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Investigating Undergraduate Physics Lecturers’ Disciplinary Literacy Goals For Their Students
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. Department of Mathematics and Science Education, Stockholm University. (Physics Education Research)ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3244-2586
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research)ORCID iD: 0000-0002-6265-0004
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research)ORCID iD: 0000-0002-9637-5338
2017 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Investigating Undergraduate Physics Lecturers’ disciplinary literacy Goals for their students.

Abstract

 In this presentation we use the concept of disciplinary literacy (Airey, 2011a; 2013) to analyse the expressed learning goals of university physics lecturers for their students. We define disciplinary literacy in terms of learning to control a particular set of multimodal communicative practices. We believe it is important to document the expressed intentions of lecturers in this way, since it has previously been suggested that the development of such disciplinary literacy may be seen as one of the primary goals of university studies (Airey, 2011a).

The main data set used in this presentation comes from a comparative study of 30 physics lecturers from Sweden and South Africa. (Airey, 2012, 2013; Linder et al, 2014). Semi-structured interviews were carried out using a disciplinary literacy discussion matrix (Airey, 2011b), which enabled us to probe the lecturers’ disciplinary literacy goals in the various semiotic resource systems used in undergraduate physics (e.g. graphs, diagrams, mathematics, spoken and written languages, etc.).

The findings suggest that physics lecturers in both countries have strikingly similar disciplinary literacy goals for their students and hold similar beliefs about disciplinary semiotic resources. The lecturers also agree that teaching disciplinary literacy ought not to be their job. Here though, there were differences in whether the lecturers teach students to handle disciplinary-specific semiotic resources. These differences appear to be based on individual decisions, rather than being specific to a particular country or institution.

Keywords: Higher education, Scientific literacy, Representations.

Introduction: disciplinary literacy

In this presentation we examine the notion of disciplinary literacy in university physics (see Airey, 2011a, 2011b, 2013 and the extensive overview in Moje, 2007). Drawing on the work of Gee (1991), Airey (2001a) has broadened the definition of literacy to include semiotic resource systems other than language, defining disciplinary literacy as:

The ability to appropriately participate in the communicative practices of a discipline.

He goes on to suggest that the development of disciplinary literacy may be seen as one of the primary goals of university studies. In this study we use this disciplinary literacy concept to compare and problematize the goals of undergraduate physics lecturers in Sweden and South Africa.

Research questions

Our research questions for this study are:

  1. What do physics lecturers at universities in Sweden and South Africa say about disciplinary literacy in terms of the range of semiotic resources they want their students to learn to master?
  2. To what extent do these physics lecturers say that they themselves take responsibility for the development of this disciplinary literacy in their students?

Data Collection

The data set used for this presentation is taken from a comparative research project where 30 university physics lecturers from a total of nine universities in Sweden (4) and South Africa (5) described the disciplinary literacy goals they have for their students (Airey, 2012, 2013; Linder et al, 2014). A disciplinary literacy discussion matrix (Airey, 2011b) was used as the basis for in-depth, semi-structured interviews.

These were conducted in English and lasted approximately 60 minutes each. In the interviews the lecturers were encouraged to talk about the semiotic resources they think their students need to learn to control.

Analysis

The analysis drew on ideas from the phenomenographic research tradition by treating the interview transcripts as a single data set or “pool of meaning” (Marton & Booth, 1997: 133). The aim was to understand the expressed disciplinary literacy goals of the physics lecturers interviewed. Following the approach to qualitative data analysis advocated by Bogdan and Biklen (1992), iterative cycles were made through the data looking for patterns and key statements. Each cycle resulted in loosely labeled categories that were often split up, renamed or amalgamated in the next iteration. More background and details of the approach used can be found in Airey (2012).

Results and Discussion

Analysis of the 30 interviews resulted in the identification of four themes with respect to the lecturers’ disciplinary literacy goals:

  1. Teaching physics is not the same thing as developing students’ disciplinary literacy.

All the lecturers expressed a strong commitment that physics is independent of the semiotic resources used to construct it. For them, developing disciplinary literacy and teaching physics were quite separate things.

These are tools, physics is something else. Physics is more than the sum of these tools it’s the way physicists think about things—a shared reference of how to analyse things around you.

This theme challenges contemporary thinking in education and linguistics. Halliday and Martin (1993, p. 9) for example insist that communicative practices are not some sort of passive reflection of a priori disciplinary knowledge, but rather are actively engaged in bringing knowledge into being. In science education, an even more radical stance has been taken by Wickman and Östman (2002), who insist that disciplinary learning itself should be viewed as a form of discourse change.

  1. Disciplinary literacy in a range of semiotic resources is necessary for learning physics.

All the lecturers in the study felt it was desirable that students develop disciplinary literacy in a range of semiotic resources in order to cope with their studies. In many ways this finding is unremarkable, with a number of researchers having commented on the wide range of semiotic systems needed for appropriate knowledge construction and communication in physics (e.g. Airey, 2009; Lemke, 1998; McDermott, 1990; Parodi, 2012).

  1. Developing disciplinary literacy is not really the job of a physics teacher.

All physics lecturers expressed frustration at the low levels of disciplinary literacy in their students, feeling that they really should not have to work with the development of these skills, e.g.:

I cannot say that I test them or train them in English. Of course they can always come and ask me, but I don’t think that I take responsibility for training them in English

Northedge (2002) holds that the role of a university lecturer should be one of a discourse guide leading “excursions” into disciplinary discourse. However, although some lecturers actually did in fact work in this way (see category 4) the none of physics lecturers interviewed in this study felt comfortable with this role.

  1. Some teachers were prepared to take responsibility for the development of certain aspects of students’ disciplinary literacy.

Nonetheless, some physics lecturers did say that the development of students’ disciplinary literacy would be something that they would work with. In these cases, lecturers (somewhat grudgingly) took on Northedge’s (2002) role of a discourse guide. This position was most common for mathematics, which was seen as essential for an understanding of physics (see Airey, 2012. p. 75 for further discussion of this theme).

To be able to express it in a precise enough way you need mathematics. Language is more limited than mathematics in this case. So they need to use mathematics to see physics rather than language.

 

Conclusion

In this presentation we have applied the concept of disciplinary literacy to the goals of university physics lecturers. Lecturers reported their belief that disciplinary literacy in a wide range of semiotic resources is a necessary condition for physics learning. However, the same lecturers do not feel the development of this disciplinary literacy is their job. Although some lecturers were prepared to help students develop specific aspects of disciplinary literacy, all the lecturers interviewed believed that teaching physics is something that is separate from teaching disciplinary literacy. Here, Airey has argued that:

Until lecturers see their role as one of socialising students into the discourse of their discipline…[they] will continue to insist that they are not [teachers of disciplinary literacy] and that this should be a job for someone else.                                                                                                                        (Airey, 2011b, p. 50)

References

Airey, J. (2009). Science, Language and Literacy. Case Studies of Learning in Swedish University Physics. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala Dissertations from the Faculty of Science and Technology 81. Uppsala, Sweden.: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A173193&dswid=-4725.

Airey, J. (2011a). The Disciplinary Literacy Discussion Matrix: A Heuristic Tool for Initiating Collaboration in Higher Education. Across the disciplines, 8(3), unpaginated.

Airey, J. (2011b). Initiating Collaboration in Higher Education: Disciplinary Literacy and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Dynamic content and language collaboration in higher education: theory, research, and reflections (pp. 57-65). Cape Town, South Africa: Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Airey, J. (2012). “I don’t teach language.” The linguistic attitudes of physics lecturers in Sweden. AILA Review, 25(2012), 64–79.

Airey, J. (2013). Disciplinary Literacy. In E. Lundqvist, L. Östman, & R. Säljö (Eds.), Scientific literacy – teori och praktik (pp. 41-58): Gleerups.

Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. R. (1992). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theory and methods. (2 ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Gee, J. P. (1991). What is literacy? In C. Mitchell & K. Weiler (Eds.), Rewriting literacy: Culture and the discourse of the other (pp. 3-11). New York: Bergin & Garvey.

Halliday, M. A. K., & Martin, J. R. (1993). Writing science: Literacy and discursive power. London: The Falmer Press.

Lemke, J. L. (1998). Teaching all the languages of science: Words, symbols, images, and actions. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/education/jlemke/papers/barcelon.htm.

Linder, A., Airey, J., Mayaba, N., & Webb, P. (2014). Fostering Disciplinary Literacy? South African Physics Lecturers’ Educational Responses to their Students’ Lack of Representational Competence. African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 18(3), 242-252. doi:10.1080/10288457.2014.953294

Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McDermott, L. (1990). A view from physics. In M. Gardner, J. G. Greeno, F. Reif, A. H. Schoenfeld, A. A. diSessa, & E. Stage (Eds.), Toward a scientific practice of science education (pp. 3-30). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Moje, E. B. (2007). Developing Socially Just Subject-Matter Instruction: A Review of the Literature on Disciplinary Literacy Teaching. Review of Research in Education 31 (March 2007), 1–44.

Northedge, A. (2002). Organizing excursions into specialist discourse communities: A sociocultural account of university teaching. In G. Wells & G. Claxton (Eds.), Learning for life in the 21st century. Sociocultural perspectives on the future of education (pp. 252-264). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Parodi, G. (2012) University Genres and Multisemiotic Features: Accessing Specialized Knowledge Through Disciplinarity. Fórum Linguístico. 9:4, 259-282.

Wickman, P.-O., & Östman, L. (2002). Learning as discourse change: A sociocultural mechanism. Science Education, 86(5), 601-623.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Dublin: ESERA, 2017.
Keyword [en]
Disciplinary Literacy, Undergraduate physics
National Category
Other Physics Topics Didactics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Elementary Particle Physics
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-335281OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-335281DiVA: diva2:1162095
Conference
12th Conference of the European Science Education Research Association (ESERA 2017) DCU Dublin 21-25 Aug. 2017
Projects
VR projekt 2015-01891
Available from: 2017-12-03 Created: 2017-12-03 Last updated: 2017-12-14Bibliographically approved

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Airey, JohnLarsson, JohannaLinder, Anne

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