Science and Social Justice Are Not Mutually Exclusive: (Limitations of) Teaching for Social Justice in the Ontario High School Science Curriculum

By Romas, John | Our Schools, Our Selves, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Science and Social Justice Are Not Mutually Exclusive: (Limitations of) Teaching for Social Justice in the Ontario High School Science Curriculum


Romas, John, Our Schools, Our Selves


As a 2007 B. Ed. student in the Faculty of Education at Queen's, I have learned a great deal about the pedagogy of secondary science, educational theory, and adolescent learning and development. Through course readings and my teaching experiences, Fve also come to appreciate the value of teaching for social justice. One of my greatest challenges this year has been to figure out how to best combine social justice within the secondary science curriculum

Sadly, from what I saw during my practice teaching, my initial response was no. I examined the science course profiles and associated curriculum expectations. Then, I looked at a calendar, and all my grand ideas went out the window. The sheer volume of information I had to "cover" severely limited my ability to teach the way I wanted to teach, the way I was being taught to teach. I ended up supplying what Kohn describes as a "bunch o' facts". There wasn't enough time to allow students to construct their own knowledge. There wasn't enough time to progress through different levels of learning, to more complex thought and analysis. There wasn't enough time to do the kinds of activities I wanted to do. How was I going to find time to incorporate teaching for social justice, if I had to race just to get through the science material?

At our last on-campus session, I was asked and agreed to participate in a study by Dr. Magda Lewis, a professor in the Faculty, on the attitudes of teacher candidates towards teaching for social justice and teacher-training programs in general. During one interview, we discussed the difficulty of teaching for social justice from a "packed" science (and math) curriculum. It turns out I wasn't the only one trying to figure this out.

If as educators we hope to create caring students, we need to do a better job of giving students reasons to care. Historically, science and math have enjoyed a privileged status over the arts, but most educators have not taken advantage of this motivational advantage to encourage students to consider the "bigger picture." Traditionally, there has been a disconnect between the concepts we teach and society in general, as evidenced by every teacher's favourite question from students: "Why do I need to know this?"

Given the time and curriculum constraints, how can we teach science and cultivate critical, caring students? My original intention was to research ideas for teaching for social justice within the framework of the science curriculum objectives. However, the more I researched, the more frustrated I became with the limitations of working within the curriculum framework. It was difficult to "check off" objectives as I composed lessons concerned with social justice for Biology, Chemistry and Physics (especially Physics!). The pressure to meet these objectives makes it seem like teaching anything else is wasting valuable time. It became clear that a more creative or at least less rigid approach was needed. In a packed curriculum, most teachers logically want to "cover" basic concepts, and may not have time to progress to the "Relating Science to Technology, Society, and the Environment" component, the very component designed to provide students with the opportunity to put what they have learned into practice in a meaningful context. Contextualizing these scientific concepts with social justice issues directly links the science to technology, society, and the environment in a way that is arguably more relevant than the existing objectives of these sections.

As I began researching, I had the opportunity to read Maththatmatters, a CCPA publication written by David Stocker, a progressive educator at an alternative middle school in Toronto. He provided fifty (yes, fifty) detailed lessons on teaching social justice issues through math, and even cross-referenced his lessons with skills from the various course strands. This should serve as a model for teachers to find creative ways to combine curriculum content with teaching for social justice, to educate and cultivate caring members of society. …

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