Physics Culture

This year, I’m going to be focusing, blogging, and thinking deeply about the role of culture in the physics classroom and in the school generally. Conversations with peers and (more importantly) with students, some really great perspectives in the literature, and some talks from this year’s AAPT summer meeting have convinced me that culture is the key.

Here is a diagrammatic depiction of my current understanding of culture. In my school — and in most, I believe, even in thoroughly non-Western nations (1) — the culture is firmly rooted in the Western tradition: Christian morals, American pop culture, enlightenment philosophy. Even though we are an international school, an IB World School in fact (2), there are few occasions where we move outside that cultural paradigm.

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Firmly within the context of the school culture is the physics culture. I was once told that, if you were to design a school system whose sole goal was to produce physics PhDs, it would be hardly distinguishable from the one we have today. In any case, physics is a pretty standard component of school, and even when we are using progressive methods, we rarely push the boundaries on our school’s academic cultures.

Quite isolated from the school culture is the student’s home culture. Some of these cultures might include components of indigenous knowledge, which could take the form of a knowledge structure in parallel to Western science, but which we nonetheless tend to exclude from instruction.

Given this structure, there are four primary areas of interest for me:

  1. What is the nature of each of the cultural “sets” on the Venn diagram?
  2. How can we “decolonize” the culture of the physics classroom? How can we move it away from its ensconced position within the Western tradition, and enrich it with non-Western cultural ideas? What is the role played by white male privilege in maintaining the status quo?
  3. How can we improve the process of “sense-making”, that is, the process by which students are traditionally understood to learn physics? What is the role played by language — both the specific vocabulary, and the impact of learning a new language while simultaneously studying physics in that language? What role do social factors play in learning? What are the best practices for learning physics?
  4. How do students negotiate the transition between their “home” ways of thinking and the culture of the physics classroom? This may considered a form of border crossing (3).

In the broader context, cultural issues are essential because our current school system is damaging students. Within physics, thinking carefully about culture is a necessary prerequisite to answering those unavoidable and uncomfortable questions about gender and racial inequality. It is also imperative that, as a physics educator, I develop a way of teaching that respects and honours my students’ cultures while also providing them the benefit of the knowledge and skills that are the birthright of contemporary humans.


(1) I taught in a local school in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for four years. It still strikes me as amazing how similar the science and history curricula were to that which I studied in Canada.

(2) From the International Baccalaureate mission statement,

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect … [and] who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

(3) The theory of border crossing in science has been developed by Aikenhead and others. I’ll be writing more about this soon.

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