Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

STEM School Discourse Patterns

Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

STEM School Discourse Patterns

Article excerpt

Specialized STEM high schools, which report higher than average numbers of graduates pursuing STEM careers (Subotnik, Tai, Rickoff & Almarode, 2010), are among the beneficiaries of resources allocated to increase the capacity of the United States to prepare a qualified scientific workforce equal to predicted demand (Augustine, 2005; Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010). Prior research indicates a wide range of potential reasons for these outcomes, including selective student admissions processes (Peters-Burton, Lynch, Behrend, & Means, 2014). However, despite billions of dollars of government funding for these specialized schools (United States Government Accountability Office [GAO], 2005), research examining STEM school practices, differentiating features, and their effectiveness is scant. Despite promising preliminary findings regarding the learning outcomes and interest in pursuing STEM careers associated with specialized STEM schools (e.g., Subotnik et al., 2010), the extent to which these forms of attainment are generalizable or attributable to mechanisms other than selective admissions processes is unclear (GAO, 2005; Tofel-Grehl & Callahan, 2014).

Prior research has not documented the instructional practice, culture, or discourse in STEM schools (but see Tofel-Grehl & Callahan, 2014 for an initial investigation of STEM school culture). Therefore, it is unclear what, if any, guidance could be provided to policymakers and practitioners about the essential, valuable, or unique aspects of educational culture and classroom practice in STEM schools. As instruction and classroom dynamics are critical variables in student outcomes (e.g., Erduran & Rudolph, 2007; Ritchie & Tobin, 2001; Sandoval, 2005), one promising path to understanding the uniqueness within and across STEM schools lies in the study of classroom discourse. Specific pedagogical practices might differentiate the instruction in these specialized schools from one another and from non-specialized American schools. For example, teachers'use of effective questions in classroom discussion is associated with higher levels of student achievement (Schoen, Cebulla, Finn, & Fi, 2003). The current study examines classroom interactions between and among teachers and students from a diverse sample of STEM schools through the lens of discourse analysis.

Tofel-Grehl & Callahan (2014) observed that the cultures in specialized STEM schools manifest through the empowerment of students to engage collegially with each other and with teachers in pursuit of enhanced understanding. This included a shared sense of purpose and priority, as well as a right on the part of students to steer classroom discussion and activity. Students' empowered role in the classroom may have value as both a motivator and a means of enhancing learning. Active student participation in classroom discussions that are focused on deepening understanding of scientific concepts is important to the development of scientific reasoning and argumentation, as these skills require"the opportunity to consider plural theoretical accounts and the opportunity to construct and evaluate arguments relating ideas and their evidence"(Duschl & Osborne, 2002, p. 52). However, the trend in STEM schools' classrooms to foster a shared sense of purpose and highly engaged discourse differs from the observed discursive norms of many American high schools (Lemke, 1990; Scott, Mortimer, & Aguiar, 2006). Thus, it may serve as a key differentiating feature of these schools from their non-specialized counterparts.

Discourse in Science Instruction

Patterns of classroom participation typically fall into one of two major discursive structures for describing classroom engagement-the authoritative and the dialogic. To refer to discourse as authoritative implies a relational power structure in which one participant retains absolute power or authority over the exchange. This power is based both on position within the social structure as well as the knowledge differences between participants. …

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