Research Summary

Tensions teaching science for equity: Lessons learned from the case of Ms. Dawson

Tensions in Promoting Equity Through the Ambitious Science Teaching Approach

Science Education

Ambitious science teaching is a teaching approach designed to improve deep understanding for students of all backgrounds through activities focused on central ideas, discourses, and problems within the science discipline. The four-part framework at its core emphasizes “intellectual engagement” and “attention to equity.” Encouraging educators to draw from interactions with students and embed learning within students’ experiences, ambitious science teaching aims for meaningful science teaching and learning based on evidence-based explanations.

Yet, there are tensions in promoting equity in ambitious science teaching. Equity-based learning strives for academic and social success for all students. It requires students to be active participants in constructing their own knowledge, rather than envisioning teachers and curricula as the sole sources of knowledge. In this study, the researchers observed a science educator to see how such tensions affected her teaching strategy.

Based on previous work, researchers classified tensions by four categories: conceptual (what counts as knowledge), pedagogical (competing learning goals), cultural (bridging students’ expectations with those of the school), and political (working in existing systems of accountability). The researchers concluded that those tensions are not only part of, but also are critical for, disruptive pedagogies such as ambitious science and equity-based learning. Managing and overcoming those tensions can help create a teaching environment in which all students can thrive.

The study focused on ms. Dawson (a pseudonym), a middle-school science teacher in seattle, because of her extensive experience teaching science and equity-based learning in a multicultural setting. The researchers observed her in two contexts: a public middle school and a summer program for low-income students. To examine ms. Dawson’s teaching framework, the researchers gathered data through in-class observations, videos of classroom discourse, and follow-up interviews. They used focused, open, and selective coding (or a mix of inductive and deductive approaches) to analyze the interview and video transcripts for evidence of different kinds of tension.

The researchers found two main results with regard to tensions that were common across both contexts. First, conceptual and political tensions surfaced as ms. Dawson became concerned whether students were learning the “right” thing. Sometimes she facilitated knowledge building (hands-on science/experiments), while other times she defaulted to more traditional knowledge displaying (texts/documentaries) as she worked to fulfill the obligations of the set curriculum. Second, pedagogical and cultural tensions interacted as ms. Dawson struggled to teach students using their lived experience while also introducing fundamental academic ideas. For example, students created knowledge using their own vernacular, but they could not necessarily communicate the same concepts using academic vocabulary. Ms. Dawson was hesitant to privilege one way of understanding above another, but she felt obligated to prepare students for future academic success. Because of those tensions, ms. Dawson was able to incorporate and use some principles of ambitious science teaching, but not others.

The Bottom Line

Ambitious science teaching, an equity-focused approach, includes practices designed to create a teaching environment in which all students can thrive. Teaching with an equity focused approach or framework is likely to always have tensions between such new pedagogies and traditional teaching and school contexts. Educators, therefore, should not feel compelled to adhere solely to these methods but, rather, leverage some aspects of these pedagogies that are most appropriate to their specific teaching and learning setting. Teachers should pay particular attention, for example, to points where there may be roadblocks and/or obstacles, such as challenging language. In those instances, combining traditional and new practices may help facilitate understanding and provide productive starting points. Similarly, educators might develop productive pedagogical frameworks by engaging some of these tensions through discussions and reflection with their colleagues.

Braaten, M., & Sheth, M.. (2017). Tensions teaching science for equity: Lessons learned from the case of Ms. Dawson. Science Education, 101(1), 134 - 164. presented at the 2017///.