Tag Archives: border crossing

Quantifying Border Crossing

In a previous post, I wrote about our failure to provide a culturally relevant and responsive education for all students. One component of that failure — the one closest to my heart and practice — is the conflict between “science culture” and students’ own cultures. The theory of border crossing provides a context for understanding the cultural mechanism at work here, and thus suggests a way forward for science teachers.

Border crossing was usefully applied to science education by Costa [paywalled]. Aikenhead gives a very good (albeit long-ish) overview, including contextualizing border crossing as a cultural theory of science. A subsequent paper by Aikenhead summarizes the idea quite well.


Border crossing suggests that students cross a virtual border between their home culture and the culture of school-science when they enter the science classroom. Students can respond to this crossing in several particular ways:

  1. Potential Scientists cross the border easily because their home culture is aligned with school-science culture. For example, they might have learned the Newtonian view of nature implicitly from their parents.
  2. Other Smart Kids can manage the border crossing because they are attuned to school culture even though the science culture is foreign to them. They tend to achieve high grades because they work hard, but are unlikely to grasp new scientific concepts intuitively. They tend to be able to apply science concepts in scientific contexts, but consider them applicable only in particular domains (such as the classroom, or science tests).
  3. Outsiders are students who struggle with the border crossing. They tend to do poorly at school overall because school culture is incompatible with their personal culture.
  4. Outside-Insiders tend to understand science ideas fairly readily, but often have difficulty in science class because of the baggage associated with the school environment. For example, they might have problems in their dealings with authority.
  5. I Don’t Know students have essentially “checked-out” from the learning process, because of the huge gap between their home culture and school culture.
  6. Aikenhead has also identified a group of students he terms the I Want to Know students. These students tend to be interested in science, but may have some difficulty with learning in the science classroom.

I think of I Want to Know as a moderate form of the Outside-Insiders, and the I Don’t Know students as extreme forms of the Outsiders. Thus, I will exclude the former of these from the subsequent analysis for now.

Although I know about these groupings, and can use them to help me target my instruction, it is usually difficult to categorize students, especially when our conversations take place through the medium of the very science culture I’m trying to abstract. To help with this process, I have been working on a paired-test assessment that identifies students’ approaches to border-crossing.

The assessment instrument consists of two tests (I will share these in a future post). The first is a standard-looking multiple-choice test that is administered in the classroom. The second can be taken online with a computer or a smartphone (via the browser), and is visually similar (and written somewhat akin) to the popular BuzzFeed quizzes. The idea is that the first test will represent a student’s cultural leanings in the classroom, and the second test will represent home cultural beliefs.

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The tests are related to the energy concept, which I chose because of its ubiquity as a core idea in science and because of its presence as a concept in non-scientific worldviews.

Each quiz has four answers, which correspond roughly to four different energy concepts:

  • the scientific, mechanistic view of energy
  • energy as a force of life (vis-viva)
  • energy as a property of moving and changing things (flux)
  • energy as a measure of harmony or balance (qi)

By looking at answers to the paired questions, we can identify students as belonging to one of the four border-crossing groups under consideration. The graph below shows the four answers on the horizontal and vertical axes for the first paired question. Circle areas are proportional to the number of students who chose each pair of answers.

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My next step will be to determine whether each student is consistently falling into one of these four groups over all eight questions. There’s more to come, stay tuned and let me know what you think!

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.


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.