Creating a Multicultural Learning Environment in Science Classrooms

Creating a Multicultural Learning Environment in Science Classrooms


Most science teachers do not need to be reminded that creating a learning environment for today's science students is an increasingly complex problem. We are faced with dramatic changes in student demographics. As an example, Newsweek (1991) reported that:

.....more than 5 million children of immigrants are expected to enter US public schools during the 1990's. About 3.5 million schoolchildren are from homes where English is not the first language. More than 150 languages are represented in schools nationwide (p. 57).

The wide assortment of languages, customs and experiences, associated with today's immigration movement, are very different from what has been experienced in past like movements. Yesterday's immigrants were European and constituted a large part of the minority population in the US. For these immigrants the teaching styles, images in textbooks, teachers and schools encountered in the US were extensions of those which characterized their homelands. In contrast, today's immigrants emanate from such places as the Caribbean, Latin America, Mideast and Southeast Asia. For these people, the traditional images associated with education differ markedly from those which apply to white, European, cultures. However, the images encountered in present classrooms derive from white, European traditions (Beane, 1988). Because the present anthropological, linguistic and sociological context is so diverse, it becomes vital for science teachers to address the different languages, customs, and experiences (multiperspectives ) that students bring to science classrooms.

The multiperspective change our classrooms' populations have undergone have a substantial impact on science teachers striving to create a classroom environment in which all students can learn. According to Tobin (1991) learning in science: regarded as an interpretive process of making sense of experience in terms of extant knowledge. The heart of the learning process is the negotiation of meaning. Learners must be given opportunities to make sense of what is learned by negotiating meaning; comparing what is known to new experience, and resolving discrepancies between what is known and what seems to be implied by new experiences.

Therefore, learning is a result of students making sense of the world they live in. This process is complicated if a student's basis for making sense is radically different from how others in the classroom are making sense. For instance, a Caucasian, middle class American student and a Hispanic migrant student may read the same textual information on plants. Because of the Caucasian's experiences, he may focus on plants as aesthetics extensions of his home or school when constructing meaning. On the other hand, the migrant Hispanic student will interpret the information in light of his fieldwork experience. In both instances construction is correct because it has been determined by the learners' cultural context. However, the Caucasian's efforts at making sense may more closely resemble what a science teacher who has not had any fieldwork experience may consider as correct responses. This includes the languages that both students use to make sense and as they communicate what they have learned to others as well. The implication is that students need to work in a classroom environment that enables and encourages them to use their cultural tools. These tools include language, cognitive referents which include myths, personal beliefs and metaphors, images, preferred learning styles, and the time and space to apply extant knowledge to problem-solving situations.

It is important for us as science teachers to realize that a student's knowledge is a result of her/him interacting and making sense of the culture in which she/he lives. Even though students have immigrated to the US, their cultural experiences are an important component of this extant knowledge. Thus, it becomes incumbent on us as science teachers to find ways that students may use their knowledge, or views of the world, in ways that draw on their prior cultural experiences. Staying with our example of a student with fieldwork experience we could have him share with his classmates his knowledge about plants to include the vocabulary he uses to distinguish plant parts or even plants themselves.

One's own words, based on personal experiences to describe, interpret and understand science phenomena is referred to by Cobern (1991) as a way of looking at the world which is based on

.... the foundational beliefs, i.e., presupposition about the world that support both common sense and scientific theories-that is a world view. (p.7) A world view defines the self. It sets the boundaries of who and what I am. It also defines everything that is not me, including my relationships to the human and non-human environments (p. 9).

Thus, a student world view, of which language plays a major role, is the major source of cognitive tools she/he brings to science classrooms as she/he goes about trying to make sense of the science that is being taught.

Making sense is a critical factor to consider; because interpretation of a science lesson will be in accord with each individual student's world view, students can interpret the same science phenomena in many different ways. Cobern (1991) offers the following excellent illustration of how varied interpretation may be.

Three men went to see Niagara Falls. One was an Indian from India, one was a Chinese, and one an American. On seeing the falls, the Indian, as a matter of course, thought of this god, manifested in this grandeur of nature. The Chinese simply wished to have a little hut beside the falls, where he might invite a friend or two, serve tea, and enjoy conversation.  The American, however, on viewing the falls, immediately asked himself what could be done to make the most of such an enormous amount of energy (p. 50).

The Role of Communication

In the US, the use of a language other than English for instructional purposes has been of great controversy. Researchers such as Cummins (1981, 1986), Cuevas (1984), Hakuta (1986), Ramirez (in press), and Walsh (1991) have demonstrated that students' use of their primary language in the classroom adds to their ability to learn and excel in the English language.

These authors are referring to limited English proficient students attending bilingual classrooms where teaching and learning is in the student's native language and English.

A major reason that limited English proficient students eventually excel in English, by using their primary language, is that these students are provided the opportunities to develop major conceptual understandings of what they are trying to learn as opposed to trying to learn vocabulary words that are detached from real contexts.

Conceptual understanding begins when direct experiences are discussed in terms of language that is the everyday language of the student. Once experiences are understood in this way the language of science can be added; the language of science is then connected through everyday language, and to the students' direct experiences. Thus, it seems that we need to create and maintain science classrooms that are rich in opportunities for students to use their native language as they attempt to make sense of the world.

It is important for us to keep in mind that "communication is culture bound. Students with different cultural norms are at risk if teachers have little knowledge, sensitivity, or appreciation of the diversity in communication styles" (Taylor, 1987, p.1). Perhaps student communication, in our science classrooms, is a matter of whether we stress learning (as learning previously has been defined) or vocabulary accumulation. Cummins (1981) refers to this as the difference between a classroom environment that emphasize context-embedded versus context-reduced communication.

Context-embedded communication derives from interpersonal involvement in a shared reality that reduces the need for explicit linguistic elaboration of the message. Context-reduced communication, on the other hand, derive from the fact that this shared reality cannot be assumed and thus linguistic messages must be elaborated precisely and explicitly so that the risk of misinterpretation is minimized (p. 11).

The notion of context-embedded communication seems to fit neatly with making sense of science phenomena through diverse, multi-sensory experiences and working in cooperative groups. Students in a context-embedded classroom would have an opportunity to explore science in a manner that emphasizes conceptual understanding and not vocabulary expertise.

In many cases integrating a student's culture into school activities has been confined to activities such as celebrating Cinco de Mayo, Black History Month, or the Chinese New Year. Such activities are often designed to assist students in the majority culture to better understand the cultures of minority groups. However, "neat multicultural activities" fail to meet the learning needs of culturally diverse students, in science classrooms. Lessons that acknowledge cultural differences must be a daily part of the science curriculum; such lessons should not be reserved for special enrichment activities. In order to meet the learning needs of culturally diverse students, we must provide, in every lesson we plan to teach, regular opportunities for all students to make sense of their experiences in ways that are personally meaningful. Science activities planned in this manner will necessitate the use of all the languages students bring into the classroom. This would be especially important for limited English proficient students. A way of facilitating the use of many languages is through cooperative grouping with classmates who speak the same language thus providing them with opportunities to negotiate meaning. After students have used their own experiences to construct new meanings they should then be provided opportunities to negotiate meaning in English.

The idea of facilitating cultural experiences that are familiar to minorities of color or language should not be limited to the classroom but extended to the whole school. For example, when working with Hispanic students, Lucas, Henze, and Donato (1990) recommend (1) valuing the students' cultures, (2) setting high expectations, (3) emphasizing parental involvement (4) offering courses in three modes for: students who do not speak English; beginning English speakers; and fluent English learners.

The Milieu of Science Teaching and Learning

We also need to think of ways that facilitate students examining science knowledge in historical, social and multicultural contexts; activities that integrate a science curriculum associated with scientific advances identified with non-Western cultures, or comparing science in different cultures. For example, instead of introducing the contributions of George Washington Carver only during Black History month, his scientific contributions should be key elements when such topics as botany, agribusiness or biotechnology emerge in the classroom.

If the suggestions are initiated, the students' multiperspective become the basis for not only teaching but the whole of the school's culture. Pugh (1990) summarized these points by suggesting that teachers consider the following:

1. Science is not free of cultural influence.
2. Science textbooks are not free of racism.
3. History and development of science should not be solely attributed to European cultures.

The ideas mentioned by Pugh center around the notion that in science and science teaching there is no written rule that a particular view directly and easily connects into the life experience of all students.


Perhaps one of the most difficult issues for a science teacher to deal with is developing ways to encourage learning through facilitating students' use of extant knowledge, which includes culture, and language, in a multi-cultural setting. Adding to the complexity of a multi-cultural classroom is the notion that the discipline of science has its own culture and language, and so does the science teacher. The key to comprehending this milieu is to understand that learning, which is the process of making sense, is culture dependent. Specifically, if we provide students with opportunities to make sense of science phenomena through diverse, multi-sensory incidents, learning will take place. Thus, students would be able to use their experiences, which include language and culture, as they interpret science phenomena. Students would then be able to compare what they know to these new experiences and find ways to make sense of them.

by Alejandro J. Gallard, Science Education, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306



Beane, D. B. (1988). Mathematics and science: Critical filters for the future of minority students . Washington, DC: The Mid-Atlantic Center.

Cobem, W. W. (1991). World view theory and science education research. Monographs of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching , 3.

Cuevas, G. (1984). Mathematics learning in English as a second language. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 15, 134-144.

Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority children. In California Department of Education (Ed.), Schooling and Language Minority Students . Los Angeles: Evaluation, Assessment, and Dissemination Center.

Cummins, J. (1986). Empowering minority students: A framework for intervention. Harvard Education Review56, 18-36.

Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of language: The debate on bilingualism. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Leslie, C., & Glick, D. (1991, February). Classrooms out of Bable. Newsweek , Inc., pp. 56- 57.

Lucas, T., Henze, R., & Donato, R. (1990). Promoting the success of Latino language minority students: An exploratory study of six high schools. Harvard Educational Review, 60, (3), 315-340.

Pugh, S. (1990). Introducing multicultural science teaching to a secondary school. Secondary Science Review71, (256), 131-135.

Ramirez, J. D. (1991). Final report: Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early exit and late exit traditional bilingual education programs for language minority children. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Taylor, O. L. (1987). Cross-cultural communication: An essential dimension of effective education . Washington, DC: Mid-Atlantic Equity Center.

Tobin, K. G. (1991). Constructivist perspective on teacher learning . Paper presented at the 11th Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, Atlanta, GA.

Walsh, C. E. (1991). Issues of language, power, and schooling for Puerto Ricans. New York: Bergin and Garvey.

Suggested Readings

Carnoy, M., & Levin, H. M. (1985). Schooling and work in the democratic state. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of language: The debate on bilingualism . New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Oakes, J. (1990). Multiplying inequalities: The effects of race, social class, and tracking on opportunities to learn mathematics and science . Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation.

Secada, W. (Ed.), (1989). Equity in education. New York:  The Falmer Press.