The importance of ‘stuff’ in learning Science

Picture a science class in the UK. As a science teacher, my immediate image is of my first classroom – pods of benches with gas taps and sinks, equipment in cupboards with line drawings of the apparatus they contain stuck on the front, kids’ posters and a Periodic Table on the wall, and pupils working together on a practical activity – perhaps doing a titration, perhaps building circuits or looking at cells through a microscope. The material environment is so fundamental to what we do in teaching and learning science, and although there is a strong tradition of research into the impact of practical work on science learning, I think some recent work in science studies (principally that of Karen Barad) and the ‘new materialism’ is interesting to think about in relation to learning science.

Essentially, instead of seeing matter and thought as separate, new materialists focus on breaking down classical dualisms (e.g between body and mind, nature and culture) and instead see the material and non-material as always entangled with each other. So, for example, Barad argues that agency is enacted through the intra-action (rather than interaction, to signify the entanglement rather than separateness) between the subject and object which both come to exist in new ways as a result of the intra-action. So in a sense, if agency is seen as the capacity to act in the world, both material and non-material have agency (it wouldn’t make sense to say material and human, since humans are always material as well as non-material). Barad develops this into a philosophy of agential realism based on the material-discursive nature of the world. Through particular intra-actions, both matter and meaning are created, the possibilities for which are determined by the given intra-action. This is my understanding, and I am happy to stand corrected by others who have read more into this than I have – please comment or email me; I’m always keen to learn.

So what might this mean for science teaching and learning? I think it really emphasises the importance of exploring not just about what students *think* about their practical experiences, but about *how* they experience them, through their bodies, and how that is *part of* their thinking. Effectively, I think Barad’s arguments are about learning about the world through being entangled with it, acting in it, and creating it although she doesn’t frame them this way. I also think the new materialist philosophies re-emphasise how the particular practical experiences we offer to students, as well as the unique material-discursive nature of the students themselves, determines both the materiality of the practical as it emerges in the classroom and the possibilities of the students’ engagement with the practical and, consequently, their learning.

I want us to re-engage differently with the importance of ‘stuff’ in science, how students experience it, and what that might mean for teachers in choosing practical activities for science learning and intra-acting with them, with their students, to create new learning.

Refs – Karen Barad (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.