Schools, not just science classes, will have to be reformed accordingly. This is the cultural reality that reform must acknowledge.


Reform in science education has been studied in terms of movements such as science-technology-society (STS), environmental education, and scientific literacy, all of which call for teaching strategies that actively involve students, for example, divergent thinking, small group work, student-centered class discussion, community problem solving, simulations, decision making, controversies, debating, and using the media and other community resources (Aikenhead, 1988; Holbrook & Aikenhead, 1997; Solomon & Aikenhead, 1994; Yager, 1992a, 1992b). Research into teaching strategies, conducted in both developed and developing countries, invariably shows improvement in student learning associated with most outcomes of reform efforts, without diminishing the average success on traditional science content examinations. In Byrne and Johnstone's (1988) review of research, they concluded:

1. In terms of learning science content, simulations and educational games can be just as effective as traditional methods. In terms of developing positive attitudes, simulations and games can be far more effective than traditional methods.

2. In terms of attitude development, the strategies of role playing, discussion and decision making can be highly effective; but the essential ingredient is the achievement of interactivity, rather than the exact format, whether it be simulation, group discussion or role playing, which is central to attitude development" (p. 44, italics added).

3. "Group discussion can stimulate thought and interest and develop greater commitment on the part of the student" (p. 45).

4. In terms of promoting an understanding of the processes of science, an analysis and evaluation of historical case studies is effective.

Making concrete connections between the content studied in class and the students' everyday world piques student motivation, commitment, and a personal responsibility towards learning.

Some excellent research has taken place in developing countries by people exploring the consequences of introducing interactive teaching strategies that relate school content with the students' everyday world. In Nepal, for example, a researcher introduced a strategy he called "a narrative approach," that focused on questions such as: "Can snakes really retain the visual memory of those who harm them? or "Crows don't die a natural death, do they, sir?" (Bajracharya and Brouwer, 1997, p. 436). These class discussions had the same results as found in the research summarized above. Moreover, the cultural disruptions caused by the innovations were also researched. The teaching strategy apparently has promise: "Its greatest strength seems to be that a story-telling, or story-sharing, mode of teaching can be introduced into the classroom in a very natural, unobtrusive way, without interfering with the traditional goals of science teaching" (p. 445). The collaborating teachers were not as successful in their first try as the participant researcher was. However, one finding (only mentioned in passing in the research report) has significant implications to the discussion above on cultures and ideologies: "the various school administrators in the participating schools were intrigued by the idea of teachers collaborating in addressing some of the pedagogical and curricular problems faced by Nepalese teachers" (p. 435). There would seem to be ample opportunity to investigate innovative teaching strategies introduced into cultures that might otherwise seem unsupportive, as long as the teachers are collaborating (action research) and the school's microculture is part of the study.

Other research on teaching strategies has taken place within the paradigm of cultural anthropology. This was described in Symposium 2 on student learning (Aikenhead, 1997). A cultural perspective on teaching science recognizes: teaching as cultural transmission, science as the culture to be transmitted, and students as having their own cultural identities that may or may not correspond to the culture of Western science. For the vast majority of students of any culture, their cultural identities are at odds with the culture of science. For these students (for whom "science for all" is a goal), it was recognized that learning science is a cross-cultural experience. Thus, these students must cross cultural borders (between their own world and the world of Western science) before they can learn science in any meaningful way. The act of cultural border crossing has direct implications for using appropriate teaching strategies.

One set of implications was summarized by Aikenhead (1997): (1) make border crossings explicit for students, (2) facilitate those border crossings, (3) substantiate the validity of students' personally and culturally constructed ways of knowing and (4) teach the knowledge, skills, and values of Western science in the context of science's cultural roles (social, political, economic, etc). In order for teachers to accomplish these, they need to put themselves in the role of a culture broker -- an agent who guides students from one culture to another (Aikenhead, 1996). A culture broker may act like a travel guide who makes the culture of Western science accessible to the "tourist" students by using teaching strategies predicated on cross-cultural instruction, for example, the "narrative approach" discussed above. A tour-guide teacher introduces students to another culture by using a high degree of guidance (in keeping with many national cultures). This role is associated with the learning process of acculturation (Aikenhead, 1997).

Alternatively a culture broker may act like a travel agent. A travel-agent teacher makes the culture of Western science accessible to the "traveller" students by also using teaching strategies predicated on cross-cultural instruction, but uses a much lower degree of guidance by establishing academic bridges to help students manage their own cultural border crossings into science. This role is associated with the process "anthropological" learning. The difference between guided tours and academic bridges is a matter of degree, not of kind. Academic bridges will have more academic abstraction, analysis, and self-initiated participation (in keeping with the idea of travel agents arranging passages for clients but not travelling along with their clients).


Specific teaching strategies appropriate to the role of culture broker must still be investigated and developed. "Culture broker" is a fairly new idea, but one that can make intuitive sense to teachers. We all can imagine how we would introduce a "foreigner" into our native culture, under the constraints of formal schooling. The idea of culture broker has potential for reformulating teaching strategies to harmonize with a teacher's practical knowledge and the classroom microculture. Reform must be sensitive to the culture and ideological milieu of instruction. Universals do not work.


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