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Writing Across the Curriculum



(Originally published in American Behavioral Scientist, Volume 34 Number 2,
            November/December 1990 210-222)

            Ezra Shahn
            Department Of Biological Sciences
            Hunter College of The City University of New York
            695 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10021

* Preparation of this paper was supported in part by a grant from the U. S.  Department of Education, Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. 

Virtually all current plans for a revitalized general education "core" curriculum contain science courses and stress the need for cultural diversity.  Although I see no contradiction between these two directives, the fact that we are frequently characterized as a nation of "science illiterates" must make us consider the ways to offer science meaningfully to a multicultural population.  This paper concludes that, contrary to the common view of science as a different culture, there are no inherent, culturally based impediments to learning science; it considers approaches to teaching that acknowledge the differences among students, and it discusses a specific course that uses these approaches.


Whatever its origins in antiquity (Bernal, 1987), contemporary science has been criticized as being culturally biased in the sense that it was developed by a predominantly White male group reflecting European values.  The characterization may be true, but its validity as criticism is questionable.  In the first place, women and non-White non-Europeans have made, and continue to make, major contributions to mainline science.  The fact that the number of contributors does not reflect their proportion in the population says something about the structure of society and may account for the choice of what has been studied, and how, but does not call the conclusions of science into question.  In the second place, most White males are as alienated, confused and intimidated by science as are the groups that have not fully participated in its creation.  This is seen by teachers in science classrooms and further demonstrated by the relative numbers of underemployed White males with doctorates in the humanities while engineering jobs remain unfilled.  Simply being a White male does not by itself make a person any more able to be successful in mastering or even appreciating, science. 

This discussion is but one form of the notion that science is a culture unto itself and is inaccessible to members of other cultures.  This idea has been part of the popular consciousness at least since Snow's (1969) publication of The Two Cultures.  But is science actually another culture?  If it is, it is so only in the narrow sense that there is a "youth culture" or a unique culture based on any given nationality or ethnicity.  More broadly considered, culture has been defined as the

“totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behavior of the individuals composing a social group collectively and individually in relation to their natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group itself, and of each individual to himself.” (Boas, 1938. p.159)

From this perspective, science, embodying the results of a concern with one's physical and natural environment, is not the basis of a unique culture; it is a part of any culture.  And as such, it is conditioned by the rest of the culture.  It is both limited and nurtured by language and technology, by the accidents of history and by the organization of society.

This concept of science as a social construct is increasingly accepted today.  Thus different societies will create different sciences.  But these have not developed competitively and should not be compared or measured against each other.  Each presumably serves its purpose in its own social context.  Certainly we accept and expect this of the various subspecialties that are readily acknowledged in our society.

Despite this growing awareness, we often take great pains to differentiate between "folk" science and "real" Science, or primitive or early science and (again, real) Science.  In so doing we are implicitly defining the product of a particular several-hundred-year-old tradition as the real thing, Science with a capital S.  This Science seeks to find the laws that govern the behavior of all manner of phenomena in an objective, outside world.  It has become a process as much as, if not more than, a growing body of knowledge.  The existence of both laws and the objective world, as well as the consensus regarding the process, are societal creations.  While this approach to understanding and control may account for the driving force behind the industrial and agricultural technology of today's dominant society, it discounts the experiences that many groups and individuals have with the world about them.  The Science that follows from this definition is steeped in an intellectual tradition, and in its formal linguistic exposition it is increasingly removed from daily experience.  With this "foreign-ness" of science in mind, our goal as educators must be to help each of our students become able to understand the process and thus to cope with the results of science as these are likely to affect their lives, intellectually or materially.

Thus, the issue at hand grows out of the question: Does the cultural context in which modern science developed limit the ability of people who do not identify with this culture to become science literate?  It might, if (a) the concepts at the foundations of Western science were so incompatible with those of a different culture as to preclude a dialogue or (b) the cognitive skills employed in Western scientific reasoning were inimical to members of a different culture.  Either of these explanations would eliminate the possibility of cross-cultural communica­tion regarding science.  But if neither the concepts nor the reasoning of Science is incompatible with other cultures, different approaches to natural phenomena should be seen as the sources of difficulties in learning that have to be addressed by suitable instructional strategies.

As one example of a cultural difference consider the concept of time.  In a classical discussion of a Sudanese society, Evans-Pritchard (1937) observed that "present and future have not entirely the same meaning for Azande as they have for us.  Time has a different value"(p.347).  From another part of the world, Givens (1977) presented an extensive discussion of the social features of Navajo concepts of time, emphasizing an apparent lack of a future.  In context, however, this conclusion may be due more to a lack of appreciation of certain causal connections.  In a contemporary setting, Hall (1983) noted that neither the Hopi nor the Sioux have a word for time in their vocabularies.  Yet, reflecting on his experiences with the Hopi, Hall suggested that the English word refers to a cluster of Hopi concepts, each having its roots in some aspect of personal activity or social interaction.  Allen (1986) discus­sed the reciprocal nature of time and space in relation not only to a view of the world, but to the structure of Indian literature.

While these concepts of time are clearly different, they are essentially social concepts and thus reflect the differences among societies.  Scientific time, however, in any of its many guises, requires that a science exists that uses time quantitatively.  The lack of such science or technology makes the comparisons mentioned earlier meaningless in the context of the limitations that culture places on learning science.

But the distinction is not really between Indian and Western cultures.  In considering the essentially Western conceptions of space and time, Akhundov (1986) found that each is multiple and has changed through the years.  Thus Greek time, medieval time, Newtonian time, and Einsteinian time are all significantly different from each other, and an understanding of any requires that one be freed from the constraints of the others.

This plurality of concepts – across cultures at a specific time or throughout the development of a given culture – may be handled by following the lead of Bridgman (1960) and focusing on the operations used to measure or define a concept.  Generalizing from this example: To the extent that we can appreciate our past, it is likely that we as scientists can ultimately explain ourselves to and be understood by nonscientists.

The fol­lowing discussion shows why I believe that an aversion to Science does not grow from a cultural limitation of the ability of individuals to em­ploy the cognitive skills extensively used in traditional science.

In this context, the notion of "cognitive skill" or level of cognitive development follows that developed by Piaget in many studies spanning the middle of this century.  In essence, he suggested that normal human development includes a demonstrably regular increase in the repertoire of cognitive abili­ties.  These skills refer to such modalities as number, space, and causality as well as ways of reasoning.  Major plateaus in this process are referred to as preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operation­al.  The latter includes such skills as the control and isolation of variab­les and combinatorial, correlational, probabilistic, and proportional reason­ing.  The classic and probably simplistic description of the acquisition of cognitive skills asserts that this occurs by late adolescence; it is often implied that this process is nat­ural and beyond intervention (teach­ing).  Modern science is clear­ly built on these skills.  The question may be rephrased: Are these skills culture-dependent?  With regard to the postsecondary-aged population in the United States, Herron (1975) and others have noted that large numbers of non-science majors enrolled in college courses are not formal operational.  However, Lawson and Bealer (1984) report that some variation of formal reasoning ability is cor­related with cultural diversity.  Their culturally diverse populations were, in fact, samples of the more traditional American population and may be confounded by issues of class and experience as well.  In a subsequent work, Lawson (1985) arrived at the significant and optimistic conclusion that cognitive skills are in fact teachable and do not follow an inexorable developmental timetable.  This finding makes the studies of Gladwin (1970) and Voyat (1983), who both worked with more homogen­eous, isolated populations, all the more significant.

Gladwin (1970) studied the procedures by which Micronesian islanders are able to perform stunning feats of "dead reckoning" navigation over hundreds of miles of open water.  He concluded that while their formal knowledge of navigation was didactically structured and did not involve "prob­lem solving" in the Western sense, his subjects clearly had the abilities to reason abstract­ly.  Moreover, while many of the natives did not perform well on Pia­getian tests, this was not a universal property of his study group.  Voyat (1983) approached the issue of age of acquisition of cognitive skills among Sioux children by measuring their performance on classic tests.  Overall, his results showed variations representa­tive of any population study that were gen­erally comparable with what he called "the Geneva norm" (i.e., Piaget's sub­jects).  One inter­esting difference relates to the "fine struc­ture" of the relat­ive time of acquiring certain skills.  He observed that the Sioux acquired geomet­ric skills somewhat earlier than the norm, and arithmetic skills somewhat later.  The conclusion of this summary, then, must be that culture as such probably plays a minimal and not irreversible role in limit­ing an individu­al's ability to achieve science literacy.


"Culture" has thus been eliminated as a major explanation of why so many individuals reach adulthood in a state of science illit­eracy.  There remain, however, a number of specific reasons for this fact which, in some circumstances, are descriptive of a culture.  These "culture-related" explanations are presented here as attributes of individuals that may interfere with their learning of science.  The first of these has to do with language, which is both derived from our physical and cultural experience and serves as a means of instructing us in how to perceive our environment and communicate to others.  This is discussed else­where in the context of science education (Shahn, 1988).  A significant feature is that lan­guage generally develops at the same time as cognitive ability does (discussed later) but that its ability to deal with precision and nuance may not adequate­ly reflect a per­son's ability to think and privately to deal with abstract concepts.  What would be affected is the ability to interpret written and oral communications and to respond appropriately.  A good example might be the mechanic who can accur­ately diagnose what ails an automo­bile simply by listening to it and can then proceed to remedy the problem.  Such a person is clearly able to engage in higher-level thinking involving causality and hypo­thetico-deductive reasoning but may be unable to com­municate with a colleague over a phone.  Instruction in science, then, cannot be based solely on verbal communication but must relate the language to the world.

The second culture-related trait is cognitive style, or learn­ing style.  At one level, this term relates to the way in which people may prefer to acquire information, that is, by hearing it or by reading it.  While this preference may be part of an "oral tradition," in individual learning, it is more likely habit and the result of experience.  Since most science in­st­ruction is built around a text and the details of description of phenomena, generaliza­tion, and reasoning are tightly structured, exclusive reliance on an oral/aural interaction is likely to create difficulties.  Related to the complexity of reasoning about phenomena are the issues of whether one tends to assimilate one's knowledge of the world verbally, vis­ually, or in some less traditional mode (Proust's “The Remem­brance of Things Past” provided the classic example of how a taste can trigger volumes of memories), and whether one accepts information – learns in the more general sense – on the basis of authority or from one's own experi­ence.  At another level the term refers to the ability of individuals to isol­ate significant information in the presence of noise.  In a study of science majors, Niaz (1989) found a correlation between cognitive style and results on standard tests.  While people often learn to compensate for their cognitive style as they in­teract with their environments, he also noted that compensatory instruction is possible.

Epistemology, or metaphysics, is another relevant "cultural characteristic" which includes answers to questions regarding a person's predis­position to approaching knowledge of the physical world, which may be idiosyn­cratic or features of a group.  For example: What, if any, are the limits of scientific investigation?  What are the goals of the scientific enterprise: absolute truths, laws, understanding, prediction?  What is an acceptable kind of explanation: holistic, in which all experiences must be related to each other, or reductionist, in which individual phenomena may be separated and studied independently?  What is the nature of causality that can be or must be brought into an understanding?  Are explanations involving magic or miracles – a "supernatural" – a significant or intolerable part of one's view of the world?  Is a claim to knowledge to be validated by appeal to authority, or by some attempt at individual confirmation?  And, what may in many instances be most important, to what degree can ambiguity be tolerated, or conversely, to what extent is consistency necessary?

Clearly, persons embarking on a study of science with different answers to these questions might find themselves going in different direc­tions.  Simi­larly, persons insisting on some of their answers might not even be able to follow a discussion of a particular scientific adventure.  A fre­quently en­countered problem is that students demand verbal descriptions of what they are to observe.  This displays simultaneously an acknowledgment of and respect for authority and for words.  It is almost as though they are following the gospel of St. John and not the Old Testament – in the beginning there was the word, not the creation.  These students have mastered and are prepared to deal with the logic of language; they do not see experimental science as trying to discover the logic of nature.  For example, while "the whole is equal to the sum of its parts" in many circumstances, and mixing two pints of water yields a quart, mixing a pint of alcohol with a pint of water results in less than a quart.  Such is the logic of nature.

We have already mentioned the role cognitive skills in the development and understanding of modern science.  While we concluded that this is not a major cultural issue, it may pose a profound problem for individuals.  We readily accept the idea that preschoolers differ from high school and col­lege students in their abilities to understand the way in which scientific notions are presented to them.  But not all college students have achieved the same degree of abstract reasoning ability as it relates to science.  This becomes a prob­lem when all college students are required to take science courses of a cer­tain level of difficulty or rigor.  (No less a problem would result if it were likewise required that all students take courses in musical composition or performance, or practical art as opposed to art history, but these aspects of culture play a different role in our daily lives.)  The only opti­mistic note here is the conclusion of Lawson (1985), already noted, that for­mal operational cognitive skills of the sort needed in studying science are teachable.

Finally, many science educators currently studying the way by which individuals acquire their view of the world have suggested that it is constructed as a result of phenomenological experience, group interactions, and an innate desire to have a view of the world (von Glaserfeld, 1989).  For a vari­ety of reasons, with children this process often results in misconceptions readily identified by sophisticated adults (Carey, 1986).  Lawson (1988) pointed out that these misconceptions are more typical in the physical sciences, where most work in this area has been done, than in the biological sciences.

These misconceptions are not dispelled as easily as one would wish and may persist far beyond the innocence of childhood.  Simply demonstrating an inconsistency between an expectation (based on a misconception) and experi­ence does not make an individual see what is wrong, or even that something is wrong.  This strategy requires the individual to follow the logic leading to the expectation and be disturbed by the contradiction.  By now, it is realized that the ability to recognize a contradiction is itself an aspect of formal operational thought (Lawson, 1987), which those who are able to tolerate many con­flicting ideas may not have developed.  While some misconceptions are sufficiently widespread to warrant attention, others are peculiar to individuals; thus the best one might hope for is the realization by teachers that a student's failure to progress sufficiently rapidly may result from something other than "stupidity."


These last paragraphs have questions that must be answered before one can improve the success of science teaching.  Several strategies can be applied to a variety of problems in cross-cultural communi­cation.  A similar list was pre­sented by Pinxten, van Dooren, and Harvey (1983) on the basis of their work with the Navajo concepts of space.  The first of these is the most traditional and, to a large extent, mimics how we continue to learn in our own fields.  It is, most simply put, to teach.  The procedure here is to say, as clearly as possible, what one is about.  The as­sumption is made that, essentially, to tell (or write) is to teach and to hear (or read) is to learn.  This procedure may work with the initiated, but no recognition is given nor concession made to the fact that the learner may not be approaching the subject matter from the same perspective as the instructor.

In the second, one teaches about the subject under consideration.  While the details of development and argument are often avoided, giving the surface appeara­nce of accessibility, the complexity of the concepts may also be elid­ed.  "Relativity without mathematics" may be such an exercise, in which the reasons for the conclusions, which are based on mathematical relationships between concepts, are omitted.  While experts may indeed be able to talk with each other without using mathematics, they have spent long hours acquiring their vocabulary. 

The third approach is to teach from the point of view of the new discipline.  This approach differs from the first in that its perspective is broader and the relationships among different areas are more explicitly consider­ed.  While this approach may identify what is special from the point of view of the instruc­tor, the student is still not included in the picture.  Realis­tically, it is unreasonable to think that a course that successfully follows this ap­proach would be the same for all audiences.  To succeed, one must know to whom one is talking as well as what one wants to say.

The last approach involves teaching to a particular group.  Here the dif­ficulties in learning related to any of the "cultural characteristics" of sci­ence mentioned earlier are anticipated, and the material is presented in a manner that minimizes these difficulties.  Included in this approach is a recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of different teaching styles, such as lectures, tutorials, lab exercises, discussion groups, reading, writing, problem solving, and so on.  While the specific de­tails that are given by way of example are clearly directed at science courses, a similar dissection of pedagogy may be applied to cross-cultural communication in other areas.

For example, if a particular point can only be understood in terms of mathemati­cal relationships, responsible teaching requires an effort to impart this necessary groundwork, rather than to leave it as "an exercise to the read­er" – a time-honored way of saving expository prose in math treatises.  Or, if one is talking about a physical phenomenon, it should be clearly stated – better yet, explored – before one goes into the more formal and abstract consid­erations.  Providing an excellent example of the need for this approach, Feynman (1985, p.191), discussed a student who was able to describe completely the mathematics of the interaction of light with water, which he could not recognize outside his window.  Or, again, if a lecturer wants to refer, even casually, to such general knowledge as geography or history, it must be clear that the class is (or has been) prepared to follow the story.  Unfortunately, too many stud­ents do now know why the Alps may have hindered the flow of ideas embodied in the "renaissance" from Italy to the Low Countries, or even where "the low coun­tries" are.  Similarly, references to periods of ideas, such as "the dark ages" or "the Enlightenment," carry no meaning to students who have never been exposed to them.  Yet, in the history of the development of the modern scientific view of the world, the philosophies of these past periods have often played as important a role as new discoveries or new techniques.  Without telling our students in even an abbreviated way what these were, we may, in fact, be telling them nothing.

Beyond the approach to substance, one must pay careful attention to process.  As but one example: The fact that science is now recognized as a social construct does not make it effective to let a class go freely on its way to constructing its own science.  Collaborative learning must take place within the constraints of previously agreed-upon conclusions.  Granted, in the large scheme of things these conclusions are to be questioned and may often be aban­doned, but novice students of science may spend too much time discouraging­ly trying to find their way in waters already charted by oth­ers.  The role of the teacher in this situation is not an easy one, for success requires that being a leader is not confused with being "the" authority that so many students look for in their science instructors.


Foundations of Science (Shahn, in press), a 1-year multidisciplinary course with laboratory exercises developed at Hunter College specifically for non-sci­ence majors, takes into account a number of the issues dis­cussed here.  It is limited to consid­eration of three major themes which are milestones in the development of the modern sci­entific worldview: (a) the study of motion, of the planets and on Earth; (b) the nature and proper­ties of matter; (c) and the idea that the earth around us and the variety of life on Earth are the result of histori­cal processes.  Each theme is presented by follow­ing a narrative story line.  In a sense, this ad­dresses the "oral/­written tradi­tion" difficulty alluded to earlier; the narrative provides a skele­ton on which details of the story can be hung so that the relationships among them are clear.

In each case, the narrative has a historical line that starts with a consider­ation of phenomena accessible to untrained observers – our beginning stud­ents.  These include the "motions" of the planets, metallurgy and alchemy, and the examination of the variety of life.  Subsequently, it is shown that con­cepts are developed on the basis of new information, new technology, or chang­ing philosophical or societal limitations.  This "periscientific" concern with the his­tory/philosophy/sociology of science as a means of acquiring an under­standing of science does not alter the results but gives insights into the reasons for the particular develop­mental story that we follow.  This story line shows clearly the process of concept modification and demonstrates repeatedly the current view of the nature of science as being a continually changing approach to "truth."  This exposition of the evolution of the contemp­orary set of goals and methodology of science is imp­licitly directed at those students whose own metaphysics are incompatible with science.

Because the structure of science is not inherently linear, understanding occurs only when related aspects of the story from different parts of the course are brought together.  We use sets of focus questions to direct the students' attention to these relationships.  Frequent writing assignments, which encourage the students to express their understanding in extended form, begin with such "simple" directions as "describe" and "define" to enable the students to become famil­iar with the problems of precision without being burdened by the greater difficul­ties inherent in analysis and explanation.  Subsequent essays require summar­ies of experiments and reasoning (those of others as well as those performed by the students in the labs) and ultimately analysis and explanation.  We place continual emphasis on having students re­late the appropriate evidence to their responses to specific questions.  The essays are criticized and returned to the students for revision prior to grad­ing.

The labs are an intrinsic part of the course because of the widely accep­ted view that science is based on experience (Shahn, in press).  They are used to (a) explore phenomena, (b) to develop the hypothetico-de­ductive approach to validating and extending knowledge, (c) to demonstrate the way by which concepts become more general as they are applied to increasingly diverse sets of phenomena, and as class-gen­erated data sets are subjected to discussion, (d) to illustrate one aspect of soci­ety's role in generating scientific know­ledge.  The labs are designed to sup­port the story lines developed in lecture and reading.  Where possible, "his­torical" experi­ments are recreated so that the intimate relation­ships among technology, procedure and concept can be more readily appreciated.

In the labs, we have encountered several of the metaphysical prob­lems noted earlier.  We have seen students confounded when repeated measurements are not identical; their presupposition being that science is a source of absolute truths that are obtained by making measure­ments.  Similar­ly to be­ginning students in many labs, they explain the variations among their ob­servations as resulting from "experimental error," until an analysis of different procedures shows that some of these "errors" can be expected.  This chang­ing approach to what science can do is similar to what Perry (1970) described as typical of the more general intellectual development of college students during their school­ing.

Throughout the course, particularly in the lab, we develop the various uses of mathematics in relation to science as a natural consequence of our historical approach to con­cept formation.  The Greeks, for example, were mast­ers of geometry but lacked both a decimal notation and a functional algebra.  Thus their view of the world and their ability to work with it were limited.  We note the changes that accompanied the introduction of algebra, the use of graphs, and the in­vention of calculus and consider the ways in which these new mathem­atical concepts both assisted the development of science and were, in part, themselves the result of such development.  In this way, as the concepts of science be­come more complex and more abstract, our students are introduced to more subtle forms of reasoning and led to master them.

A last word about the content of the course.  The original description used the word multidisciplinary.  To the nonscientist all branches are sub­sumed under the same term, "science"; but among scientists there are as great schisms as there are between other disciplines.  From this point of view our coherent multidiscip­linary course may be view­ed as an achievement in its own right.  We have succeeded in part because early on, we gave up the idea of trying to cover all of physics or all of biology or even the most significant conclusions of these separate disciplines.  We accepted the fact that it is the many shared features of these different approaches that characterize them as science.  Given the constraints of time and the limita­tions of our target stu­dent population, we opted to develop only some of these features in the fashion described earlier.  Since a different choice of thematic story lines could be just as successful, the de­tails of development have not been stres­sed here.

The Foundations of Science course is specifically addressed to the "non-­science" student and has been included among a handful of courses commended in two publications dealing with the "core" and science in a liberal arts set­ting (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990; Cheney, 1989).  In fact, regardless of department, the bulk of all instruction in a university setting is of non-majors.  Our success in developing this course emboldens us to suggest that a similar thematic model in which breadth is sacrificed for conceptual depth might provide a way for other related disci­plines to accommodate the same limitations of time as they strug­gle to fit their piece into the general education core.  Our science majors could benefit from "literature for non-lit majors" that is beyond freshman composition and an "introduction to the social sciences for humanists and scientists" that is not based on one department.

In his concluding remarks on the bearing of science on life in Science and Humanism, Schrodinger (1952) wrote: "If you cannot – in the long run –  tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless."  The endemic state of science illiteracy presently accepted today is testament to the fact that for most of our population, the long run has not yet come to pass.  The program discussed here shows how a university curric­ulum born of another age can confront this reality.  In Schrodinger's words, we can tell every­one what we have been doing.


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