Multicultural education, pragmatism, and the goals of science teaching


In this paper, we offer an intermediate position in the multiculturalism/universalism debate, drawing upon Cobern and Loving’s epistemological pluralism, pragmatist philosophies, Southerland’s defense of instructional multicultural science education, and the conceptual profile model. An important element in this position is the proposal that understanding is the proper goal of science education. Our commitment to this proposal is explained in terms of a defense of an ethics of coexistence for dealing with cultural differences, according to which social argumentative processes—including those in science education—should be marked by dialogue and confrontation of arguments in the search of possible solutions, and an effort to (co-)live with differences if a negotiated solution is not reached. To understand the discourses at stake is, in our view, a key requirement for the coexistence of arguments and discourses, and the science classroom is the privileged space for promoting an understanding of the scientific discourse in particular. We argue for “inclusion” of students’ culturally grounded ideas in science education, but in a sense that avoids curricular multicultural science education, and, thus, any attempt to broaden the definition of “science” so that ideas from other ways of knowing might be simply treated as science contents. Science teachers should always take in due account the diversity of students’ worldviews, giving them room in argumentative processes in science classrooms, but should never lose from sight the necessity of stimulating students to understand scientific ideas. This view is grounded on a distinction between the goals of science education and the nature of science instruction, and demands a discussion about how learning is to take place in culturally sensitive science education, and about communicative approaches that might be more productive in science classrooms organized as we propose here. We employ the conceptual profile model to address both issues. We expect this paper can contribute to the elaboration of an instructional multicultural science education approach that eliminates the forced choice between the goals of promoting students’ understanding of scientific ideas and of empowering students through education.

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  1. 1.

    Researchers who claim that understanding is the proper goal of science education do not agree in all respects. For instance, while Cobern (2000) argues against the distinction between knowledge and belief, particularly in the context of science education, Smith and Siegel (2004) advocates a clear distinction between these two constructs. Therefore, they see the primary goal of science education as being student knowledge and understanding. From his point of view, Cobern cannot accept that a science teacher should aim at understanding and knowledge, since for him knowledge and belief should be conflated, as he insists in his reply to Smith and Siegel (Cobern 2004). This debate raises quite general and complex topics: the search for criteria to distinguish between knowledge and belief is one the central problems in the theory of knowledge. Consequently, we cannot address this issue here and should leave it to future works.

  2. 2.

    It is important to say some words from the very start about how we understand “culture”. Even though we cannot expand on the issue here, we follow Geertz (1973) in his understanding of culture as “an ordered system of meaning and symbols, in terms of which social interaction takes place.”

  3. 3.

    We use in this paper the term “multiculturalism” and related expressions that are typically used in the science education literature. Nevertheless, as Lopes (1999) discusses, it is not the case that terms such as “multiculturalism”, “interculturalism”, and expressions like “cultural plurality” and “cultural diversity” always share the same meaning, even though it is possible to find a common theme among them.

  4. 4.

    Matthews (1994, p. 193) claims, for instance, that mainstream science may not provide complete answers, but it gives better answers than others. Siegel (2002) also seems to ascribe greater epistemic power to WMS, as the following statement indicates: “… universalists also believe that, from among the variety of possible ways of understanding the world, WMS is the most successful way of understanding it extant, when success is measured in terms of the production of the testable, predictive, and explanatory theories which mark science at its best” (p. 807). Notice that the latter part of his statement enunciates criteria for appraising knowledge which are proper of the scientific endeavor itself. This is clearly stated in a later section of the same paper (p. 809), entitled “WMS is scientifically superior to ‘ethnic science’”, where he argues that traditional ecological knowledge fails to satisfy “the criteria of good science to which WMS aspires”. This shows how Cobern and Loving (2001) are right when they argue that to broaden the concept of science in order to embrace other ways of knowing can be a strategy that leads in the end to a devaluation of the latter (see below). But, to be fair, we should mention that Siegel also argues against denying the value of other ways of knowing.

  5. 5.

    There is a lot of debate about the underdetermination thesis, as we can see, for instance, in two papers collected in Curd and Cover’s volume on philosophy of science, Gillies (1993/1998) and Laudan (1990/1998), as well as in the organizers’ commentaries themselves. Our intention here is not to advocate that underdetermination and, by implication, theory-ladenness of observation entail that Matthews is wrong. We want to make a weaker point, which is enough to our purposes here: both underdetermination and theory-ladenness of observation show that Matthews’ argument is controversial, not a statement one can really accept at face value. It is true that, as Siegel (2002) reminds us, universalists do not propose that WMS enjoys “unmediated access” to reality (contra Stanley and Brickhouse 2001), but rather accept that “… our scientific investigations of the natural world, although ‘mediated’ by our cultural/historical/gendered/class/etc. locations and associated conceptual schemes, can yield genuine knowledge of that world” (Siegel 2002, p. 806). It is clear, then, that universalists like Matthews and Siegel acknowledge both underdetermination and theory-ladenness of observation. The polemics should hinge, then, on how one can accept these two theses and, yet, claim that the natural world can judge the adequacy of our theories and models. We think this is a way of putting the problem that is not a mischaracterization (cf. Siegel 2002), but does justice to universalist positions.

  6. 6.

    We do not present their Standard Account of Science here, since it falls outside the main thrust of our argument. We refer interested readers to the original source. Notice, however, that it is important to recognize the diversity of views among philosophers of science, which may make it difficult to identify areas of consensus (e.g., Martin et al. 1990; Gil-Pérez 2001). Nevertheless, despite the inexistence of any single or consensual epistemological position and the undeniably complex, dynamic, and multifaceted character of scientific work, it is possible to propose a number of currently uncontroversial or less controversial features of the nature of science. Taken as a whole, they can be characterized as a general post-positivistic account of scientific practice and knowledge. A very interesting discussion concerning consensus views about the nature of science and corresponding deformed views about scientific work is found in Gil-Pérez et al. (2001).

  7. 7.

    Pihlström (1996) offers an extensive review of pragmatic realist positions. A thoroughgoing historical account of pragmatism with a comprehensive bibliography is Thayer (1980). Regarding pragmatist works, one should consider both classical pragmatists such as Peirce (1931–35/1958, 1992/1998), James (1907/1975), and Dewey (1929/1960), and neopragmatists, such as Margolis (1995), Putnam (1990), among others. This paper offers just a general outline of the implications of pragmatism to the understanding of MSE and the goals of science education. Several topics, including the detailed treatment of different pragmatist accounts, will be addressed in future works.

  8. 8.

    Perelman is not arguing that argumentation is not the domain of logic. Rather, his argument is that logic comprises demonstrative proof, on the one hand, and the use of arguments, on the other (Perelman 1989/2004, p. 315).

  9. 9.

    The theory of argumentation is not alien to pragmatist philosophies. On the contrary, as Perelman (1989/2004) shows, although that theory was almost entirely neglected in post-Cartesian logic and philosophy, studies about rhetoric as a means of argumentation, persuasion, and presentation received more and more attention due to the influence of pragmatism, moral philosophy, and philosophy of language on current thinking.

  10. 10.

    It is not that all conceivable syntheses of different discourses are impossible, but just that they should be always taken with a grain of salt, since they will often lead to inconsistent arguments. We argue against indiscriminate mixtures of discourses. One should be aware of differences between ways of knowing, bodies of knowledge, arguments, and reasons.

  11. 11.

    According to Kearney (1984), the worldview of an individual corresponds to a set of basic assumptions underlying her acts, thoughts, dispositions, judgments, etc. These assumptions are both ontological and epistemological, and constitute criteria for appraising the validity and truth of ideas.

  12. 12.

    Other worries about the way Smith and Siegel explain the criterion of justification are spelled out by Davson-Galle (2004). We refer the reader to his original work.

  13. 13.

    It is clear that in this debate about the goals of science education, and also in this paper, the focus lies on conceptual contents. Concerning other kinds of contents, such as attitudinal or procedural, more items would have to be added to a list of goals of science education.

  14. 14.

    One may argue that there are circumstances in which a person applies in her life ideas she does not accept as valid or true. We concede that this can happen, but there is a clear tendency to apply in our lives ideas we think to be true or valid.

  15. 15.

    In the Brazilian community of researchers on science education and curriculum studies, sociopolitical reasons for MSE are strongly advocated (e.g., Assis and Canen 2004, Candau 2002, among others). More effort should be directed towards a dialogue between curriculum studies and science education with regard to multicultural issues, and, in particular, political and social topics related to MSE.

  16. 16.

    Chalmers (1999) builds precisely this argument against Feyerabend’s (1993) claims related to education.

  17. 17.

    A more literal translation of the Portuguese expression we have in mind (“Eu acho que”) could be “I guess that”.

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Correspondence to Charbel Niño El-Hani.

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El-Hani, C.N., Mortimer, E.F. Multicultural education, pragmatism, and the goals of science teaching. Cult Stud of Sci Educ 2, 657–702 (2007).

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  • Multiculturalism
  • Conceptual profile
  • Pluralism
  • Pragmatism
  • Science education
  • Goals