Learning Science in Multicultural Environments
Alejandro José Gallard
I feel, in many ways, inadequate to write this chapter. My inadequacy does not come from a lack of experience as a Hispanic and minority as I have been both since 1946. My discomfort comes more from the idea that I can only speak for myself, and not for other Hispanics or minorities. The notion that each of us has a set of individual experiences to draw upon daily tempers me from making broad-sweeping assumptions about Hispanics or minorities. Each student (minority and nonminority) has a unique set of experiences from which the science teacher can draw in order to facilitate learning, an important idea to consider. This is especially true in an educational system that tends to lump together students of diverse backgrounds under the heading of minority and to provide them with labels such as disadvantaged, at-risk and underrepresented in the sciences. Such labels thereby group minority and nonminority students together and further reduce an emphasis on the individual. It is important to consider the blurring of individuals' needs, because our efforts to improve the learning of science for individuals is focused on finding universal classroom solutions that are applicable to all students.
The ideas to be discussed in this chapter focus on the individual learner who has a need for a very specific set of personalized learning experiences. Personalized learning experiences are those that utilize and build upon a student's cultural tools. These cultural tools include language, cognitive referents such as myths, personal beliefs and metaphors, and images. I am suggesting that the focus for teaching science needs to be on the learner and learning, and that the emphasis needs to occur at a much deeper level than what current practice dictates. In my view, if the science teacher focuses on learners and learning with the attitude that what they know is not valid and thus must be replaced with appropriate knowledge, then science teaching is meaningless. It is meaningless because "whatever a student says in answer to a question (or problem) is what makes sense to the student at that moment" (see von Glasersfeld, Chapter 2). In essence, it is the student's way of understanding the world or her knowledge base. On the other hand, if the science teacher focuses on the learner and learning with the attitude that what a student knows is not only valid, but an integral part of teaching, then the