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Professor ensures social justice is key element of science education 

Wanja Gitari describes unique challenges facing black students, gives tips for science educators 

February 13, 2017

By Lindsey Craig


How can we make science education more equitable for black students?


During Black History Month, OISENews is spotlighting several professors whose research has been focused on race, equity and education. Below, OISENews chats with Wanja Gitari, Associate Professor of Science Education.

Wanja Gitari has a pretty cool role to play at the University of Toronto. Not only does she design curriculum – she’s been designing science curriculum with a focus on the black community since 2000.

The Associate Professor of Science Education is cross appointed between the Transitional Year Programme (TYP) and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

The TYP is an academic unit which helps adults from underrepresented and underserved groups gain access to university education. It was founded in the 1970s by black students, including Drs. Keren Braithwaite and Horace Campbell. (For more on TYP, please see below.)

At the TYP, Professor Gitari develops science curriculum. In fact, when she was hired, her work became the first science curriculum for the TYP in its 40 years of existence. And at OISE, her work involves research, graduate teaching and supervision, along with committee work. 

This February, as part of Black History Month, OISENews had the opportunity to chat with Prof. Gitari about the significance of her work.

Wanja Gitari

Why is this work regarding science education and the black community important?

Gitari: The overall goal of my research and teaching is to promote access and social justice in science education and scientific creativity in everyday life. That ties into my involvement with the science initiative at the University of Toronto's Transitional Year Programme (TYP). The science initiative has allowed me to engage with the inherent concerns for black students in science education and prompted me to develop a science course in response to the experiences that my TYP students, many of whom are black, have with science pedagogy in primary and secondary levels.

Given what you have learned in your science education research, what are some unique challenges facing black students in primary and secondary school in Canada?

Gitari: First, at the primary and secondary level, one of the challenges facing black students is adapted invisibility and silencing. This means that often, the students’ styles of communication may not be supported by the dominant communication mode in the classroom.

For example, in early primary school, a young student may encounter a science lesson whereby the teacher is asking the class to point out things that may seem obvious. For instance, the teacher may ask, ‘What do you walk on?’ with the answer being, ‘legs.’

With the relationship between walking and legs highlighted, at this point, the teacher has begun to help young learners see the things in their immediate environment as objects for science teaching and learning. From that understanding, the teacher aims to build slowly by eventually introducing less obvious ideas or abstractions… It is a form of helping the student build knowledge one building block at a time, known as ‘scaffolding.’

But if a student is not accustomed, in his or her home culture, to being asked to give answers to questions about things that are quite apparent to everyone, such a student may choose to remain silent and ignore what appears obvious to everyone. To the student who’s inclined this way, there seems to be something ‘off’ or wrong with the discourse in the science classroom.

As a result, this lack of familiarity with predominating discourse in the science classroom might then lead the student to revert to silence in class to avoid asking questions or giving answers ‘the wrong way.’ Consequently, the student might feel silenced and invisible. A further consequence is that the students who are silenced may be perceived as low ability, and then, eventually end up not performing well in school science.

Literature claims that communications styles that are more narrative or storytelling oriented, which is the favoured communication method within many predominantly black cultures, are not favourable for the contemporary science classroom.

How might these challenges of adapted invisibility and silencing be overcome?

Gitari: Science teachers can educate themselves about the nuanced communication styles of black students, as explained in the example above. Teachers should remember that one size does not fit all. The idea is to remain open to nuanced communication styles that might vary between students and from time to time and change one’s approach accordingly.

Communication styles can be gleaned in the lived experiences (sociocultural contexts that include the names of science objects in everyday life) of black students. I’ll give you some helpful references for educators to learn more about the education of black students. (See below.)

Another step educators can take is to show interest in Black students who disengage from learning science by either remaining quiet or disrupting the class. Pay attention to the participation (or lack of) of all students, and if a black student appears to be struggling, find a chance to ask them privately if there’s anything you can do to help them, such as, extra help on a lunch hour or perhaps by providing them with resources they can use on their own time. Then, as the student begins to build their confidence, you can encourage them to participate more in class and be more vocal. The old adage will always be true: ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know you care.’

What might be another unique challenge facing black students in Canada with regard to science education?

Gitari: A second challenge is that black students don’t have the advantage of many role models to choose from for ‘cognitive modelling’ in the scientific field. The images that students see of scientists in text books, including their science teachers, do not enhance a ‘possibility identity’ with science. As such, science is often seen as a discipline ‘for other people’.

On a related point, black students may not perceive themselves as participants in the pursuit of science because of the lack of integration in science pedagogy of the contributions of Africans (ancient and modern) to the scientific enterprise. Teachers can begin to explore such integration by contacting pertinent organizations such as Visions of Science.

With few black role models for students to choose from, as you said, and with little acknowledgment of black contributions in science pedagogy/curriculum, what can educators do to help combat this

Gitari: Educators should use an anti-racism framework to scan science text books for stereotypes and racist material. Ask students in the science class to identify and discuss the problems that such material in science text books can present to all learners. For example, one problem is that by failing to include scientists of varying races or ethnicities, some students may believe that only people from certain racial groups can be successful at science. See Hodson (1993) for an in-depth discussion on this suggestion. 

What are some other steps a science educator can take to better support black student success?

Gitari: An educator could, for example, start a book club, for science teachers and black students who are interested in educating themselves about the issues. They could also share ideas related to school experiences and non-school experiences of black students. Participants in the club could begin to review and discuss related material, and take action in their science classrooms and in the school in general. They could also advise textbook publishers, school administrators, and so forth. They could even report their ‘actions and challenges’ at the next Black History Month in February 2018.

School administrators can also be purposeful about recruiting black teachers to teach science, for positive role modelling.

More on the University of Toronto's Transitional Year Program (TYP)

The TYP was started in 1970 by black student activists to facilitate access to university education for adults from underrepresented and underserved groups.

Two of the black student activists have continued their social justice work in the educational arena. Dr. Keren Braithwaite, an OISE alumni and honorary degree recipient, 2009, at the University of Toronto, was an instructor at the TYP before her retirement in 2003. Dr. Horace Campbell is a political science professor at Syracuse University in New York.

Recommended references for educators: