Learning Science: Discursive Practices

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Language and communication are essential elements in science learning. Learning science can be viewed as developing a repertoire of discursive practices with which to engage in the knowledge and practices of various social groups. Such groups may include classroom communities, professional science disciplines, or various citizen organizations. Through participation, learners transform these communities, knowledge, and themselves. The importance of communication to science learning can be understood in at least three ways. First, teaching and learning events are constructed through language and social processes. Studies of science learning have traditionally focused on students’ conceptions and how they change over time, assessed through clinical interviews or research instruments. Increasingly, the role of discourse processes in learning events has been recognized as creating, framing, and defining opportunities for cognitive development. Second, student access to science is accomplished through engagement in the social and symbolic worlds comprising the knowledge and practices of specialized communities. Learning science consists of building means for participation and affiliation, through which understanding of ideas occurs through use. Engaging in a set of discursive practices entails, not only language use, but also a related set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and ways of being in the world. Thus, learning includes ways of being with others, the development of learner identities, and their relationships with cognitive development. Third, disciplinary knowledge is constructed, framed, communicated, and assessed through discursive practices. The tensions between linguistic structure of the final form scientific knowledge and the language of the sense making experiences of students represent a key research issue regarding science learning. E A R LY D E V E L O P M E N T S

Studies of classroom science discourse processes emerged from an interest in classroom interaction, and specifically, the development of the related fields of ethnography of communication, social semiotics, and sociolinguistics (Hicks, 1995). These fields contrasted with studies of science learning which typically drew from cognitive psychology M. Martin-Jones, A. M. de Mejia and N. H. Hornberger (eds), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2nd Edition, Volume 3: Discourse and Education, 329–340. #2008 Springer Science+Business Media LLC.


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and focused on cognitive frameworks and conceptual change, while omitting the study of language use in the learning process. Much of this changed with the publication of Lemke’s (1990) Talking Science: Language, Learning, and Values. Lemke’s social semiotic perspective on classroom discourse demonstrated the limited ways in which science was talked about in secondary science classrooms in the USA. The thematic content of science lessons was largely controlled by the teacher, with little variation from the restricted, final form o