Youth as Active Agents in Conscientizing Grain-sizes of Science Teaching and Learning

by Christina Restrepo Nazar

Today’s blogpost comes after my research group’s (and I) careful discussion on making sense of youth’s agency, resistance and empowerment in science. We read a book chapter by Daniels, Harnischfeger, Hos & Akom (2010)  titled “Youth as Active Agents: Counter-narrating the Source of Reform” and it was absolutely on point with one of the important strands in my research as a science education scholar.

I have been interested in supporting youth agency in science for quite some time now.  Through the cases I co-developed with AD, Faith and Christopher as part of my  graduate student work at Invincibility Lab, (see ex. The Case of Faith) I have seen the importance of how youth identify and connect with (for what and for whom) meaningful science learning–as a source of promoting agency, identifying forms of resistance to the discursive/culture of power in science, and/or embracing and empowering themselves with the tools to use science–in meaningful and transformative ways for themselves and for their communities. But most importantly is how this learning does not only transform the youth in their particular learning spaces, but that it also supports meaningful others in transforming structures of power that youth have come to know/understand as determinants of their success in science education (e.g. teacher education, policy, curriculum,  reasons for engaging in practices of science in the first place). (See also the blog post on critical and consequential science literacy).

Because of this, during this very important discussion last week, I asked myself two questions: how can people take up/make sense of youths’ meaningful learning in science? And how can people with the power to transform their spaces and/or practices (e.g. teachers, pre-service teachers, researchers, curriculum developers, policy makers, etc….) do so as they engage with these transformative messages?

It is well established in the field that when science learning is most associated with the lives of students–either the process of learning and doing science and/or the outcomes of the learning itself–they engage meaningfully with the discourse, practices, and norms of science (Basu & Calabrese Barton, 2007) . However, I argue that  it takes a level of conscientization, or “the processes in which [people] achieve a deepening awareness of both the sociocultural reality that shapes their lives and their capacity to transform that reality” (Freire, 1985, p.93) to be aware of how this “meaningfulness” affects them and their pathways for learning. For the students I work with specifically, I can claim that they did not know science/engineering could become meaningful to their lives until they were able to bridge problems  in their communities using science/engineering and that making sense of those problems can drive solutions that are important to them–and more expansively–their families and communities (e.g. The Case of Faith).  Additionally, this conscientization became more powerful for the youth when they knew these messages can be meaningful for others, because now they knew these messages were going to be taken up by people who would view them as doing, making, creating, inventing, EVERYTHING in ways that were not normative in science education.

Hence, it is important that as researchers, teachers, teacher educators, we support youths’ “active agency,” through mutually empowering and collaborating with youth in co-constructing reform efforts by 1) helping them be aware of their realities (including the social, political, cultural, and economic structures that oppress and harm them) and 2) creating opportunities to challenge the narratives that oppress them to empower them.

This creates an important juncture in identifying different levels of “active agency” that we can help support. For example, as science educators who are interested in issues of equity, we should not only be creating spaces for youth to learn through our respective research programs, agendas and the like, but that we take the learning from one space and bring it to another, and support a multi-level approach to “critical consciousness”  (Freire, 1973). We have the political, social, and economic power to identify and take  action against the oppressive elements affecting youth in our society, in their classrooms, or in their daily interactions with youth–we just have to find the meaningful connections to them and create consciousness in the process.  

Hence as we discuss these multi-levels of active agency, and the grain-sizes involved, let’s look at how learning from students conscientization can create critical consciousness in pre-service teachers to better engage with youths’ funds of knowledge in the classroom. Let’s take this active agency to curriculum developers and STEM pipeline programs so that they understand what it means to learn science meaningfully and how they can support youth in this work. Let’s take this active agency to national policy programs and foundations so that they understand exactly what student experiences are limiting or not their learning. Let’s move this work beyond research/academia and the like, but to new and expansive places where the conscientization of one youth can become “sources of reform” for others.  By conscientizing these structures of power we are challenging the hegemonic  cultural/social/educational/political/other structures that support or inhibit meaningful science learning, crossing time, space and place.

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