Actions at NSTA

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Actions at NSTA

By Boston Science Teaching Collective

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 3, July 1971, p. 9-11

The educational system is one of the most important means by which the power of the ruling class in this country is maintained. This process can be seen very clearly in science education. (For a more detailed statement of this position and some of the reasoning behind it, see the excerpts of our pamphlet printed in this issue.) We feel that one of our tasks is to develop a radical analysis of science education and to propose ways in which students and teachers can be made aware of the social and political context of science. In addition, we must struggle against the use of the high school science curriculum as a means of perpetuating the class structure of society. At the same time, it is also vital to provide people with the knowledge that will allow them to deal with the problems of technology. In order to achieve our goals it will be necessary to demolish the barriers between science teachers, scientists and students, so that all can fight together for change.

There are very strong reasons for building groups which include teachers and researchers. For the scientist who sees the way in which his research is exploited in this society, it is an opportunity to have an impact on the public attitude toward knowledge of science through involvement in early science education. For the teacher, such groups can provide means for direct access to the current production of science and technology, and help him in demystifying false images built by the media. In addition, the ties built between us will serve to widen the base of a movement of people who believe in change in the United States. Certainly this alliance would contribute to meeting one of the greatest needs of the radical movement in this country: that of broadening its scope

Organization of a Boston Group

In the December issue of Science for the People two professors of science education from Boston University placed a notice asking for help in organizing at the annual National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) convention. By early February a group of from 12 to 15 was meeting weekly in Boston to prepare for the convention, which was to take place in late March, and to discuss the role of science education in this country. The group included 6 secondary school teachers, 7 research scientists and the two original catalysts from BU.

It was clear from the beginning that there was strong appeal to each of us to meet and get to know people connected with science who came from different backgrounds and who faced quite different problems in their jobs. From initial communication problems, it also became clear to the academic scientists how isolated and out of touch they were with people working much closer to everyday community life. Furthermore, several of the teachers did not have experience working with radical groups. However, by the time of the convention we had achieved a good deal of coherence. What brought us together was a dissatisfaction with the present ideological role of science education.

We spent the first few weeks discussing what issues we would bring up and what sorts of materials we would distribute at the convention. In many cases, group discussion of a piece of literature helped us to understand each others’ perspective. The weeks spent writing and rewriting the pamphlet reprinted here served the same purpose.

One of the most useful discussions occurred when we spent an evening watching and analyzing an ‘educational’ film sponsored by the National Science Foundation which purported to describe Kit Peak Observatory in Arizona and the research that is done there. The film-makers’ clear attempt at mystification of science and scientists and the lack of real scientific content, typical of many science teaching materials helped to illustrate the problem we faced. As a result of our discussion, the film was shown by one of the in our group to his science class and a good discussion on the function of the film resulted. Remarks of the students were taped and played as part of the sound track for the movie at one of the NSTA sessions.

In March, we held an advertised meeting for science teachers from the Boston area to discuss with them our radical critique of science education and alternatives to the present approach. We attracted many new teachers who expressed great interest in working with us after we returned from the NSTA convention.

On to Washington

Finally, with the literature and films assembled, we met on the last night to parcel out materials and to make a late night trip to the New England Free Press to collate and staple our pamphlets. The next day we packed our literature and people into a few cars (and airplanes) and headed for Washington. When we arrived in Washington, a local SESPA member was able to put up some of us while others camped out in the hotel rooms we had reserved for our activities. The existence of a Washington chapter was quite a boost to us, as 5 or 6 of its members helped out substantially during the meeting. It is important to have local support for a convention action, for logistics and mimeograph help as well as for morale.

The convention, which was to run for four days, was sandwiched between a USO and a steelworkers’ convention. (We actually had some good raps with people from both of these meetings.) The first day of the meeting March 26, we marched into the lobby of the Shoreham Hotel, discovered a table conveniently near the entrance and immediately began selling our literature and advertising our first discussion session for that evening. For the next three and a half days we found ourselves fully occupied showing films, selling literature, rapping with people and holding workshops in the evenings. The workshops together with discussions after films must have involved close contact with a total of about 500 people.

Saturday was our best day. By early morning we had persuaded the hotel detective to provide us with an official meeting room for the whole day, complete with projector and screen. Meanwhile, two of us put out a leaflet advertising the films, using the official NSTA mimeograph machine and facilities. Some of us leaf- letted in the halls–one, in fact, wearing a big sandwich board. We showed films and held raps in the room all day and by the afternoon were serving liberated food

At one of the workshops on Saturday night, we spent several hours discussing resolutions for the convention to be presented to the Issues Committee meeting on Sunday morning. After a long rough debate, which gave us a good feeling of where the teachers were at politically, the two resolutions–one opposing the war in Vietnam and the other dealing with political repression in the U.S.–were passed by a group of around forty.

We were allowed to present these the next day along with the rest of the resolutions which were introduced by the Issues Committee on matters of ‘pure’ educational interest. In discussing the resolutions, the chairman of the Issues Committee pointed out that any vote on resolutions was not binding on the Committee, and that even decisions of the Issues Committee were not binding on the national governing board of NSTA. Furthermore, he said that the Committee considered itself much more expert on matters of educational policy than the rank and file of the organization and that, therefore, it recommended uncritical acceptance of the Committee’s resolutions. After several teachers had spoken in support of our resolutions, a motion was presented not to vote on any of the resolutions, since the issues were too complex. This motion was passed by a substantial majority! The contrast between our open, freewheeling debate the night before, and the blatantly anti-democratic tactics used by the leadership directly illustrated certain aspects of our political analysis. The frightening aspect was the majority decision not to involve itself in decision-making. This attitude is a result of a long process of training, part of which is undoubtedly the very educational system we are struggling against.

At two final meetings on Sunday evening and Monday morning, we gathered a total of around eighty teachers to talk of future actions, organization and relationship to regional NSTA meetings and the national convention in 1972. NSTA leadership, including the new president, came to these meetings in a classic attempt at co-optation. The NSTA leadership seems to be quite cooperative in putting us, on the program for next year. In fact, during the whole meeting in Washington, instructions were given to be as cooperative with us as possible. We discovered, through an informant, that one of the reasons for this was fear of disruption.

What Next?

Since the convention we have spent several meetings in Boston trying to analyze our successes and failures in Washington. We went to the convention with no idea of what the response to our presence would be. For a meeting where issues of the sort we were presenting had never before been raised, we felt that the response was very encouraging. A number of comments from teachers at the convention indicated that our workshops, discussions, films, etc. had caused them to decide, for the first time, where they were on certain issues. Many were enthusiastic about our pamphlet; we reached many teachers; and, in the last two days, we discovered great interest in maintaining contact with us and organizing for regional and the next NSTA conventions. Most importantly, the teachers wanted to find out how we built our groups so that they could do the same in their areas.

Where do we go from here? On May 4 we held a second large meeting at Boston University to discuss our activities at the NSTA convention and to begin to combine our knowledge, skills and political perspective as scientists and teachers for the development of ways of dealing with science teaching which reflect the concerns expressed in our pamphlet. As a beginning, we discussed the teaching of ecology from a radical perspective, using as one tool the film and booklet The Earth Belongs to the People. We have begun to bring scientists into high school classrooms and are organizing to bring teachers and students into labs.

As a result of our experiences, we feel that the collaboration of scientists and science teachers has tremendous potential. We strongly urge that groups such as ours be formed all over the country. We have a list of science teachers from many states who would like to make such contacts. Those of you who are interested please write us (c/o George Hein, 19 Fairmont Ave., Newton, Mass.,02158) and we will send you names of science teachers in your area and copies of our pamphlet which can provide initial topics of discussion. Even without names, there are many ways of contacting people which should allow you to form a science education group in your area. See if there are any radical teachers’ groups in your area. (The Boston Red Pencil Collective has just opened a Boston Teachers’ Center.) If there is a school of education or teachers’ college, see if it is possible to make contacts through the college itself or through individual teachers of science education. Or, call a meeting and post flyers advertising it in science departments of schools. Do it!

 

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