Case studies of first-year critical science teachers

Date of Completion

January 2008


Education, Sciences|Education, Curriculum and Instruction




Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara (1997) performed a study of themselves and another professor who took a sabbatical to work in an elementary school for a year. Their intentions, as professors focused on cognition, was to create a change in teaching practices throughout the school that aligned more closely with social cognitive research. However, their experiences did not go as planned. Each found that he could not just simply bring their philosophies into their classrooms independent of the sociocultural context of the school. They found very quickly that none of them could act as fully autonomous agents. They described their experiences as being part of the sociocultural fabric of the school because each of their teaching practices changed in ways that they did not anticipate and in ways that were not philosophically aligned. However, they also found that this was a two-way relationship. They were not describing completely deterministic experiences. Davis and Sumara described observing colleagues changing their practices in ways that did incorporate some of the philosophies that they espoused during their tenure at the elementary school. They explain their experience as one where they were pushed and pulled by the sociocultural context and they also pushed and pulled on the sociocultural context. ^ This dissertation focuses on three first-year science teachers (a 4 th grade teacher and two high school science teachers) who identified as wanting to bring critical, feminist, and ecojustice perspectives into their teaching practices. Each enacts these practices much differently in the context of the sociocultural contexts of their own schools, and often changed their teaching practices in ways that seemed to more closely align with those contexts. Each of the three dealt with external and internal hegemonic pressures that caused them to align more closely with their contexts. The philosophical foundations of their sociocultural contexts were manifested externally through technical controls (i.e. district-wide curriculum, state testing, district-wide common assessments, and state standards) and bureaucratic controls (i.e. mandates from administration that reinforce compliance to the technical controls) (Edwards, 1979; Irwin, 1996), sociocultural cues from administrators, colleagues, and students, and were made seemingly impenetrable via intensification, or high workloads that prevent reflective and critical thinking (Apple, 1988; Irwin, 1996). The internalized hegemonic pressures included their own feelings of internalized domination, surplus powerlessness (driven by feelings of isolation and self-blame) (Irwin, 1996; Lerner, 1986), and internalized dispositional views of their students (driven by feelings that their students were not capable of critical social thinking). ^ Each of their case studies focus on how the philosophical differences between the first-year teachers and the sociocultural contexts contrasted providing constant tension for each of the three teachers in terms of their decision-making and their teaching practices. The technical controls seemed to be at the root of most of the external hegemonic pressures and even their internal hegemonic pressures. This paper will focus on the philosophical underpinnings of the state standards in science, the statewide tests, the district curricula, and district-wide common assessments that drove the teachers' practices. ^ The philosophical foundations of their sociocultural contexts were: (1) knowledge as static and objectified, (2) curricular knowledge as the preferred knowledge, (3) standardized testing as a preferred method of gaining data about students' understandings of content, (4) uniform, decontextualized information as "neutral" facts and preferred knowledge, and (5) the summative view of 1-4 as a schooling process that produces learning that is preferred. ^ The first-year teachers' philosophies together contrasted the philosophies of their sociocultural contexts. The first-year teachers held that: (1) knowledge has a deep connection with power in that knowledge is a construction of those in the dominant groups' views of reality, (2) knowledge is not static, but is a co-creative, continuous process, (3) knowledge is a contested terrain, (4) students should be offered the opportunities to explore the knowledge-power relationships, as well as act in their communities to disrupt social and ecological injustices, and (5) the summative view of 1-4 is their preferred view of the schooling process. ^ This study describes how the three teachers responded to the hegemonic pressures of their sociocultural contexts in the form of technical and bureaucratic controls as well as the amplified messages from their colleagues, administrators, and students. This study also describes their own internalized feelings of fear, isolation, and a sense of not being able to make change in their schools. This study focuses on the complex experience of each of the three teachers as they struggle to exert their agency in a context where the ideology is clearly opposed to their own. (Abstract shortened by UMI.) ^