Influence of Social Interaction on Cognition: Connected Learning in Science

By Lundeberg, Mary Anna; Moch, Susan Diemert | Journal of Higher Education, May-June 1995 | Go to article overview
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Influence of Social Interaction on Cognition: Connected Learning in Science


Lundeberg, Mary Anna, Moch, Susan Diemert, Journal of Higher Education


That many women avoid science is clear. Less clear, however, are explanations for this phenomenon. In the past decade, researchers have looked for causes first by grappling with the question: What's wrong with women that they don't like science? This line of inquiry inspired several studies of cognitive differences between men and women [15, 25, 33] and of differences in their background experiences, including coursework deficits, teacher expectations, and classroom interactions [11, 35]. These individual studies were later summarized by more sophisticated meta-analytic studies, which essentially demonstrated that cognitive differences between the sexes in and of themselves account for little in explaining the variance in achievement scores.(1) Because the results of these studies, though fruitful, did not fully explain the differences between men and women in science participation, some researchers turned their attention from women to science as the subject of inquiry.

This change of focus led to a second question: What's wrong with science that women don't like it? Respondents critiqued the structure of scientific disciplines and the way in which scientific knowledge is produced, raising epistemological arguments that challenged the nature of objectivity [7, 12, 13, 14, 19]. Evelyn Fox Keller [19] argues that what society defines as "scientific" parallels what society defines as "masculine;" thus, women have felt excluded from scientific endeavors. Ruth Bleier [7] corroborates the exclusion from science experienced by herself and many other women scientists, stating that science would be very different, if women had not been excluded from it. In a similar vein, Sandra Harding has argued that women need sciences that are "for women in every class, race and culture." [14].

At the same time that this line of inquiry continues, another related question has surfaced: What is wrong with the teaching of science that women don't like it? This pedagogical question is related to the previous, epistemological one, because our perception of the nature of the discipline of science influences the way we structure our curriculum and teach courses. For example, if we believe science to be a set of objective truths to be learned, we may feel that it is necessary to transmit as much of this body of knowledge as possible through lectures, and that it is unnecessary to integrate controversial material into our courses or to provide time for discussion [34]. An exclusive focus on objectivity alienates some women from science, as is shown in this student's statement: "What's missing in science is a whole sort of human element. It doesn't seem to be infused with any morality. It doesn't even seem to be a world about people anymore" [6]. Indeed, Belenky et al. [6] found that the Women they interviewed reported that their most valuable learning experiences occurred outside the classroom, possibly because their preferred style of learning, connected knowing, found little room to flourish in academe. According to these authors, connected knowing is a personal, cooperative approach to learning, which values tying theory to experiences and stresses belief rather than doubt. What the academy values highly, however, is something Belenky et al. [6] call "separate knowing," an adversarial, impersonal approach to objective reasoning. Separate knowing is clearly more valued in most science courses than is connected knowing.

This conflict presents a dilemma. Is it possible to engage women in connected knowing in a discipline and academic culture that value separate knowing? Furthermore, what does connected knowing actually entail? Although Belenky et al. [6] have provided evidence based on interview data that women prefer this sort of learning, studies of what women actually do to engage in connected learning are very rare.(2) Nevertheless, feminist professors have provided pedagogical ideas about what they do to engage women in connected learning.

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