A Trilemma in Progressive Education

 

This is a quick note about something I keep encountering in practice, but haven’t seen described in The Literature. If you have an references, please send them my way!

Consider a situation in which you are making some changes to educational materials or structures in order to address a bias in the status quo. This could mean re-framing classroom rules, editing materials, or rethinking university admissions. In such a situation, there seem to be three approaches you could take:

  1. (Representational) Equality
  2. Neutrality
  3. Responsivity

Example One: Gender in Physics Problems

This week on Twitter, I mentioned that I was re-writing some physics problems that had been coded (a) exclusively male, and sometimes (b) using inaccurate vocabulary (ie: “spaceman” instead of “astronaut”). An Equality approach would be to make the subjects of the questions 50% male and 50% female. Kate Wilson explains why this matters:

Summer C emphasizes that gender isn’t a 50/50 split, and that assuming a binary nature of gender is problematic, including for students who aren’t cisgender.

One such response, then is to attempt to use gender-neutral language (ie: Neutrality). In some cases this works easily, as Jenn Broekman explains:

In other cases, though, it takes a bit more work:

I like gender-neutral pronouns in principle, but we’re probably a generation away from them being practical. An alternative is to adopt the 2nd-person perspective:

While “you” seems like a good solution, it’s not always going to be valid — for example, a problem in which there are two independent agents. There’s also the issue that this isn’t solving the bigger problem: even if my problems are gender neutral, students are still getting cultural signals about who is and who isn’t a physicist. This brings us to the idea of Responsivity: using these cultural artifacts to push back against counterproductive messaging and norms students are bringing to the classroom:

This discussion was enlightening for me — thanks to those who contributed!

Example Two: Latent Colonialism

I’ve been slowly putting together some ideas around the idea of “latent colonialism” in physics, the idea that a large portion of the canon of physics culture is a remnant of the colonial era and thus carries some problematic attributes with it. For example, textbooks around the world feature the same group of ~20 physicists (Newton, Franklin, Ampere, Maxwell, Einstein, etc) — all white, male, and Western European. Or consider that the names of the famous physics equations and principles, although developed over a couple millennia, have Western European names. This has been shown to negatively impact students who aren’t white and male.

So, how do we respond? We could:

  1. Seek Neutrality. Simply remove the names from the canon. Instead of Snell’s Law, we would call it the Law of Refraction. This approach has been adopted in several curricula, but I see two problems with it: first, instead of giving an advantage to white boys, the curriculum gives an advantage to no-one; and second, culture is complicated and it’s not clear we’d be successful at expunging all the biased artifacts.
  2. Instead, we could seek out cases in which white women and people of colour contributed to the history of science and highlight them as well. This would aim to present a canon that is representationally Equal. I’m currently reading up on Émilie du Châtelet, for example. This would allow us to re-cast the history of physics as an endeavour that involved white men and women in Western Europe, and built on the mathematics and early work done in the Middle East, and to a lesser extent India and China. Putting aside the cries of “revisionist history”, this isn’t clearly going fix everything, either. For one thing, the truth is that a lot of contemporary physics knowledge, in the form in which we currently teach it, was assembled by white men who refused to allow white women or people of colour in on the proceedings (with some rare exceptions).
  3. Which bring us to the Responsive approach, which is to acknowledge the deliberate exclusion, intellectual theft and, well, colonialism that took place during the construction of the set of ideas we think of today as the canon of physics knowledge. This would be hard: it would involve physics teachers talking about history and racism in their classes.

Likely, the best response is to do all of these, in the contexts in which they work best, to the best of our abilities. For example, I taught for some time in a country in which it was constitutionally prohibited for schoolteachers to talk about gay marriage or other gay rights issues in their classes: that type of thing severely restricted my ability to talk with students about some of these issues. It is my hope that this classification is useful in deciding which response to take.

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