Right speech for science education

Saying things you shouldn’t say or speaking much more than is necessary brings a lot of agitation to the mind. The other extreme, complete silence, or not speaking up when it is useful or necessary, is also problematic. Applying right speech is difficult in the beginning; it takes practice. Sayadaw U Tejaniya, "The Wise Investigator"


This afternoon Susan Malveaux interviewed Russell Simmons, a rapper, about same-sex marriage and a letter he wrote to President Obama concerning inequities of the war on drugs--notably racial discrimination and economic irresponsibility. His position was reasoned, forthright, and courageous. He spoke not for himself, but for the rights of others. Although Simmons was somewhat rushed in making his points on national television he was able to clearly and persuasively articulate his standpoints/perspectives. What he had to say was compassionate and activist – focusing on improving the social lives of minority groups who are oppressed by extant laws, lifestyles, policies, and practices.

Simmons exhibited right speech, a construct that relates to speaking out at the appropriate time. Right speech carries a moral obligation not to maintain silence when it is in the interests at large to speak out. Speaking for others to overcome injustices is at the heart of what is meant by right speech.

As I listened and watched Malveaux's interview with Simmons, the voice ringing in my head kept asking how could I use of right speech to afford reform of science education in the United States? Just as Russell Simmons stepped forward to act on behalf of others it seemed there was more I could do to shake the policy tree to initiate change in practices. It is noteworthy that Simmons spoke outside of the hip-hop community, where his voice is already powerful – instead he injected his voice into a particular part of the mainstream – the international/national media via CNN, a network that would presumably reach people who had power and/or the ears of those with power.

Parallels in science education concern ideologies that define common sense. Joe Kincheloe and I published a paper that appeared soon after his death in 2009, focusing on crypto-positivism, the pervasiveness of tenets that saturate sensibilities in the social sciences, especially education. For example, there is a tendency to explain social life in ways that are reductionist, creating empirically validated models consisting of causal relationships between variables. Simple models are preferred over complicated models and research designs that are carefully put together to test postulated models are preferred over more emergent and open-ended investigations e.g., those in the interpretive genres. Reminiscent of my days in the late 1970s as a doctoral student at the University of Georgia there is a preference for research designs that are experimental and/or quasi experimental. Furthermore, research that embraces hermeneutic phenomenology is often seen as exploratory, setting a stage for validation using statistically oriented research. My position is that policies and practices associated with crypto-positivism are exceedingly damaging to education across the board, including educational research. It is not just those who do the research that are disadvantaged by these policies and practices but especially those who participate in education with the hope of it opening access to pathways to enhance social lives. A question i have concerns the amount of money invested into educational research that is consistent with crypto-positivistic approaches that have been with us for many decades. We might argue there is insufficient money invested into educational research and we might also argue that we need to justify spending more money for research like the research that has been supported historically. Who benefits from research that is consistent with the crypto-positivistic mainstream?

A look at mainstream journals in science education reveals vast numbers of studies that present empirically validated knowledge that has documents potential to improve the quality of science education. Similarly, final reports to the National Science Foundation and other agencies present glowing accounts of what works and how it can be sustained to make a significant difference in the foreseeable future. At the same time new programs are funded to make even more improvements in science education creating an expansive cycle that is both reproductive and transformative. But where are the improvements? Reports commissioned by national and state organizations show a consistent pattern that has persisted over the decades – there are problems in science education, the United States is falling behind, equity gaps are increasing, new technologies are increasing inequities … a potential problem might be that reports and solutions to problems are similarly framed by scientism/crypto-positivism. In order to be funded researchers need to align with the philosophies underpinning the reports and subsequently the philosophies embedded in requests for proposals. Is it possible that peer-review panels that evaluate what will be funded are selected by those who value tenets of crypto-positivism and their inclusion in research in education?

I am sure that there are many will argue that I am promoting self-interest. As one of the founding coeditors of Cultural Studies of Science Education I have a vested interest in a standpoint that more more support should promote research that embraces sociocultural theory. Anybody making such a claim is on the right track! I do think that much more research that embraces sociocultural theory should be funded – e.g., hermeneutic phenomenology, ethnomethodology, reflexive sociology, the sociology of emotions, social neuroscience,… etc. It is well and truly past time that funding organizations take a hard look at assumptions that underpin what is valued and who makes decisions about the priorities in science education. My purposes in doing research in science education relate to improving science education throughout the world--to address sustainability, wellness, and mass extinctions; all pervasive problem areas that are worsening. These problems are universal because of the interconnections between the actions of individuals and humanity writ large. Human practices in the United States or China or Brazil not only make a difference to lives in those countries, but to lives and environments throughout the world.

In my view it is well past time for science educators to look carefully and critically not only at what we do, but why we do what we do and whether what we do makes a difference. There is no doubt that the high-stakes climate in which we do our work makes it appealing to chase the money. Often times science educators will do what they have to do to get the money because unless they do so they can easily not make it through promotion and tenure. Also the evaluation criteria used to judge the success of science educators so often involves counting publications in mainstream journals and adding up the money obtained from external sources such as the National Science Foundation or private foundations such as the Spencer Foundation. It is little wonder that science educators align with requests for proposals – doing what needs to be done to get the money!

How can the expansive cycle I address here be breached/truncated? Ironically, it may be that the nature of scientific literacy is at the heart of the problem. Does the way science is taught and learned throughout the United States, in all fields of the lifeworld, predispose individuals toward scientism – a view that science is a superior discourse? Is there a view that empirical validation is an essential step in research in the social sciences? Is higher value associated with statistically validated research "findings" than what is learned from other forms of research? Is research involving large samples more highly valued than intensive studies whose purpose is to create grounded, potentially generalizable theory? Questions such as these have a worrying timbre. A concern is that the stakeholders I seek to perturb will read these questions and regard them as gross oversimplifications, assuring anyone who cares to listen that they are receptive to all viable forms of inquiry. However, axiology is salient to such claims. A person might believe in the legitimacy of multiple genres of research, but assign higher priority to those that conform to crypto-positivism/scientism. This scenario is hegemonic. Educators will accept and adopt common sense practices that favor crypto-positivism and scientism – although they might despise such labels, which will catalyze negative emotions and quick denials ("we are not like that!!"). How is it possible to educate those who make funding decisions that make a difference to science education writ large?

If right speech is an appropriate course of action to address circumstances like those I have addressed here, which texts are appropriate for garnering support? Based on President Obama's State of the Nation speech earlier this year there is political awareness of a need to improve the quality of science, mathematics, and technology (SMT) education. Who will decide what constitutes higher-quality when it comes to preparing teachers for SMT education? Who will decide what research is likely to be most salient to support the kind of science education envisioned by the president when he spoke passionately about the need for better quality SMT education? My strong fear is that the "same old, same old" will prevail, as will problems, and as will never-ending calls for catching up, competing, and improving the quality of science education. A sad irony is that within the science education community problems persist and deepen even though we extol the virtues of the research we do and the science education knowledge base is expanding at a seemingly exponential rate. No doubt there is a long way to go and we need to follow a different pathway. For me a critical and central question is, who should lead the way?

Kenneth Tobin 2015