No One Way To Learn Something

Orchard Gardens K-8 School. Photos courtesy Boston Public Schools.

Orchard Gardens K-8 School. Photos courtesy Boston Public Schools.

At the AERA annual meeting I attended a roundtable to discuss ways to empower learners in science. Presenters talked about the need for learners to become critical consumers of science – i.e., looking at critical science literacy and agency of high performing middle school girls. Diversity and equity was another theme of discussion. Appendix D in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) addresses All Standards, All Students: Making Next Generation Science Standards Accessible to All Students (PDF):

Successful application of science and engineering practices (e.g., constructing explanations or engaging in argument from evidence) and understanding of how crosscutting concepts (e.g., patterns or structure and function) play out across a range of disciplinary core ideas (e.g., structure and properties of matter, or earth materials and systems) will demand increased cognitive expectations of all students.

The document refers to “dominant” and “non-dominant” learners, with the former referring to the social prestige and institutionalized privilege of represented groups vs. those traditionally  underserved by the education system. My research investigates learning innovations for underrepresented ethnic groups.

In describing “equitable learning opportunities” for non-dominant student groups, Lee and Buxton (2010) highlight the following features: (1) value and respect the experiences that all students bring from their backgrounds (e.g., homes or communities), (2) articulate students’ background knowledge (e.g., cultural or linguistic knowledge) with disciplinary knowledge, and (3) offer sufficient school resources to support student learning.

At AERA my provocation was that researchers and educators need to widen their nets to better understand the creative and innovative practices of underrepresented ethnic groups (e.g. hip-hop, cultural heritage). By making cultural diversity visible (and valuable) we can bridge diverse students’ background knowledge and experiences to scientific knowledge and practices; train teachers to effectively use cultural artifacts and community resources in ways that are academically meaningful and culturally relevant; and allocate resources that are likely to have a greater impact on the learning opportunities of non-dominant students. This is where STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) learning comes in.

Snow Snakes, then and now.

Snow Snakes, then and now.

Science Education professor Brant Miller talked about his Snow Snakes curriculum that was initially developed for an after school setting and later transitioned into an formal classroom setting using core learning standards. Phases include:

  • going out into their local communities to ask elders about what they know about snow snakes
  • researching literature about the snow snake traditions to build knowledge
  • developing snow snake prototypes and test many variables (iterative design)
  • creating artistic renderings and biomechanics of the snow snake
  • hosting a snow snake festival

Miller states: “We were able to bring in the cultural stories and the things that may have been lost. At the same time students are learning STEM as an integrated construct.”

Inspired by artist John Biggers’ use of cultural heritage artifacts, foundational art and mathematics principles, I designed a game prototype (see images above) in much the same way that Brant Miller deployed his Snow Snakes project. I was also inspired by artist Sanford Biggers’ The Cartographer’s Conundrum so much that I visited Mass MoCA and covered it for the Art21 blog last year. It was this work that led me to STEAM and the opportunity to bring Sanford to Georgia Tech to engage audiences in his work. It seems like a good time to advocate for diversity and equity in STEAM research. In an Art Tribute (Italy) article Sanford states, “Creating a story does not mean you necessarily have to be literal. There are many ways to create a narrative.”

In other words, there is no one way to do (learn) something.

John Biggers. “The Quilting Party” (1980-81). Image courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

John Biggers. “The Quilting Party” (1980-81). Image courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

Sanford Biggers. "The Cartographer's Conundrum," 2012. Courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

Sanford Biggers. “The Cartographer’s Conundrum,” 2012. Courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

Sanford Biggers. "The Cartographer's Conundrum (detail)," 2012. Courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

Sanford Biggers. “The Cartographer’s Conundrum (detail),” 2012. Courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

The game I designed based on artist John Biggers' mural "The Quilting Party."

Nettrice Gaskins. Game prototype based on “The Quilting Party (1980-1981)” and “The Carographer’s Conundrum (2012)”.

Digital Media Demo Day attendees playing my game.

Digital Media Demo Day attendees playing the game prototype.

This morning I read about Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, MA. The school principal got rid of the security guards and reinvested the funds to develop an art program. From Keyvaughn Little, one of the students interviewed:

There’s no one particular way of doing something,” he said. “And art helps you like see that. So if you take that with you, and bring it on, it will actually help you see that in academics or anything else, there’s not one specific way you have to do something.

This brings me back to Appendix D in the Next Generation Science Standards: diversity and equity. Unfortunately, as noted by one of the AERA roundtable presenters, ‘diversity and equity’ is only mentioned in this section, not in the rest of the document… once again on outside of the main space. The conversation is timely because of events that reveal current disparities in U.S. public education. Here is a real diversity and equity problem:

"I am Kiera Wilmot." Courtesy People's Science: bodies and rights on the stem cell frontier.

“I am Kiera Wilmot.” Courtesy People’s Science: bodies and rights on the stem cell frontier.

Our nation’s science education is already on shaky ground. Everyday kids are being bored to tears in the average science class. And in far too many urban high school science classes, curiosity, hands-on learning, and authentic experimentation rarely exist. The Pedagogy of Poverty that shapes the learning environment of many African-American, Latino and working class white students in our nation values classroom behavior & discipline over curiosity and exploration. –The Urban Scientist

In the case of Snow Snakes it was the teachers who encouraged students to experiment with non-destructive materials, while exploring their cultural heritage and STEM to create a game.

Again, there is no one way to do (learn) something.

  1. AERA: Understanding Inequalities in Digital Media & Learning | SL Art HUD Blog Thingie:

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