Cultural resources in science learning: research with Torres Strait Islander middle school students
Chigeza, Philemon Tatenda (2010) Cultural resources in science learning: research with Torres Strait Islander middle school students. PhD thesis, James Cook University.
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Torres Strait Islander Year 9 students learning science negotiate many complex knowledge and language challenges. In the State of Queensland, the mandated Queensland Studies Authority, Science: Years 1 to 10 Syllabus (2004) is formulated, taught and assessed using Standard Australian English at the expense of every other language dimensions of Indigenous students. Masters (2009) reports Indigenous students from the Torres Strait and Cape District perform among the lowest five per cent of students nationally. Masters suggests that by Year 9, the 'gap' in achievement level between non-Indigenous Queensland students and Indigenous students from the Torres Strait and Cape District is, on average, equivalent to six to seven years of school.
A classroom action research study (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2000) that employed a socio-cultural analytical lens was conducted between 2007 and 2008 in a wholly Indigenous school. The purpose of the doctoral study was to look beyond the rhetoric of the 'gap' in achievement, to explore dimensions of pedagogical content knowledge of how 44 Torres Strait Islander Year 9 students can best use their cultural resources to engage with science curriculum as a cultural field. Cochran and colleagues (1993, p. 266) define pedagogical content knowledge as "a teacher's integrated understanding of components of pedagogy, subject matter content, student characteristics, and the environmental context of learning". Bourdieu's (1984) cultural sociology transforms the dialectical relationship between agency and structure in terms of habitus, cultural capital and cultural field. This standpoint was employed to investigate, understand and improve classroom practice: how students employed everyday Creole and formal science language, participated in science activities, and applied and related to science concepts of energy and force. For second and third cycles of research, the following were explored: cultural resources that students drew on for developing their understandings, pedagogical content knowledge that enabled students to learn, know and (re)produce knowledge, and how the structure of the mandated Queensland Studies Authority science curriculum, Level 5 learning outcomes, enhanced or limited the agency of students.
Three categories of how students employed formal science terminology (in Standard Australian English) to demonstrate their understandings were identified. Three categories on how students actively participated in science learning were identified. Only 7 of a total 44 students were proficient in Standard Australian English. The majority of students struggled to understand concepts of energy and force as taught in English. But when Creole terminology was used in the classroom, the students were better able to talk about science in ways they could not do in the official language of instruction. No direct comparison could be made between metaconcepts of energy and force as constructed in the Queensland Studies Authority science curriculum in Standard Australian English and the concepts as constructed in Torres Strait Creole.
Dimensions of pedagogical content knowledge are discussed around six themes that emerged from the study. The first theme takes into account students' competence in speaking, reading and writing Standard Australian English with facility. The second theme explores how Torres Strait Creole can be used as a resource for learning school science concepts more productively in the classroom. The third theme takes into account the interacting language and knowledge systems when students engage in learning physical science concepts of energy and force. The fourth theme recognises that most students from communities in North Queensland are multi-lingual/cultural. The fifth theme calls for a rethinking on science literacy and classroom discourse with Torres Strait Islander students. The sixth theme explores ontological concerns that arise at conceptual content level (Nakata, 2007), and acknowledges that the Queensland Studies Authority science curriculum as it is currently constituted, makes little concessions to Indigenous ways of knowing.
Employing Bourdieu's cultural sociology suggests that using Standard Australian English for learning experiences does not fully facilitate students' negotiations from their vernacular languages into science. My conclusion is that developing pedagogical strategies that accommodate the multiple language and cultural dimensions of old and emerging Torres Strait Islander cultures is possible, but the practice of standardised assessment conducted in Standard Australian English remains a substantial obstacle to these students' achievement.