In today’s schools there are often competing accounts of natural phenomena, especially when schools are located in multicultural communities.
-William Cobern & Cathleen Loving from Defining ”Science’ in a Multicultural World: Implications for Science Education (2000)
Discussions about science communication commonly focus on the problems of written and spoken language. And, in many current
debates about the problem of scientific communication, that language is English. It begs the question: When scientific universals are established in aparticular language, how are these facts reshaped and metabolized by another tongue? What if there is no tongue, but rather fingers and hands?
I came across a blog post today on Dictionary.com that briefly examined the problems surrounding science education in classrooms to deaf students. Because all spoken (and written) communication revolves around the–seemingly–simple relationship between words and their signified ideas or concepts, it is taken for granted that there are a jumble of letters within each word making up the phonetic sound, which is ultimately how we derive meaning. But when you do not have the ability to hear those spoken, value-laden sounds, how do you learn, especially in a classroom setting? (outside the written communication of language).
In ASL, the article says, concepts like “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” must be spelled out one letter at a time.
A cadre of scholars at the University of Washington, along with a group of ASL students, are working on fashioning an efficient language for educating science, and specifically how to communicate and teach science that deaf students need to know in order to succeed in national standardized tests and in initiatives like STEM.
As I read the article a “problem” surfaced to my mind: I wondered about what is lost in the “representation” of phenomena by way of verbatim ASL? A better way to ask, I think, is: What scientific knowledge is constructed by this unique form of communication? What new ways of–literally–seeing science does ASL offer that common spoken and written English misses or lacks? Additionally, how does lacking the sensation of hearing affect the way science is not only learned, but experienced and practiced? This, of course, considering you agree that science is ultimately relevant and rooted in a sensual experience of the world…
It is too simplistic to think that scientific concepts and facts are communicated universally and understood unilaterally. Language represents the world through the lens of the speaker’s unique subjective perception and culture. A universal truth may be assimilated (i.e. gravity and truth of the phenomenon of falling from 30,000 feet) into any language as an idea, but how does the cognitive-, cultural-, and linguistic anatomy of that language frame and refract the concept onto the plane of the listener’s mind?
I’ll close with an excerpt from an article written by William Cobern and Cathleen Loving:
Is science universal? Only recently has this question been given any serious consider- ation at all. In the tradition of science as practiced in the West for the past 300 years, and in the tradition of school science, the answer has been, “Of course science is universal.”…No one disputes that without an airplane of fairly conventional description, a person at 30,000 feet is in serious trouble. The question of universality does not arise over the phenomena of falling. The question of universality arises over the fashion of the propositions given to account for the phenomena of falling, the fashion of the discourse through which we communicate our thoughts about the phenomena, and the values we attach to the phenomena itself and the various ways we have of understanding and accounting for the phenomena — including the account offered by a standard scientific description.
The question is whether or not we are willing to see and acknowledge ASL as a sort of culture, a unique way of engaging not only science, but the phenomenal world of daily sensual experiences.