The aim of this paper is to explore how some characteristics of school physics knowledge are reproduced but also contested in student-teacher interaction, here exemplified through the teaching and learning of nuclear power in secondary physics.
The difficulty to recruit students (in particular women and minorities) in science and technology is an international concern throughout the Western world (cf. Sjøberg & Schreiner, 2010). Politicians, policy makers, and science education researchers all agree that a widened and increased student participation and engagement in the physical sciences and technology is pivotal both in order to secure a pool of future scientists and in order for individuals to function in an increasingly technologically advanced society (SOU 2010:28; House of Lords 2012). Research also shows that the last years of compulsory schooling is a key period for students’ engagement in science and technology; it is during these years that many students lose interest in the subjects (Archer et al., 2010; Lindahl, 2003). The difficulties to identify, and thereby engage, with science for many students have by critical science education researchers been connected to the sociohistorical legacy of science, how it is perceived as an objective, privileged way of knowing that is not accessible to everyone (Barton & Yang, 2000; Carlone, 2004; Lemke, 1990). Such descriptions of science’s sociohistorical legacy draws on the work by philosophers and historians of science who have argued that physics is constructed as a discipline that produce value-neutral, universal, and objective knowledge (Harding, 1986; Schiebinger, 1991). School science in particular tends to be characterised as fact-oriented with clear separations between facts and values (Gyberg & Lee, 2010). Barton and Yang (2000) describe how people and social contexts are often hidden in textbooks and other curricular materials, and summarise: ‘The result is often a fact-oriented science which appears decontextualized, objective, rational, and mechanistic.’ (p. 875). As a consequence, Lemke (2001) has argued for the inclusion of other components of science (such as aesthetic, intuitive and emotional) in order to challenge the too narrowly rationalistic and abstract school science.
In this paper we aim to further the exploration of how school physics is constructed in classroom practices by focusing on a module about a potentially politically and emotionally charged physics content area (nuclear power). More specifically the use of evaluative language resources is focused in order to discuss characteristics of school physics within this module. In other words, the research question investigated in this paper is:
How are characteristics of school physics constructed through evaluative language use?
The issue is thus analytically approached from a linguistic standpoint, and the theoretical framework for analyses found within a social semiotic perspective. According to Halliday (1978), the semiotic systems that we live by are considered to form a meaning resource. It is from this meaning resource that we choose when we articulate and structure meaning. By these choices, certain aspects are put in the background or completely excluded while others are foregrounded and thereby emphasized. In this respect, the selected language forms, and especially evaluative language resources, are highly significant and coloured with ideology.
In interpreting results from the linguistic analyses, an important theoretical point is also that any learning situation will involve socialisation (Roberts & Östman 1998). In other words, in teaching and learning activities much more than the content knowledge being taught is learnt, we learn about norms and values and who we can and want to be in relation to those norms and values (Brickhouse 2001). The characteristics of school physics are understood as interactively constituted by teacher and students, while also adhering to broader societal discourses about science and science learning.
The empirical data for the paper was collected in a Swedish secondary school during a physics teaching module about energy sources. The teaching module as a whole took place over six one hour lessons, but in this paper we focus on the introductory lesson concerning nuclear power. The primary focus of the introductory lesson was on the physics of the nuclear reactor. The lesson began with a 25 minutes teacher briefing, which also included conversations between teacher and students. Subsequently, the students worked in groups with an assignment sheet, a film about nuclear power was then shown, and the lessons ended with a whole class discussion about the film. The classroom was video-recorded using two cameras. The teacher was audio-recorded using a clip-on microphone and the students audio-recorded using four audio-recorders. Two observers were present in the classroom and took field-notes. The audio-recording from the teacher’s clip-on microphone have been transcribed verbatim by a professional transcriber. In the analysis we primarily worked with the transcripts, but turned to the recordings to check, for example, unclear references made by the teacher. The content area was chosen for analysis since the socio-scientific character of it could allow for a wider range of knowledge expressions. The class consisted of 19 students, grade nine (14-15 years old). Prior to the video-recording, the students and their guardians had been given information about the research project and had given consent to participation. All names in the paper are pseudonyms. As previously mentioned, the analytical framework for the study is found within a social semiotic perspective (Halliday 1978), a perspective which provides a well-developed theoretical framework for detailed analyses of different dimensions of meaning-making in students’ texts (written as well as spoken). More specifically, student texts are discussed from the point of view of the semantic framework Appraisal. Linguistically the investigation thus explores evaluative language resources used in the texts to construct emotion (words of Affect such as ‘happy eagles’), judge behaviour in ethical terms (words of Judgement such as ‘competent operator’) and value objects aesthetically (words of Appreciation such as ‘beautiful process’). In addition evaluative language resources that turn up or lower the evaluative volume through using graduation (such as very happy, a little bit afraid) are also investigated (Martin & White 2005, Folkeryd 2006).
Preliminary results show that evaluative language resources are used throughout the module, although to various degrees and of different types depending on the topical focus for the teacher-student conversations. In the construction of the physics content, the process in the nuclear reactor is constructed as simple, rational and natural by using evaluative language resources that construct emotion as well as value objects and processes positively. The components of the process are constructed as well-known and not harmful by using positive appreciation, e.g. ‘ordinary water’ and the handling of the nuclear reactor constructed as a positive rational process. The short-term effects of the process are constructed as benign (e.g. the warm water let out by the power plant contributes to a flourishing biotope including ‘happy eagles’). However, long-term effects of the final storage of radioactive waste are constructed as potentially dangerous and difficult to fully grasp, thereby breaking up the rationality of the process. In students’ relationship to the content science is continuously constructed as not demanding much work (the teacher repeatedly uses graduation such as ‘some questions’, ‘work a little bit in pairs’. This is a construction we argue need to be understood against a backdrop of cultural conceptions of physics as difficult and inaccessible. To summarise, while the analysed lesson concerns a topic with political, moral and emotional overtones the analysis reveals that many of the typical characteristics of school science are still preserved (such as rationality). However, such characteristics are also challenged as humans and their emotions are brought into the classroom physics discourse. Interestingly enough, both when these characteristics are re-produced and challenged this to a large extent occurs through the use of evaluative language resources. This study thereby gives an important contribution to the discussion of how characteristics of school physics are constructed in the classroom.
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