Emergence of a learning community: a transforming experience at the boundaries
I narrate a process of transformation, a professional and personal journey framed by an experience that captured my attention shaping my interpretation and reflections. From a critical complexity framework I discuss the emergence of a learning community from the cooperation among individuals of diverse social and cultural worlds sharing the need to change a traditional professional development program structure and develop a new science education Masters Degree/Certification program. I zoom into the continual redefinition of the community, its evolution and complex interrelations among its participants and the emergence of a learning community as a boundary space having an emancipatory role and allowing growth and learning. I analyze the dialectical relationship between agents’ behavior either impeding growth or having an emancipatory function of a mindful RelationalAct in a complex adaptive system framework.
KeywordsLearning communityComplexityEmergent spacesRelational actBoundary object
In this paper I reflect on my experience of transformation: a complexity scientist in my original field of modeling magma dynamics (Raia and Spera 1997) entering the field of science education research and practice (Raia 2008). The journey was shaped by the experience of working in collaboration with science education colleagues from the School of Education to develop a multidisciplinary science education Masters/Certification Degree program in a 4-year college on the East Coast of the United States. Except for two colleagues and friends, all the participants of the experience described here, including myself, for personal or career reasons, are no longer at the same university. This paper is written from my perspective of encountering a culture of research and education practice that was different from the one I had experienced before. It is a perspective of great disappointment of too naïve ideals, of intellectual growth, and of refinement. It is a professional and personal journey narrated through three layers of contexts. I begin and conclude this paper with the phenomenological layer. What I consider to be the closing episode ‘‘awakened my interest’’ (Gadamer 1983) and guided me toward a reflection of the past experience and the emergence of a learning community. In a second layer of context—the narrative layer, through my notes and excerpts from emails of the learning community participant teachers, I narrate the event—a series of events, starting 6 years prior to the closing episode. The analysis of this narrative, framed by critical complexity (Raia and Deng 2011) constitutes a third layer—the analytical layer—through which the events transform into a professional and personal journey. In this analytical layer I consider the role of the self, of relationships and of multiple complex interactions in emergent spaces where human beings with different needs, desires, beliefs and knowledge, enter into dynamic, evolving person–person interaction with unequal distribution of power, modulated by powerful emotions. It is from the critical complexity framework that I can assume that what I identify as a researcher, is observer dependent. In other words, the choice of events, parameters, structures, patterns over others, governs my recognition of what I see emerging. This choice is dependent on what is salient to me according to my cultural creation of meaning (Lemke 2000), what resonates with me and what I accept out of my experience of the world around me, what awakened my interest (Raia and Deng 2011).
These three layers of context, although not coalesced, are dialectically interwoven throughout the paper and therefore complementary. I have chosen this format with the intent of making visible one person’s experience in the “here and now” (Deng and Raia 2011) elaborating and assembling all relevant information—the emotional, the rational, the learned—of the person-in-interaction with others and/or with what I study, observe, feel or think about. It is in the multilayer space of different contexts that the experience emerges and contributes to the discussion on the topic of accepting the other as a worldly being in the specific cultural context of the encounter.
The closing episode part 1
I am in a café, sitting at a long table with other science education colleagues. It is the last day of an international conference in science education and we are gathered to have a drink together, merrily chatting, catching up with those we did not see for some time, meeting new colleagues. In front of me sits somebody I don’t know. I introduce myself. I hear his name and, know who he is. I lean across the table and hold out my hand to shake his. We look at each other. We both know we can finally talk about what happened 6 years earlier.
The event: 6 years earlier
Day 1: “… I am calling… You won’t believe this! We just finished class … Our professor in the Life Science course is a creationist!!!” … “Yes! He said he doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution!!” The teacher participant in our Middle School Initiative science education program calling that evening was shouting the words in my cellphone. Next to her voice I could hear the others echoing hers: “We cannot learn from him” … “He believes in Creation!” … “You cannot learn biology from a creationist!” …
The National Center for Science Education reports of creationist attacks on the teaching of evolution (Scott 2000) were intensifying in the United States by 2005. Specifically, Intelligent Design (ID) creationism was gathering more supporters in an effort “to produce a form of creationism that would be less vulnerable to legal challenges and that would not overtly rely upon biblical literalism” (Scott and Matzke 2007, p. 8669): in Arkansas, classroom teachers reported of being forbidden from using the “e-[evolution] word” in the classroom, permitted to use the word “adaptation” only to refer to a current characteristic of organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection, and not allowed to use the term “natural selection” (Wiles 2005). The State of Kansas was bracing for yet another fight over teaching evolution that would be lost at the end of 2005. The new State Board of Education was operating to revise teaching standards once again since 2001. At that time the theory of evolution had been restored to Kansas’s science education standards after a conservative majority adopted science standards removing many references to evolution, the age of the earth, and the Big Bang theory in 1999.
While the debate was unfolding across the US, I was not prepared for this to happen in a metropolis on the East coast of the United States (US). My understanding was that we were immune against this form of return to the dark ages, and that all of the creationist movement was confined to what Fodor (2007, p. 19) calls “remote backwaters of the American Midwest.” The media releases and academic literature locating the worst cases of creationist attacks on the teaching of evolution to the American Midwest (Lerner 2000) were confirming my attitude. Yet, the political climate was heating up as it was then summarized in the Washington Post (Slevin 2005, p. A01): “Propelled by a polished strategy crafted by activists on America’s political right, a battle is intensifying across the nation over how students are taught about the origins of life. Policymakers in 19 states are weighing proposals that question the science of evolution.” The legal case Kitzmiller v. Dover was at our doorstep. Yes, it was not in “remote backwaters of the American Midwest” but in Pennsylvania, that the Legal Case: Tammy Kitzmille et v. Dover Area School District, PA, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, Docket no. 4cv2688, was unfolding. The Dover Area School District had changed its biology teaching curriculum policy by a 6–3 vote, requiring that students would “be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught.” In addition, the Board introduced as a reference book the Of Pandas and People. The plaintiffs were the parents (Matzke 2004).
I am European born and raised. I am Italian. As many young Italians, I have loved and continue to love Dante Alighieri’s poetry and prose (e.g. De Monarchia, La Divina Commedia) and studied Benedetto Croce’ work: as many Italians, I am Catholic and raised in the understanding that while religion can give personal spiritual and ethical guidelines, the pope is a head of state, the contemporary Vatican state, the smallest but the richest state in the world. I studied the wars in my country, driven by the secular motivation to regain the land, historically often occupied and in great deal owned by the Catholic church whose Status Pontificius (Pontifical State) spanned from AD 752 to 1870. I am mindful of Benedetto Croce starting his “Storia d’Italia” on the day Rome was finally liberated from the kingdom of the popes—a greatly celebrated event called la Breccia di Porta Pia, September 20, 1870. I was unprepared for the events that were to unfold.
I had been warned for the events that were to unfold.
As a raised catholic and a scientist, “believing” was and still is for me a personal act of faith, a personal evolving framework of ethical values within which my biography unfolds and within which the methods of scientific inquiry have a protected space to explore and understand all of the complex aspects of our world. “Believing” for me did not mean to silence insights based on methods of scientific inquiry because they were in contradiction to religious beliefs. In brief, for me, “believing” was not part of the methodology in the process of science I engaged in for many years. In contrast, for me, as Konstantinos Alexakos beautifully wrote in 2010, the methodology of inquiry of science was and is “a way of thinking and making sense of dialectical processes in nature” (2010, p. 237). It was and is strongly dependent on the perspective of the observer/person/researcher, which requires the understanding as well as the acceptance of knowledge as decentralized knowledge and as knowledge that has the potential to challenge and transform the observer including the underlying value system framework while it is been generated. This epistemological paradigm of non-separability of observer and observed world was and is radically open to any reflection of the scientific process, including any value system assumptions in the person conducting the science, the researcher. In this scientific paradigm, any act of the researcher is a RelationalAct (Deng and Raia 2011) either relating to the outside world or relating to the value assumptions in the research act. This dialectic relation is not linear; it is a revolutionary activity of a person in interaction (Vygotsky 1978), accepting unpredictability and transformation.
As an Italian raised scientist, I have also been cognizant of Benedetto Croce’s disdain for science and mathematics: “knowledge not for real philosopher but for minute intellects” (Massarenti 2011). From his idealist position rather than criticizing positivist science, Croce negated any valid connection between philosophy and science altogether. Based on this position, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile in 1923, as a new elected Minister of Education, relegated science to lesser discipline in open contrast to what was developing in the world and specifically in the US. I was now living in the US where I was working as a scientist and I was not ready to accept the events that were to unfold.
At the time of the event I was the director of the Middle School Initiative, a program funded by the State Department of Education to build a model of integrated collaborations among the University Division of Science (Sciences), the University School of Education (EdSchool) and the city School Districts for developing and sustaining an interdisciplinary Middle School Science Education Masters/Certification Degree program for either provisionally licensed or uncertified science teachers-here called teachers candidates.
I worked very closely with the other science education faculty in the EdSchool and shared responsibility for the middle school program with the Science Education Program Head of the EdSchool. We were a cross-discipline working group—the Science Education Group (SEG). I was particularly apprehensive about the event because being an untenured Assistant Professor and PI of the State Department-funded grant to support the program I felt this incident could compromise our professional reputation and the work with the State Department, whose directive regarding the teaching of evolution were consistent with the AAAS: the theory of evolution must not be taught in contrast to and comparison with non-scientific concepts such as ID creationism in science classes.
Looking at my notes now, it is quite eerie to see that I recall the exact spot where I was standing, the thoughts I had (“It cannot be happening in a metropolis!”), my walk down the stairs out of a building looking in the darkness of the park when I received that call from the teachers participating in the program. However, I did not recall anything else about that situation, so much was I hit in my personal and professional core. I do not remember being with my science education colleagues celebrating a promotion that one of us had received. I thought I had been alone and that my first conversation with them on the matter had happened the day after. Being alone among friends. A mixed sense of “incredulity” “rage,” “fear,” “likebeing robbed” accompanied me home and throughout the night.
Day 2: The School of Education SEG colleagues and myself met again to discuss what had happened in the Life Science for Middle School Teachers course and how to best address it. It was confirmed by other phone calls from teacher candidates from the same class that to our dismay and to teacher participants’ clear distress, the new adjunct instructor—Professor P—hired by EdSchool to teach the course had revealed to his students–teachers candidates—his personal skepticism and disbelief in the theory of evolution and the belief in Creation, causing discomfort and upheaval in the class. The EdSchool Science Education Program Head and myself contacted the EdSchool administration to discuss possible approaches to the event.
Day 3: I learned from a teacher that intervention by the EdSchool Administrators had been immediate; teacher candidates were called for meetings to investigate the problem and those representatives of EdSchool administration were planning to talk to the instructor soon.
Day 4: Questions were going through my mind: Soon, when? Who were the representatives chosen by the EdSchool administration? Why was I not included in the discussion? Who was participating in these meetings? Who was talking to the instructor? Being excluded from the discussion made me feel an outsider. I started questioning if the understanding we had about the event was the same. This was acute because, based on the mission to improve student achievement and engagement in science, in 1999 the University’s Science and the EdSchool—in partnership—provided for the creation of new tenure track faculty positions for candidates with backgrounds in a science discipline and in science education to create a new program in secondary science education. Some appointments like mine were made in the Sciences—Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science—with a courtesy appointment in the new, to-be-built secondary science education program within the EdSchool. Others were made in the EdSchool with courtesy appointments in the Sciences—Department of Physics. With the other colleagues, I was recruited to build and support the collaborative work between the EdSchool and the Sciences. This kind of partnership is not frequently built and institutionalized, even today. It was definitely new in 1999 and we were building it with great excitement. The Middle School Initiative was one of the programs emerging from this partnership and in that context extended to the city’s School Districts. Naively, until then we did not reflect on the meaning of the structure of courtesy appointments as a non-committal centralized promotion of interdisciplinarity. Rather, as an interdisciplinary science education group at our university we felt that we were spearheading a national curriculum reform and that we were cross-discipline appointed. We assumed that the vision expressed by starting the collaboration, at that time new and potentially transforming, was an act stemming from an understanding of Henry Giroux’s (1985a) pedagogical framework of educating people for critical empowerment. Naively, we did not understand that in a hierarchically conceived system, structures could develop meaning and functions to control the other and reproduce the existing culture and structures. Were we about to confront what Wolf-Michel Roth and Angela Calabrese Barton (Roth and Calabrese Barton 2004) described as inherently flawed effort to enhance scientific literacy?
Day 6: I learned from my SEG colleagues with primary appointments in EdSchool that the University’s EdSchool administration representatives communicated to EdSchool faculty and staff that the instructor never taught creationism in the class but that he had expressed a personal belief, that he intended to teach the theory of evolution consistent with State and National Standards for teaching science, as well as the requirements of the AAAS, so that the theory of evolution would not be taught in contrast to and comparison with non-scientific concepts in a science course. The instructor also answered teacher candidates’ emails with similar reassurances.
Evolving asynchrony—the emergence of us and them.
Engaging in a debate contrasting and comparing the theory of evolution to non-scientific concepts in a science class was understood as a maneuver to “introduce the teaching of “intelligent design theory” into the science curricula” (AAAS 2002 as reported in Fig. 1).
As a teacher participant wrote in a email: “It is whether someone can teach deeply the theory of evolution with all its resulting manifestations when their belief system explicitly forbids questioning, inquiry, hypothesis, trial and error, and the generally accepted tenets of science in regards to that belief system.”
To receive the instructor’s answer to students’ (teachers) concerns a week later justifying the delayed response by “been busy” was considered another way to establish control and power over the other. As the teacher candidates voiced: it was sending a message of “not being important enough to respond immediately” and was understood by the students of the class (teachers candidates) as hierarchical power-relation-reinforcing move doe by the course professor.
I thought that had I been in his position I would take time to discuss the issue with my peers to seek advice on the best way to respond. I would be very cautious not to do the wrong thing, say the wrong words and have the situation escalate, the class turn against me and maybe even lose my job. What a nightmare! But my perspective did not resonate strongly with the teacher candidates. Professor P was not giving me grades.
Although the intensity of complaints and criticisms from teacher candidate class participants called for a commitment from the EdSchool to support the basic right of scientific freedom in a democratic society, the focus on the part of the EdSchool administration and leadership was still on demonstrating that we were compliant with the National Science Standards, we were a good university, and that the instructor never taught creationism. In the discordance of understanding of the issue, two different “agendas” between the professional education system administrators (and their supporters) and the learners, the separation in “us” and the “them”, was emerging.
While these events occurred, despite participating in Middle School Initiative collaborative program, there was still complete absence of communication between the university’s EdSchool administration and leadership on the one hand and, the Dean of Science and me on the other. My information was only coming from the teachers enrolled in the Middle School Initiative and the Science Education Program Head with whom I have been collaborating. I did not want to contact the Dean of Science myself because being excluded from any EdSchool decision making process elicited in me a sense of “being the other.” Although it was clear that what we (the SEG: university scientist and science educators, experienced classroom teachers and teacher candidates) considered the event to be a shared issue it was not clear that it was seen as such by the administrative representatives of the EdSchool and those close to their position, “them.” Informing the Dean of Science myself was admitting that the work (and the vision) of 5 years, building bridges between two schools that we thought just started to trust each other and understand the other’s culture, was built on a belief that cooperation and collaboration were based on a desire to build something new and greater than what could have been achieved by each individual or each school, to learn and grow together. A naïve belief.
After a week in communication absentia: fear of and power over the other.
Day 10: In a situation of growing perplexity and division, two different developments took place:
First: the Science Education Program Head, getting more and more tense at the idea of the State Department of Education finding out what was happening in a newly state approved program, and fully supported by us SEG faculty, asked the adjunct instructor—Professor P—to distribute the AAAS Board of Directors’ resolution (Fig. 1) regarding the teaching of ID creationism in his Life Science class.
By “them” EdSchool, this move was seen as an attempt to infringe on a professor’ right to free speech.
What?? I thought.
I would agree now with the EdSchool administration representatives’ stance, but for a different reason than academic freedom. I understand now what I could not have understood then as a scientist. My role as a science educator is to continually support practice in which, as Wolff-Michael Roth and Kenneth Tobin (2004, paragraph. 6) described, “collective decisions emerge within a context in which respectful interactions can occur, with an understanding that no voice is privileged and it is safe to make critical statements about others as long as interactions are respectful and free of malicious intent.” We were asking the instructor to make a statement in his own classroom, in front of his students that would mortify his conceptions of life. This would be an act that could elicit feelings of being lied to, of despair, of smallness as David Long (2012) described in his study of creationist students asked to conceptualize a world where evolution is occurring and has occurred. Feelings of being lied to, of despair, of smallness are experiences that should not enter the practice of improving the quality of science education.
I was appalled to hear that our Prof is a creationist. It may be his personal opinion, and one that we have to correct as a misconception in our students but it is inappropriate and insulting to take a Grad level Biology class with someone who does not believe in evolution. Evolution is the theoretical underpinning of ALL BIOLOGY—at least in the secular world that I live, and work in. […] maybe women can even wear veils soon, and not drive cars and those pregnant out of wedlock will be jailed and homosexuals executed! This is not funny, it is not an exaggeration and this believer in Democracy, non sectarian education, evolution and human rights will not go along in peace!
This is an email that screams. It does not scream at the person. It screams at the attempt to masquerade racism, sexism, anti-gay bigotry, lack of education for “traditional values” (Alexakos 2010). It screams at the attempt to silence insights based on methods of scientific inquiry [most robust products of scientific inquiry; to offer credible scientific evidence to support claim (AAAS 2002, Fig. 1)], masking prejudice and assumption to impose religious dogma [The movement presents “intelligent design theory” to the public as a theoretical innovation, supported by scientific evidence (AAAS 2002, Fig. 1)]. It screams because it is seen as the attempt done by the person detaining power of grading in the classrooms, Professor P.
I am writing to you with some concern. I believe you have been in touch with a few of my classmates with respect to our Professor P.
I am writing to confirm the issues regarding Instructor P. […].
[…] we cover (rather breezed over) at least six topics (i.e. nutrition, mitosis, meiosis, respiration, ATP synthesis, etc.). In my opinion ALL of these concepts require extensive investigation […] while Professor P referred to them as ‘bus-stops’ or general ideas that we should already know.
I feel that these are issues that need to be addressed by the administration.
Fear was transforming into outrage into action. I see this teacher candidates’ ongoing transformation similarly described by Heidi Carlone, Julie Haun-Frank and Sue Kimmel (2010) in their analysis of elementary school teachers’ critical institutional and socio-historical difficulties of enacting reform-based science. They described the transformation from being “reluctant dissenters” struggling with whether or not to challenge authority or speaking out against what kept science marginalized from the curriculum, into becoming “legitimate science people” in the enactment of reform-based science with their students.
Teachers in the Middle School Initiative were taking charge over their own learning.
As this transformation was taking place more effort on the part of EdSchool administration representatives to control the dissent emerged:
Day 12: From the teacher candidates coming to my office slamming an article on my desk: “what is this?!” I learned that in an “effort to acknowledge” teacher candidates’ dissatisfaction and growing anger, an administration representative distributed a research article to the teachers enrolled in the course. The article was a long and complex research article on changing classroom students’ attitude toward evolution. Teachers did not see it as a tool to utilize in their own quest of understanding and participating in the debate about science as a process of inquiry, and/or as tool to confront the situation, in the event it would happen in their own classroom, but as something completely out of touch with what they were debating and confronting. They clearly did not appreciate the act of distributing the article as they considered it as an “academic patronizing” act. One teacher summarized this sentiment ironically as: “you know, we are not academics.” Other teachers told me they felt it was a message “do the homework, learn (what academic supposedly know) before being allowed to speak up.” They had not been given a clear explanation or reference or an opportunity for an open discussion about the research article either in their class or in the meetings with the EdSchool administrative. It was understood as Marilyn Cochran–Smith and Susan Lytle (1993) described as “outside-in” knowledge linearly transmitted from the source—university researchers to recipient teachers—a knowledge that controls and coerces the other.
I decided to inform the Education administration that the events were clearly escalating and therefore it was imperative to contact the Dean of Science before words about the event would reach her from other sources. A University media relations’ representative being informed about teachers’ intention to contact the newspapers and make the unresolved issue known, had contacted me as the Director of the Middle School Initiative. The communication between the EdSchool and Sciences was finally established.
Enable our teachers [including ourselves] to cope with similar situations in their[our] own classrooms in the future
Fulfill our mission as a truly academic science education group
Provide maximum support to the mission of the national curriculum standards
The positive response of the Life science course participating teachers, all the colleagues from SEG, Sciences faculty and Sciences Administration representatives was immediate as was surprising the response from a EdSchool Administration representative who have felt uncomfortable about my email to all—those “outside the EdSchool.”
The response was puzzling.
The first sentence uttered by the Dean of Science to us had been “What do you think we should do?” It reminded me of the times when something did not work or “went wrong” in our simulation laboratory during my doctoral studies and my advisor would say an identical sentence followed by “what did we learn from this?”
There were two fundamental concepts in the sentence uttered by the Dean of Science—a scientist herself: “do” and “we.” A recognition of being together in tackling a problem as we do research in science laboratories, working with the others, with material and their properties in a constant dialectic negotiation with the processes of nature (Latour and Woolgar 1986).
It is from the “laboratory science” perspective that I understood the EdSchool administration position as an arrogant isolationist position. EdSchool claimed the solution of the situation because by traditionally running teachers preparation programs they would have acquired a status of knowledge, of “know how.” Scientists, fighting now in the trenches under the attack of religious fundamentalists who “sought to introduce the teaching of “intelligent design theory” into the science curricula of the public schools” (AAAS 2002, as reported in Fig. 1), had not.
Yet, David Labaree’s (2004) interpretative essay offered a different perspective to understand the EdSchool position based on the particular combination of (a) the historical developments of American education schools from independent normal schools to annexed but marginalized teacher education schools within state colleges and universities, and (b) of contemporary factors such as: (1) the low prestige of the teaching profession, (2) the prejudice against teacher education school’s students mostly working-class women and (3) the standards of admissions and coursework supposedly maintained low in response to the market demand pressuring to provide in short time large numbers of credentialed teachers to the school system.
It is from the “long history of status deprivation” (Labaree 2004, p. 8) perspective that I understand the EdSchool administration sense of vulnerability to public and academic criticism of “intellectual wastelands” (Labaree 2004, p. 2) and “the root cause of bad teaching and inadequate learning” (Labaree 2004, p. 3).
Was the fear to be judged, to be sued, to loose control of the situation or “power over the other”, of being alienated from the creative work, fostering acts of non-communication and of closure to the others’ perspectives?
Day 15: A final attempt was made to control and placate the heated discussion. A EdSchool leadership administrative proceeded to the teacher candidates’ classroom to personally reassure the participants in their classroom that the instructor would teach the theory of evolution according to the requirements of the AAAS not in contrast to and comparison with non-scientific concepts. For practical purposes the administrative intervention focused on (a) ensuring –once again—that teaching of the theory of evolution would occur in a sound scientific context in the specific classroom and (b) assuring teachers, faculty and staff that the intervention had been effective. However, according to my recount of what the teachers participating in the course described, the administrative representative delineated the event as: an “incident” blown out of proportion. At that point, my diary notes on conversations, on emails and impressions become increasingly full of margin symbols: “?” and words “WHY?”
The interventions by the EdSchool Administration continued to insufficiently address the fundamental issue that was confronting scientists and science educators (K-16): the growing perception of a deliberate attack on the teaching of evolution and the very processes of science [to understand the nature of science; offer credible scientific evidence to support claims. products of scientific inquiry. It is the foundation for research. (AAAS 2002, Fig. 1) as evident in the teachers candidate emails on day 10: “[…] I feel that these are issues that need to be addressed by the administration.”
A centralized control perspective held by EdSchool Administration representatives saw the obvious and immediate solution in “we assure you we have it under control.” In contrast, the participating teachers kept expressing the feeling that learning life science from somebody who expressed a personal disbelief in the theory of evolution would undermine their learning. They demanded a say in their own learning and the university did not realize it was denying their request.
As it progressed, the gridlock became more entangled and any solutions seemed to create new problems and enhance discontent. Not only had the situation not been solved, it was escalating. It seemed as the role of the participants in the encounter were, on the part of the EdSchool, guaranteeing to prevent any critical discourse on the foundational value system of a democratic modern society to publicly unfold, while participant teachers defined their “naïve” role as promoting exactly this fundamental discourse as core responsibility of the education system of a democratic modern society.
The encounter roles were polarizing.
Being at the boundaries—emergence of learning community
From a complexity perspective, I privilege decentralized systems where emergence of spaces, patterns, ideas, collective behavior; thoughts; emotional climate (Roth and Tobin 2010); language (Larsen-Freeman 1997); meaning (Lemke 2000) and; what constitute learning (Raia and Deng 2011) are not predictable from the knowledge of each individual history, culture, origin, emotional state, education, nor predictable from the knowledge of how each individual interacts with others. I privilege spaces of interaction continually co-constructed by the situated agent in interactions with the other, by what others are doing, saying, desiring, feeling and experiencing; spaces of interaction modulated by the social, cultural, and political larger scale systems in which agents live and which enter the contexts of interaction as the person’s erlebnisse and erfahrung (Gadamer 1983) the person experience in the here and now (Raia and Deng 2011).
Conversely, I saw the EdSchool administration managing the situation by centralizing the control over the situation. In a mechanistic paradigm of accountability this approach can be successful when applied to pyramid-like organized institutions. There, in the absence of capacity to sustain a more open, cooperative and pluralistic culture of interdependent collaboration, a form of bureaucratic governance manifests in becoming centralized around the management elite (Robertson and Swan 2004) and enactments of standing strong against any radically open reflection of processes and value system assumptions. In this paradigm, the relation between any act of relating to the outside world or relating to the internal value assumptions is linear and cannot accept unpredictability and transformation. In the last decades this kind of centralized organization has been replaced by more successful network-based forms of organization that allow growth and transformation to emerge from a decentralized system of complex interconnections of interdependent agents (Castells 2001) with diverse perspective, abilities and value systems sharing common goals (Page 2011).
In our context, there was a need to move from hierarchical to complex network-based forms of organization—an ontological radical change in what it is that constituted knowledge. In maintaining the hierarchical power relationships unchanged, EdSchool was constraining not only teacher candidates but all of us to a process that Giroux (1985b) described as subjugation of intellectual labor reducing our role to specialized technicians, a process also described by Cochran–Smith and Lytle (2009) that coerces teachers to receivers and transmitters of other people’ knowledge. “Them” in EdSchool did not accept that questions emerging from issues and needs in our local context could guide inquiry in a process of co-creating knowledge. Thereby “them” in EdSchool alienated our work. The hierarchical framework also required the EdSchool administration to be solely responsible for having hired an adjunct instructor who later turned out to be a creationist, a professional fiasco considering the thread of trust and respect, tenuously emerging in the complex relations between the two Schools: Education and Science. In view of this kind of accountability and the urgency of the crisis, I found the EdSchool administration representatives’ move to control the situation, erecting and reinforcing the borders around them, unsurprising. In bordering on a crisis, boundaries became barriers separating and alienating all as the “others;” sociocultural differences became problematic and suffocated by ignoring or muting the multiplicity of voices. A missed opportunity for dialogue; a dialogue we in SEG were demanding based on our history of working at the boundaries, working in constantly emerging spaces and forms of multithreaded interdisciplinary interdependent collaborations. In these evolving spaces, sociocultural differences in language, perspective and approaches were considered resources. It is at the boundaries—as zones of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978), always becoming shared spaces (Raia and Deng 2011), “where exactly that sense of here and there are confounded” (Star 2010, p. 603)—that what counts as knowledge can change (Gutierrez, Rymes and Larson 1995). We were working at the boundaries since 5 years before the unfolding of the events narrated above.
Building interdependent collaborations: integrated system of professional development.
Between 1999 and 2001 we were recruited to build and support the collaborative work between the EdSchool and the Sciences. The Benchmarks outlined by AAAS (1993), and the Standards elaborated by the National Research Council—NRC—(1996), critically received by peers in science education (Rodriguez 2006) for not articulating an equity framework to achieve science for all, were setting norms for the education of science from school grades K-12 to college grades 13–16. We understood the NRC Education Standards’ core vision to: “emphasize a new way of teaching and learning about science that reflects how science itself is done, emphasizing inquiry as a way of achieving knowledge and understanding about the world” (NRC 1996, p. ix) as contending not only that students gain a better understanding of fundamental scientific concepts when they are actively engaged in constructing their own knowledge, but that this understanding is emancipatory. Learning by inquiry for us meant learning to make assumptions visible, to make the not-visible visible, to learn to pose our questions in a way that could be answered by us and not only by authority (a book, a professor, “the expert”), to take control over our own learning, accepting that knowledge is built in interaction with the world and with others, therefore being transformative and unpredictable.
As newly appointed faculty in a cross-discipline working group, we worked with great excitement continually defining the spaces at the boundaries. We saw an exciting possibility to share with others our vision of learning and teaching science when approached by science staff developers and supervisors from local school districts. They reported high degrees of community poverty and low ratios of experienced teachers, particularly in science and mathematics where 70 % of the districts’ middle school science teachers were at that time either provisionally licensed or uncertified in science, the largest portion of the latter holding K-6 certification. The representatives from local school districts asked us to design a comprehensive and meaningful teacher professional development program that would integrate with the public school classrooms and use educational curricula and resources to foster: (a) rich and in-depth understanding of fundamental scientific phenomena (content knowledge); (b) familiarity and fluency with innovative teaching methods; (c) understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge and what it means for students and teachers, to think productively about science and; (d) meaningful connections with the Math, Science and Technology Standards. The representatives from local school districts made clear to us how critical it was to develop a program specifically targeted to middle school science teachers, integrated in the public school classroom and thus different from the traditional secondary school degree offered by Schools of Education in other universities.
Roth and Tobin (2001) in science education, and Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993) in literacy education have amply described and critically analyzed the divergence between traditional teacher education programs in Education at universities and the classroom practice. They have proposed powerful and transformative methodology of co-teaching (Roth and Tobin 2001) and of integration of practitioners’ research in building “local knowledge of practice” (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 1993) to transform traditional teachers education programs. Traditionally, in these programs novice teachers learn about theories of teaching and learning in education and, after a short field experience during their teacher training, are expected to transform into practice what they have learned in the university courses.
For secondary science teaching and learning, however, additional culturally diverse groups in teachers professional development programs are involved: university scientists, university science educators, experienced classroom teachers and teacher candidates.
Science educators, on the other hand, were most expert in educational theory and research. They were familiar with the importance of engaging students in inquiry but also understood that what learning means is a function of the common culture accepted as knowledge. However, either they never taught outside of higher education or they did so before entering academia. At that time, therefore, their classroom life experience, not being employed by the school districts, and not working every day in a classroom, was certainly different from the one of classroom teachers.
Experienced teachers in school settings were most expert in transforming knowledge stemming from questions and issues arising from a local context. They were very familiar with state, city, district, and school policies and traditions. They were very aware of the difficulties inherent in promoting inquiry in a classroom full of “disenfranchised” urban adolescents, considering science the others’ culture or as described by Alexakos, Jones and Rodriguez (2011), considering learning science as “acting white.” These teachers mastered strategies and techniques that were (and are) necessary components of any teacher education program but differed widely in their experience with and interest in inquiry-based instruction. At our University, their contribution to the professional development programs was simply absent from the structural organization of professional development.
The divergent experiences were not integrated, resulting in different views of how to teach science. Teacher candidates were taught science one way by science faculty, were taught to teach science in a different way by science educators, and were dropped into a world where neither approach seemed to work. By being organized in discrete sub-communities where the learning is disaggregated, the status-quo educational system in our view was supporting the concept that teaching and learning of science content and processes could be successfully broached in isolated pockets. One of the fundamental assumptions of this dysfunctional model of professional development is that novice teachers will be able to integrate and elaborate the divergent experiences and constructs for themselves as consistent and coherent working knowledge of science and science teaching and learning, which has not been elaborated by the scientists and science educators from whom the teachers had learned. There was, and still is, no evidence to support this assumption.
The learning community: being safe to explore
Based on the shared vision described above, rather than considering instruction and learning as a top-down linear sum of single agents’ expertise and actions (Fig. 1), we understood learning as emergent from the plural multilevel system of interacting “knowledges” owned and transformed by each of us entering in articulation with each other—a RelationalAct (Raia and Deng 2011). This understanding supported our recognition of the paramount importance of reciprocal learning, and the necessity to share knowledge, practice and expertise transcending the boundaries of isolated science education sub-communities, and to build on interdependent collaborations. This concept translated into having participants with different backgrounds and knowledge not only sharing a set of tasks more typically associated with individual roles but co-constructing what Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer called boundary objects (1989). Those are formal and informal objects emerging from the need to accommodate and facilitate shared goals and collaboration. I choose to use the concept of boundary object because Star and Griesemer analyzed the nature of cooperative work in the absence of consensus, as it often happens when cooperation emerges among individuals of diverse social and cultural worlds; a cooperation existing only in those spaces where sociocultural differences are considered resources and contradictions emerge allowing change and development (Roth and Lee 2007). From diverse backgrounds, and from the shared need to change the traditional professional development program structure, we started working together at reevaluating the traditional courses for teacher candidates and designing them anew. We began the process by articulating and designing a series of specific courses—tailored to the middle school science.
The courses taught by science faculty, for example, were redesigned in collaboration with science educators and experienced classroom teachers allowing integration of approaches to learning integrated also in methods and curriculum courses. All science courses were designed to be inquiry based, integrating science in the urban experience for all participants. By designing, teaching and participating in courses, we, as scientists in the city, explored the local geology and its control over the city’s historical development; the relative motion of the moon, the sun and the earth, its relation to moon phases, tides as a natural process controlling the local economy and; soil for urban environmental sustainability in urban garden/farms. This latter culminated in participating in the project green proofing (http://www.greenproofing.org/) a collaboration with faculty from the Economic Department, in which partner schools teachers and their students, undergraduate students of science, engineer and economics collaborated to install a green roofs on the school’s buildings to support students and teachers research in urban sustainability and develop environmentally-conscious scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs of the future.
While developing rubrics for each assignment (Fig. 3) to guide teacher candidates through the activities we started using them in our own teaching practice, transforming our own teaching and research. It was in this process, that from teaching about the Earth as a complex evolutionary system, I developed my first science education research question (Raia 2005) and, the theoretical framework for studying and analyzing the role concepts of causality play (Raia 2008) and the explanations we accept and questions we ask (Raia 2012) in understandings complex adaptive systems. The final rubrics and our research questions were never the “final” ones, they were boundary objects emerging from our continuous work at the boundaries –always becoming. As we were becoming a learning community, the process unfolded from planning together, listening to and negotiating the different perspectives, different understanding and cultural backgrounds to co-construction. By working in cooperation we found each attending the others’ classes, then actively participating in them, and finally co-teaching some of the courses. We created courses; teaching them together, confronted with the emergence of the “boundary objects”as acted in the “here and now”—a dialectical relation between what we modeled and the boundary condition emerging and controlling us when the model was enacted by us.
What I wish to underscore here is the relatively recent (and stunning!), conclusion that lots of single agents having simple properties may be brought together even in a haphazard way, to give rise to what appears to an observer as purposeful and integrated whole, without the need for central supervision (1992, p. 52).
A decentralized complex system
The emergent boundaries, originating according to Star and Griesemer (1989) from the need to accommodate and facilitate shared goals and collaboration, were transforming into cooperation from our need to simply be with the other, think with the other, learn with the other colleagues. In the emergent boundaries we started realizing that new, coherent and stimulating ideas were emerging from our dialogues, and that our individual growth and learning was directly connected to our relationships and discussions, which reinforced our collaboration. It was only then that we identified ourselves as a group: SEG.
Our group, growing and transforming as a learning community, provided the milieu for me to realize that while approaching the natural world as a complex system, I was a scientist within a positivist world. The Cartesian view of the world was strongly embedded in my thinking about learning. I saw the classical science mode of inquiry as the only way of approaching the world, instead of realizing that how we inquire about the world around us, how we comprehend and explain the world we inquire, cannot be understood as an absolute reality and free from any historical, social and, cultural milieu (Vico 1709). Despite understanding complexity, I was dichotomizing the world of mind versus body; rational versus emotional, as I did not understand the sense of humiliation that Professor P could have felt by reading the AAAS statement to his students teacher candidates. Creativity, sensitivity was to be put at the service of the rational discourse. I believe had I not been in an environment where I felt safe in confronting my personal/professional discrepancy and idiosyncrasies, I would not have been able to fully understand Giambattista Vico’s view (1709) of knowing beyond the “verum esse ipsum factum” (truth itself is constructed), a fundamental proposition of constructivist epistemology. Knowing is not an absolute foundation “a posteriori” from which to understand what surrounds us (Vico 1709). The evidence and the causal principles we offer to collect and explain the natural and the social world around us are in a dialectical relation.
Leaning community as an adaptive system
[…] this coupling is possible only if the encounters are embraced from the perspective of the system itself […] Like a jam session, the environment inspires the neural ‘music’ of the cognitive systems. Indeed, the cognitive system cannot live without this constant coupling and the constantly emerging regularities provided by its environment; without the possibility of coupled activity the system would become a mere solipsistic ghost (1992, p. 56).
The newly evolved learning community faced a test of adaptability, from something that had happened in the classroom. Included in the requirements for the program were two four-credit courses in life science. In one of these courses, being taught by Professor P teaching the theory of evolution was central. It was in this context and with this history that we encountered the events narrated above. It was from this sense of being safe in the process of learning, at the boundary spaces having an emancipatory role and allowing growth and learning that, teachers candidates, also part of SEG, and I called for brainstorming sessions to start a discussion on the role of scientific theories versus nonscientific ideologies/belief systems in the explanation of observations in the world we live in and how to best make sense of the experience. Specifically, I felt it was important to address the questions: when the functions of beliefs are to constrain and/or impede the process of inquiry into the world in the context of science teaching and learning (teacher-professor–student), how do we recognize these functions and how do we deal with them?
All were invited.
Teacher candidates became part of an action plan for problem discussion and resolution. In the process, several other teacher candidates also joined the discussions. We now owned it.
At this meeting, joined by additional faculty, scientists from Earth science, biology, physics and chemistry, science educators, philosophers, and teacher candidates, emerged as a college-wide as well as teaching community-wide interest group that explored in an open forum the nature of science and the role of the scientist and science educator in our society. We posed the following questions: How do religion and science co-exist, each within its respective ontological domain? Encountering issues we faced in the Life Science course, what response can an educator contemplate respecting others’ belief systems, emotional relation to them and the processes of science? How do we support the human rights to inquire, to question and to explore and to learn in a cultural context like science where knowledge is built also on previously built knowledge with massive amounts of information, that can support the dangerous and anti-emancipatory notion that learning should come from “authority.”
A culminating open forum to all Educators in the city was organized.
Day 25: The open forum took place, was video recorded and transcribed to identify important topics, issues and interests emerging from the community. I was impressed to see many colleagues from science, and those who were scheduled to teach at the time of the open forum bringing their students. There were teachers I never met before and colleagues from the New York Academy of Science, the Director of Science Education of the city’s Department of Education and the Dean of Science. The science education colleagues with whom I have been always working closely were there with me.
The forum became an important resource for my work in the Organizing Committee for the Symposium on Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science at New York Academy of Science in 2006 and, over the last 6 years, part of a subsequent documentary on creationism (Schiller 2011). In my view, the radical foundation of the complexity science, the RelationalAct framework (Deng and Raia 2011), as a mindful act of building a relationship with the other, where the emergence of shared new meaning acquires the power to constrain and emancipate the agents from whose interactions it emerges, had proven successful, except: there was nobody else from the EdSchool. My original idea was to have the open discussion sessions in collaboration with the instructor—Professor P—either during the Life Science class time or in connection to it. Yet, except from my science education colleagues from SEG there was nobody else from the School of Education. In the absence of the EdSchool representatives, of the other, the boundaries—as zones of proximal development, always becoming shared spaces—had collapsed. We realized there was no common goal toward which we all united, yearning to learn, transform and grow to build something bigger then ourselves. In serving to build something larger than our personal isolated goals, beliefs or desires we worked together, each serving as resource to the other, taking different roles according to the activity at hand and the specific understanding of the activity: designing a course, an investigation, a model of research and instruction, a grant, etc., as a boundary object. This process created in us a sense of expectation, of responsibility toward the social space, challenging our preexistent personal boundaries in favor of a larger social space, the social community we learned to belong. Charles Taylor (1971) describes this process as the emergence of intersubjective meanings: “The meanings and norms implicit in these practices are not just in the minds of the actors but are out there in the practices themselves, practices which cannot be conceived as a set of individual actions, but which are essentially modes of social relation, of mutual action” (p. 27). These intersubjective meanings are not reducible to individual subjective beliefs, or values but constitute the background of social action as also expressed in boundary objects because building and becoming members of the learning community are synchronous coupled complex causal processes of emergence and downward causation (Raia and Deng 2011): of (a) emergence of common learning space from the diverse participating agents’ work at the boundaries, in which identity social roles and action are continually co-constructed within the common space; and, (b) the emergent learning space’s capacity to influence the transformation (downward causation) of the same agents from whose complex interactions the learning space itself emerges. It is in this continuous tension between building and becoming, (emergence and downward causation) that the boundary spaces, intersubjectivity and mutual action exists.
As an open system (Varela 1992) where situated social interactions were taking place in continuous relations with the context in which our community was situated, the learning community was expected to regulate and/or adapt its behavior, through the coupling of emergence and downward causation and by doing so, acquiring the capacity to embrace what it encountered from the perspective of the community itself (Raia and Deng 2011), except: there was nobody else from the EdSchool. The absence of any official representative of the School of Education shattered the belief of a common goal. We had no common goal. From this understanding, the EdSchool Administration could not have participated in the same intellectual and emotional understanding that we have shared. They had never been part of our transforming journey. The social and power relations with EdSchool could have never being iteratively co-constructed but, in their unidirectionality social and power relations were re-proposed as assertion or contestation of dominant discourses. The journey based on our common experience had arrived at the crossroads: it could either be forgotten within a sense of loss or continue as a personal journey outside the community developing a three interwoven layers reflection on the transformative journey at the boundaries, making visible one person’s experience in the “here and now” in the elaboration of all the information—the emotional, the rational and the learned—of the person-in-interaction with others and with what she studies, observes, feels or thinks about in order to contribute to the discussion on the topic of accepting the other as a worldly being in the specific cultural context of the encounter.
The closing episode part 2
Six years after this event, in that café sitting at a long table with other science education colleagues. It is the last day of an international conference in science education. ProfessorPereowei tells me “I was advised not to talk to you.”