School of Education faculty member recognized for research in justice-oriented science teaching

Daniel Birmingham
Daniel Birmingham, associate professor in CSU's School of Education

For many years, Colorado State University School of Education Associate Professor Daniel Birmingham has been studying science education and collaborating with classroom teachers on designing for and learning about teaching in justice-centered ways.

Birmingham and his co-authors  — Angela Calabrese Barton, from the University of Michigan, and Edna Tan, from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro — are being recognized for their article sharing ways that teachers can more equitably engage students from lower income communities of color. Their article titled “Rethinking High-Leverage Practices in Justice-Orientated Ways”  has been awarded the 2021 Journal of Teacher Education Outstanding Article Award by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Justice-oriented teaching

The authors write that youth from lower-income communities of color often experience classrooms as outsiders, and they propose methods of reconfiguring classroom teaching to incorporate students’ lived experiences within their communities.

“We wanted to share some of these insights with the field, in ways that centered teachers’ practices — how teachers worked with their students to make visible existing injustices, and to disrupt and transform these injustices through and with teaching and learning,” said Birmingham. “Our findings highlight specific teaching practices that work toward these ends.”

The article looks at justice-oriented teaching in the classroom and how this learning is shaped by systems of privilege and oppression. Birmingham and his colleagues propose “justice oriented high-leverage practices” emphasizing the need for teaching practices that restructure power relations in the classroom. According to the authors, HLPs “have been defined as the core practices of teaching which, when implemented consistently over time, support teacher and student learning,” but these have often lacked specific attention to issues of equity.

Through three specific case studies in partnership with science teachers, the authors propose a justice-oriented HLP that teachers can learn and implement using three “patterns-in-practice.” The case studies outlined in the article illustrate how teachers used techniques in “recognition” and “refraction” to work toward “social transformation” in their classrooms. The authors used a mix of detailed field notes, interviews and conversations, student work, and video and audio recordings to generate data for analysis.

Case studies

The first of the three case studies shows how a teacher engaged students in an engineering design unit focused on sustainable communities. The teacher encouraged taking action by tying engineering projects to social injustices in the school community brought to light by students, and incorporating the students’ proposed solutions to disrupt those injustices. Youth identified bullying of immigrant students in the school as a problem and proposed building a “Make-a-Friend” board, a large colorful board with blinking LED lights powered by a hand crank generator. The board had suggestions for making friends such as sitting next to a new person at lunch. It also incorporated the 12 languages spoken at the school. When faced with solving a community problem they cared about, the students became engaged in how to best engineer the solution, such as which power source to use in their community board.

The authors also outline two additional case studies involving a health lesson on the human respiratory system and diseases caused by air quality issues such as smoking, as well as how to engage students in using their unique talents to show their knowledge of the solar system. The teacher in the smoking lesson was able to engage students in a discussion of how smoking intersected with their day-to-day realities in their neighborhood, rather than focusing solely on the poor health outcomes of people who smoke. By encouraging discussion of how youth of color have a unique experience in racialized forms of peer pressure, the teacher was able to find strengths in positive peer interactions to counteract these experiences.

The teacher in the solar system lesson decided to engage students in using their performing arts talents at an arts school in brainstorming projects to show their scientific expertise, rather than relying on just a test at the end of the unit. This required a shift in the classroom dynamics from the teacher being the sole holder of knowledge to the expertise of the students and what they bring from the experiences outside the classroom. The teacher saw an increase in participation from students who historically had struggled in the science class.

“One of the insights we had with this work was in how the ‘equity focus’ of these pedagogical approaches was located at the intersection of systemic oppressions and local practice,” said Birmingham. “These practices sought to disrupt the ways in which historicized and systemic injustices, such as institutionalized racism, took shape every day in their classrooms as part of disciplinary teaching and learning. They also sought to transform, for example, the discourses and practices made legitimate in disciplinary learning, new forms of participation and representations of individual and collective learning, and the distributions of power for making and challenging those decisions. These are the types of changes that are needed if we are to achieve inclusive classrooms.”

About the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education award

For 25 years, AACTE has honored its member institutions, leaders, and individuals who make bold, exceptional, and revolutionary contributions to the field of educator preparation. This award is given annually by AACTE to recognize exemplary scholarship published in the Journal of Teacher Education during the last volume year. The journal’s editors, based at Michigan State University, nominate several top articles for consideration, and the AACTE Committee on Research and Dissemination selects the winning piece to receive the Outstanding Journal of Teacher Education Article Award. The committee selected this article for the award based upon its relevancy and quality methodology utilizing multiple data sources and detailed coding procedures and analysis.

“We hope our work with teachers and youth will inspire others to design for and name educational practices that foreground equity in ways that lead to transformative learning opportunities for youth,” said Birmingham. “We believe this work is vital if equitable and consequential learning is going to be a reality. We know we will continue these efforts alongside students and teachers.”

The School of Education is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Arlee Walls contributed to this story.