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Science Education in Classrooms and Qualitative Research in Latin Americalocked

  • Antonia CandelaAntonia CandelaThe Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute
  •  and Gabriela NaranjoGabriela NaranjoUniversidad Pedagógica Nacional


There are several different ways of understanding ethnography. On one extreme there are studies that use certain “ethnographic techniques” for practice observation, and on the other, there is the assumption that it is a complex theoretical-methodological framework that implies an ideological, political, and sociocultural approach, in order to describe the perspective of the participants. A third perspective seeks to broaden the understanding of the complex construction of scientific knowledge in the classroom. Surveys can unearth a clear tension between the etic and emic approaches, each one related to the theoretical-methodological allegiances of their researchers which can be modified somewhat through their findings. A future inquiry into the complex and heterogeneous contexts of Latin American classrooms can suggest a way to bridge macro with micro contexts of different socioeconomic and cultural and political conditions. Other growing topics that could be developed more thoroughly in the future are, for example, the multimodality of communication processes within the classroom, and studies on scientific education from an intercultural perspective, particularly considering the debt we have with the 50 million indigenous people in our region in taking into account their cultural perspectives and contributions to knowledge.

Within Latin America, there is not a strong tradition of ethnographic research in natural science education. Notably, however, there is a growing interest in examining science education within the classroom through qualitative and interpretive approaches (Erickson, 1986; Rockwell, 2009). In this article we survey research being carried out using these approaches throughout the region, analyzing some of their most important theoretical influences, their production contexts, and the specific ways in which they develop their methodologies, within the framework of the historical development of the field.

We look at foundational articles that have been published in research journals, omitting books, articles from conference archives, and theses, both because of the difficulties of procuring equitable access to these resources throughout Latin America and because the most influential research results are found in articles. First we selected all of the articles featuring qualitative studies that analyzed interactions within science classes in order to identify the different theoretical-methodological patterns that combine to produce a qualitative focus. We identify studies that self-identify as ethnographic and others that without explicitly defining themselves in this way share some ethnographic features, above all their interest in investigating processes of teaching science in its “natural” contexts of development: classrooms. Then we dive deeper into the analysis of the works most representative of the patterns we identify, primarily coming from the countries that produce the most literature within the field (Brazil and Mexico) as well as the most influential research groups.

We start by taking an explicit look at the lens through which we are carrying out this work, framing it within our academic career since that is the necessarily subjective perspective that determines our interpretation of the literature we review and the themes we discuss. In order to contextualize our analysis, we present a brief history of the development of research on science education in Latin America, particularly in Mexico and Brazil, in order to communicate some of the general information we found during our review of the articles. We develop our analysis in sections in accordance with the most significant tensions we identified, between emic and etic perspectives, as well as two of the most frequent themes: (a) teaching practices and (b) student participation. Although there are many studies that focus on content, we do not have space here to address them. We conclude with a panorama of the field, its advances and contributions to the understanding of educational processes within the classroom, in order to envisage plans for the future.

Our Perspective

Our analysis incorporates some orientations of meta-ethnography (Anderson-Levitt & Rockwell, 2017; Noblity Hare, 1988) that facilitate comparisons of interpretive and ethnographic studies, thus avoiding the ethnological and positivist approaches that elaborate cumulative synthesis and generalizations through broadly decontextualized and evaluative typologies and classifications. Without claiming to undertake a proper meta-ethnography, we select two of the most frequently addressed topics (teacher practices and student participation) in order to analyze some of the tensions and metaphors (understood as key concepts or themes used by ethnographers in each one of their studies to allow for comparison between studies) identified in their approaches: etic or emic perspectives, saberes docentes or knowledge for teaching, understandings, teachers, and students as active or passive participants.1 Likewise, we focus on the work of the most representative authors and groups and situate their work within the time and space of their contexts of production, in order to identify and understand their theoretical and methodological approaches. From this ethnographic perspective, we are more interested in rescuing contributions from a diversity of perspectives than we are in evaluating them.

Drawing from an ethnographic perspective, we assume that the interpretation of qualitative work on teaching science within the classroom not only depends on the social and material contexts in which these studies are carried out but also depends on the theoretical positioning, academic history, and politics of the authors. Therefore, in order to delve into the issues and clarify the discursive, interpretive, and methodological borders that shape the contours of our analysis, we present some information about our respective academic histories, acknowledging that our perspective, unavoidably subjective, is one among many possible perspectives.

Antonia Candela studied physics and at the beginning of the 1970s she joined a large project to develop the official and compulsory natural science textbook for primary education in Mexico. Through this project, the Department of Educational Research (DIE) was founded, bringing together researchers from the natural and social sciences, all conscious of the socioeducational and political-educational problems within the country, under the influence of the political movements in 1968. Her experience with this project and the influence of the ethnographic work she began in the DIE led her, starting in the 1990s, to focus on an ethnography of teaching science in the classrooms, mainly within basic education levels. Her doctoral studies with Derek Edwards allowed her to work with conversational analysis within the field of discursive psychology (Edwards & Potter, 1992). She has developed research projects on themes such as argumentation, consensus construction, and students’ power and reasoning, as well as projects that question the “objectivity” employed in the construction of scientific “facts” in the classroom, considering science as a form of cultural knowledge (Elkana, 1983; Latour & Woolgar, 1986) that coexists alongside the knowledge produced by other cultural backgrounds (Candela, 2013).

Gabriela Naranjo completed both her master’s and her doctorate studies in the DIE, focusing on ethnographic work on science education in elementary schools with blind students integrated into regular classrooms. She supported her training as a psychologist with her experience in special education. Her ethnographies analyze how the saberes docentes support their students with disabilities in science lessons. After a period researching with Carey Jewitt in a group at the Institute of Education at the University of London using multimodal analysis, she began an original ethnographic research project incorporating resources from multimodal analysis. Thus, by studying different modes of communication and the ways in which they interact with one other, her perspective allows her to understand how identity, classroom space, attention, and other processes are socially constructed in the classroom with the active participation of students.

A Brief History of the Field

At the international level, it was the launch of the Soviet rocket Sputnik in 1957 that prompted the call to scientists and psychologists in the United States, led by Jerome Bruner, to review and propose curricular changes to natural science education in order to compete in the space race with the Soviet bloc. This movement, rooted in a colonial heritage, spread to many Western countries, influencing the first global curricular reforms of the past century. This process fostered research into diverse psychological approaches, such as learning through discovery (Bruner, 1969), meaningful learning (Ausubel, 1978), research inspired by the work of Piaget regarding the previous ideas of students and teachers on scientific concepts, learning as conceptual change (Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gerzog, 1982), and Vygotskian sociocultural approaches inspired influence on the orientation of science education proposals. In this way, the field of research on science education is distinguished by a prescriptive origin, determined by the perspectives of scientists and psychologists in order to improve teaching practices and learning processes.

Especially in Mexico, from the 1980s onward, the DIE developed a research tradition in educational ethnography that recognized the importance of studying educational phenomena in the classroom as its “natural” environment. Toward the end of the 1980s, at the DIE, Candela (1990) developed a specific research focus on ethnography of science education in the classroom.

Given the difficulty of translating educational proposals into changes within teaching practice (Yager & Penik, 1983), the DIE expanded the field with a more interdisciplinary perspective, in addition to psychology: (a) philosophy enabled them to question the empiricist epistemological approach about the superiority of scientific knowledge; (b) sociology allowed them to question whether changing just one of the factors that impact the educational project, such as the proposed content, would be enough to shift educational practice as a whole in a predetermined direction; (c) a historical perspective demonstrated the legacy of educational traditions from other times and their connections with present-day teaching practices; (d) anthropology allowed them to conceptualize school culture as a construction impacted by different cultural configurations of students, teachers, educational institutions, local communities, as well as state levels with proposals and reforms; and (e) from a political perspective, they were able to analyze the importance of context, above all in countries like Mexico, with significant economic inequality and broad cultural diversity.

In the case of Brazil, a historical review of the field by Munford, Nogueira, and Coutinho (2014) noted the lack of ethnographic work in the country, as an alternative to the “process-product” paradigm (Shulman, 1989) while they also highlight the influence of Marli André (2002) and the group at Santa Bárbara (Judith Green) in their own ethnographic work. They write that research on science education was dominated by the interventionist tendencies of scientists in the classroom between 1950 and 1970 (Fensham, 2004). These scientists approached education from the perspective of scientific inquiry in order to modify teaching by “transmission” to a model closer to the “real” practices of scientists in laboratories. They report that a parallel conversation was taking place regarding scientific literacy, finding that more abstracted approaches to knowledge, such as those found within the sciences, were more disconnected from the daily lives of students (Sasseron & Pessoa, 2011). They suggest that until 2014, a “deficit” perspective dominated in this country, tending to emphasize academic aspects that “should be introduced into the classrooms” and ignoring the multiplicity of contexts present within actual classrooms. They consider that in the United States, these academic approaches have been problematized, and they value ethnography as a way to engage with the complexity of the classroom; to emphasize the perspectives of the participants; to examine the languages, actions, values, and tools that configure the activities involved in science education; and to support a consideration of the multiple classroom contexts and establish a connection between macro-level processes and face-to-face interactions.

These historical developments seem complementary, although there are a few important differences. For example, in Mexico, this field in the DIE was originally influenced by various social sciences (psychology, sociology, history, institutional studies, anthropology), while in Brazil, classroom research is more recent and draws more from innovative, didactic frameworks from the field of science education, a field that has been influenced by philosophical developments but above all by educational psychology (with Ausubel, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, and Kelly being some of the most important).

This historical background allows us to contextualize the results of our analysis of the articles we surveyed. But first, although we aim to avoid positivist analysis, we feel it would be helpful to share some quantitative data about the articles we survey in order to offer a general panorama of the current work being done in the field. Of the 150 articles we identified as focusing on classroom research in science education, 45% were from Brazil, and approximately 35% from Mexico. Chile, Argentina, and Colombia contributed the rest of the research, each country with a similar percentage. Interestingly, the majority of the research in Mexico and Argentina focused on basic education, while the research in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia was concentrated in middle and higher levels of education. We can also note that in Mexico, the majority of these studies were published beginning in the 1990s, while in the rest of the region the majority were published starting approximately in 2001 and growing significantly until 2010, above all in the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and the Universidade de Sâo Paulo.

The majority of this qualitative research was published in Brazil and Mexico in journals such as Ciência y Educaçâo, Ensaio Pesquisa em Educaçâo em Ciências, Investigaçôes em Ensino de Ciências em Brasil (in Portuguese, Spanish, and English), and Perfiles Educativos, Revista Mexicana de Investigación Educativa y Educación Química (in Spanish). We also found articles published in Spanish journals such as the Revista Electrónica de Educación en Ciencias and Enseñanza de las Ciencias. Some authors, such as Eduardo Mortimer, Isabel Martins, Marco Antonio Moreira, and Antonia Candela have published in English in international journals such as International Journal of Science Education (United Kingdom), Science Education (United States), Journal of Research in Science Teaching (United States), Anthopology and Educational Quarterly (United States), Linguistics and Education (United States), Journal of Multicultural Discourses (China), and Cultural Studies of Science Education (Canada), among others.

A Tension Between the Analyzed Papers

Within the historical-academic framework of production of the articles analyzed, through comparison, we can see a tension between “emic” and “etic” approaches that determine the trajectory of the field. We interpret this tension through an anthropological framework that distinguishes between the two approaches thusly (Saville-Trioke, 1989):


An etic approach observes processes “from the outside” and is based on previous concepts or categories of study, which is useful when trying to compare similar contexts or evaluate an interaction in terms of certain standards. For example, strategies developed for didactic innovation, from the perspective of researchers, with the goal of improving science education.


In contrast, emic descriptions are those that, like ethnographic descriptions, work to analyze processes “from within,” with descriptive categories and explanations developed through repeated readings of the results in order to interpret interactions in accordance with the logics of the participants and thus try to understand them.

Although this tension is the most significant structuring aspect of these works, it is important to clarify that the studies conducted from an emic perspective are also interested in improving teaching practices, for example, basing their proposals on the best this research uncovers. Likewise, studies that analyze classroom interactions from an etic perspective also attempt to understand the processes that occur in this context. Therefore, rather than being a strict dichotomy, we can consider this tension as complementary, as both perspectives have similar goals while also approaching educational practices differently in terms of how they observe and interpret classroom interactions. We argue that analyzing this tension between understanding and trying to change, without forgetting the established frameworks, allows us to narrativize a history of qualitative research in Latin American science education in the classroom. With this tension in mind, we address two recurring themes in order to develop this history: (a) teaching practice and (b) students’ participation.

Interest in Teaching Practice

A fundamental interest of qualitative studies of teachers is centered on their actions within the classroom in order to communicate lesson content. Regarding this interest, and associated with the tension between etic and emic approaches, another tension emerges. One perspective considers teachers to be the primary actors responsible for what happens in the classroom, and another camp situates teachers’ actions in the context of a series of possibilities and limitations determined by the political, economic, social, and institutional conditions together with the unpredictable daily situations teachers face in their work with students.

We will detail how these tendencies and tensions manifest themselves when we address the two most frequently mentioned themes in the studies we surveyed: (a) teaching practice and (b) the conceptions, beliefs, and knowledge that teaching practices uphold. We offer a general panorama of both themes, and then we offer a deeper analysis comparing the theoretical and methodological orientations of some groups with important work on the subject.

Teaching Practice: Between Etic and Emic Approaches

Different categories are used to distinguish more or less specific components of teaching practice: teaching performance, didactic strategies, teaching strategies, pedagogical practices, educational practices, teaching discourse, teaching mediation, or pedagogical mediation. The use of these categories can indicate a differential emphasis or focus with respect to the theme. For example, the category of “teaching practice” from DIE tradition of ethnographic research (Rockwell & Mercado, 1986) refers to the concrete realization of teaching work in the face of specific institutional demands of schools, within the framework of complex contexts of interaction and the limitations and possibilities of material working conditions. It differs from the category “pedagogical practices,” which is used to refer to specific labor with curricular content, and particularly science education.

From an etic perspective, there are studies that use standards or proposals created outside the classroom to evaluate teaching labor. These standards are legitimized by disciplinary, academic, and/or curricular forces, stemming both from the ways in which the development of science has been perceived, as well as from different psychological approaches to learning. Some proposals are based on project methodologies (Benitez & García, 2013), critical environmental education (Gomes & Riveiro, 2011), the science technologies and society (STS) approach (Do Nascimento & Ribeiro do Amaral, 2011), scientific literacies (Machado & Sasseron, 2012), the proposed sequences of a chemistry textbook (Maria, Lopes, & Tommasiello, 2015), “nontraditional education” (Pasmanik & Cerón, 2005), or educational proposals designed to foster the development of scientific explanations (Gómez, 2006). All these studies analyze the teacher as an executor of prescriptions produced at a different time and space. However, we identify two ways to interpret the results of this kind of study. In some cases, the teachers’ incompetence is assumed in order to implement the proposals, which leads to producing guidelines for teacher training or accompanying proposals to adequately apply the prescribed intervention. In other cases, the results of these implementations are used to improve the proposals, calibrating them to specific classroom contexts.

As an example of the first approach, Benitez and García (2013) show how a teacher presents improvement in his teaching practice by implementing a project methodology, but they argue that the teacher is hindered by his inadequate interpretations of the situation and the suggested educational strategies. Gomes and Riveiro, (2011) also observe and evaluate the obstacles and difficulties of two teachers attempting to implement a proposal for intervention with an STS focus. Another example, Maria et al. (2015), evaluates the performance of a teacher using a chemistry textbook, which provides educational sequences, but the authors admit that this curricular proposal in and of itself is insufficient to transform the teaching practices and the learning performance of the student. They emphasize that it is necessary to accompany teachers to ensure that they adhere to the intervention prescribed. In a similar way, other works (Pasmanik & Cerón, 2005; Machado & Sasseron, 2012) are concerned with generating guidelines that facilitate student improvement and evaluating the extent to which teachers do or do not follow them. These works share an implicit metaphor of the teacher as passive actor, a reproducer of external orientations, and they put the focus of educational improvement on the quality of educational proposals.

Regarding the second orientation from an etic approach, in several studies the researchers recognized that there are other factors, that complicate the implementation of the proposals to improve teaching practice. Do Nascimento and Ribeiro (2011) note that the difficulties of developing educational interventions with an STS focus can be associated not only with educational variables but also with other related factors, for example, with the availability of varied and appropriate teaching materials.

Building on this trend, we identify studies that analyze teaching practice in accordance with curricular proposals, but with an emic focus oriented toward understanding its complexity from the perspective of the participants. In their research on one teacher’s implementation of project methodologies, Blancas and Guerra (2016) noted that the given proposal had certain gaps and limitations, and they documented how the teachers resolved these and other problems that presented themselves throughout the teacher’s pedagogical work. For this study Blancas and Guerra employed the implicit metaphor of teaching practice as active, creative, reworking, and autonomously produced. Avellar (2013) employs the same metaphor to refer to the creative work of one teacher who did not just reproduce the official pedagogical discourse but rather enriched it. Similarly, our articles (Candela, 2006; Naranjo & Candela, 2010) analyze the work of a professor focused on making academic science content more accessible, by taking into account her students’ knowledge in their specific school and community contexts. In this way, we show how a teacher’s interventions transform the textbook content, producing with their students, who also play an active role, processes of co-creation, co-constructing rich and complex meanings about the content. On the other hand, Da Silvera, Caixeta, and Horta (2015) describe and analyze, without evaluating, what the teacher does and how he does it, together with the work demanded of him to mediate textbook content for students, demonstrating how this work contributes to the scientific understanding of his pupils. The work of Quadros and Mortimer (2014) employs the same metaphor in order to account for the teaching strategies of good teachers and document how they are constructed. Their analysis facilitates an initial understanding of how they organize their work, how they navigate between different kinds of discourses, how they support the process of making meaning, and how they employ different strategies to engage their students. Córdova, Melo, Bacigalupo, and Manghi (2016) conducted a study aimed at revealing how a teacher worked to help her students see connections between everyday discourse and scientific discourse involving different levels of abstraction. These studies share the metaphor of the teacher as an active agent and compliment the recovery of the different creative contributions of teachers to the classroom activities. In these works, pedagogical prescriptions are treated as just one more component of teaching practice.

This diversity in approaches to teaching practice in the classroom facilitates different contributions and advances. On one hand, didactic contributions from an etic perspective have deepened the processes of constructing science education, highlighting new factors that should be considered when intervening in classrooms in order to improve teaching practice. On the other hand, studies that work to understand teaching labor have contributed to an understanding of successful practices and a recovery of teachers’ voices in order to conceptualize the complexity of science education in the real and difficult contexts in which teaching practices are developed.

Between Conceptions and Saberes Docentes

Some other metaphors used to compare teaching practices are conceptions, or beliefs that underlie their practice. Studies of science education from different theoretical perspectives have made use of categories such as thinking, theories, representations, teaching beliefs, and ideas, among others, in order to analyze the commonly held conceptions that form the foundations of teaching practice. It seems that the assumption behind this interest is that by identifying these concepts one will be able to intervene and change them, thus improving education. In our survey of the available literature, we encountered an important concern regarding the specific inquiry into the relationship between teachers’ conceptions (particularly epistemological conceptions) and their practice teaching scientific content (Acevedo, Porro, & Adúriz-Bravo, 2013; Massoni & Moreira, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014; Rodríguez & López y Mota, 2006) and also concern regarding how to analyze them in classroom settings of the initial and/or continuous teacher training (Massoni & Moreira, 2007; López y Mota, Rodríguez, & Bonilla, 2004; Peme-Aranega, De Longhi, Moreno, & Ruíz, 2009). These studies work to identify a congruency between teaching practice, comparing the explicit conceptions (or beliefs) detected or evaluated though surveys and/or interviews, with the implicit and inferred conceptions detected by observing what teachers do in the classroom (Fernández, Pérez, Peña, & Mercado, 2011; Fernández, Tuset, Pérez, & Leyva, 2004; Peme-Aranega, De Longhi, Baquero, Mellado, & Ruíz, 2006).

It seems that the aforementioned works build from the assumption that the learning results of students depend on the extent to which their ideas about the nature of science and/or about its teaching do or do not correspond to the ideas of “modern science” which are not positivist. But they also implicitly assume that the concepts or ideas detected through surveys or interviews are what the teachers “have,” without accounting for the ways in which context can impact how concepts are formulated and for a particular occasion. In our survey of the available research we only identified four articles of our own (Candela, 2006, 2013; Naranjo & Candela, 2006; Tarazona & Candela, 2016) that distance themselves from this approach, instead working from the assumption that the construction of ideas is dependent on local, interactive contexts. A category that distinguishes this approach is saberes docentes, which works to study the collection of historical understandings that teachers put into play in order to elaborate their practice and which they reconstruct in accordance with specific contexts. In order to deepen our analysis and comparison of these metaphors and their underlying assumptions, we focus on a few works of Massoni and Moreira as well as a few of our own.

The Epistemological Conceptions of Teachers

Neusa Massoni holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in physics, as well as a doctorate in physics education from the Universidade Federal de Río Grande del Sur. His research interests are concentrated in the philosophy and epistemology of science. Marco Antonio Moreira is a recognized academic and researcher in science education, particularly physics education. He completed his doctorate at the Cornell University under the direction of D. Novak (a former student of Ausubel) who developed the concept of Theory Critical Meaningful Learning (Moreira, 2005), which assumes the permanence of the content that has been learned through a process of “conceptual change.” Massoni, under the direction of Moreira, developed a continuous, interconnected series of five ethnographic case studies addressing the topic in question (Massoni & Moreira, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014).

The first Massoni and Moreira (2007) study investigates ideas about the nature of science within a group of future physics teachers and their transformations during a History and Epistemology of Physics course (taught by Moriera), in which they worked through different contemporary epistemological perspectives (CEP). They found that throughout the course, the ideas of the students were transformed (by different degrees), from an empirical-inductivist perspective to an orientation more closely related to CEP (evaluated before and after testing). Massoni (2010, pp. 150–174) conducted a second study, similar to the first, in which working teachers took a course on CEP as a part of their professional master’s degree. The results were consistent with the first article, although they recognized that the transformation of ideas is slow, as they have been constructed throughout years of education and teaching and are thus more resistant to change.

In their next three studies, Massoni and Moreira observed three teachers teaching physics classes in three different middle schools: private (Massoni & Moreira, 2010), military (Massoni & Moreira, 2011), and public (Massoni & Moreira, 2012). The authors analyzed the relationship between their epistemological perspectives, their teaching practices within the classroom, and their students’ knowledge acquisition. The first and third teacher were, through previous coursework, already familiar with CEP, and for this reason their ideas, assessed by a test, were aligned or partially aligned with CEP. In the case of the teacher at the military school, without courses on CEP, they encountered well-organized, interesting, and effective classes, although within an empiricist-inductivist epistemological approach and a total absence of CEP. In another article, Massoni and Moreira (2014) carried out a cross analysis of these three studies and found that the teaching discourse, reasoning, and strategies of the teachers in the private and public schools were not directly influenced by CEP, although in comparison with the teacher who employed an empiricist-inductivist approach, they demonstrated a greater tendency to innovate and diversify their strategies, in addition to being more open and flexible in the face of change. The researchers argue that the problem for these teachers was that they were not able to manage or operationalize the ideas most aligned with CEP in their classrooms.

Notably, by analyzing their work chronologically, we can see that Massoni and Moreira (2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014) demonstrate a progressive recognition of the influence that other contextual factors than the proposed orientations (CEP) have on teaching. Their adherence to the theoretical-methodological framework of ethnography allowed them to recognize that the unique characteristics of each school (elements specific to institutions, school culture and management, the diversity of students, and teacher preparation, among others) must be considered when analyzing teaching practices. They also recognize that the transformation of teaching practice is neither easy nor simple, even after participating in courses that expose teachers to more current approaches.

The roots of the choice and use of the metaphor, teacher conceptions, in these studies is connected to its cognitive approach related to its adherence with the theoretical framework of Ausubel, the development of the Theory of Critical Meaningful Learning of Moreira (2005) and the systematic use of the Epistemological V of Gowin (1981). The studies of Massoni and Moreira indicate their interest and growing desire to recover the perspective of participants, to consider the cultural, the classroom dynamic, and the context in which classes are realized. However, the theoretical framework that allows them to represent the process of knowledge production with an emphasis on the conceptual and epistemological dimensions makes it difficult to theorize other social factors within the classroom context and their influence on science education.

Saberes Docentes

We use the metaphor of saberes docentes to reference the diversity of knowledge that sustains daily teaching practices in the context of the classroom, and not just those related to specific disciplinary content (Mercado, 2002). This knowledge is not generally formulated, nor systematized, nor described as such (Roth, 2003; Tarazona & Candela, 2016). Rather, it is historical and sociocultural as it passed down from teacher to teacher by way of tradition, only to be selected and reworked through practice. In accordance with Rockwell (2009) the idea of saberes docentes recognizes objectified knowledge, not just through discourse but also within daily teaching practice.

In order to compare the metaphor of saberes docentes with the ideas used by Massoni and Moreira, we return to our own work published in Naranjo (2011, 2015, 2017) and Tarazona and Candela (2016). Naranjo analyzes teaching practice by studying an elementary school teacher carrying out experimental activities in her science classes, therein deepening the analysis of the knowledge that a teacher employs with a group of students, including a blind student (Naranjo & Candela, 2006). This study demonstrated that, by focusing on the learning of all of his students, the teacher employed knowledge primarily developed to helping students with heterogeneous characteristics in order to accomplish a homogeneous advance in their natural science learning, thus resolving the tension between the individual and the group needs. These practices are based on knowledge that is part of the professional heritage of the teaching tradition in Mexico, as well as the teacher’s own experience. However, given the unprecedented situation of teaching a blind student and the teacher’s insistence that his entire class participate in class activities, this knowledge was put to the test, renewed, reworked, and enriched throughout the course of his teaching practice.

Tarazona’s work analyzes how two teachers employ their previous knowledge and the knowledge they acquired through a professional master’s program, both in order to work together to create a proposal for science education and to implement that proposal with their high school students in their classrooms. She shows that even while working from the same proposal they had developed together, the professors construct different practices, due to their different implicit practical knowledge or saberes of how to teach in specific working conditions (Tarazona & Candela, 2016).

Our conceptualization of teaching practice, typical of the DIE tradition, considers, among other things, the characteristics of the social space in which it takes place, which functions not only according to pedagogical logics at interactional conditions but also through administrative and working logics. In school, there are multiple external influences that merge with internal dynamics, connecting to different personal, social, cultural, political, professional, and working processes. For teachers, this means that they carry out their work in complex working conditions, which impose certain limits but also make room for certain possibilities to intervene in the classroom. For example, in the case of the teacher with the blind student in a regular classroom, the teacher confronted the situation without specific training or experience with teaching special needs students, with limited teaching resources and materials, and with little specialized support (Naranjo & Candela, 2006; Naranjo, 2017). We also recognize that teachers act within a margin of relative autonomy (Moore, 1990), as it is teachers who select teaching resources, lend continuity to consolidated practices and produce new forms of work (Candela, 1997, 2006). For this reason, the professional and personal trajectories of teachers are fundamental when they confront unexpected situations within their everyday practice.

Drawing from this, the metaphor characterizes teachers as agents, as producers, and as builders of appropriate knowledge and practices for specific contexts and calibrated to the needs of their students, not just conduits for didactic proposals generally focused on only one dimension of the complexity of the classroom (the teaching content). Second, this metaphor works to understand how they teach science in unpredictable and complex classroom situations, beyond their ideas about science and science education. This research evaluates teaching practice in its institutional, cultural, and socioeconomic contexts.

By comparing the works based on these two metaphors, we conclude that they are complementary, although the metaphor is ultimately more inclusive and facilitates a better understanding of the complexities of teaching practice.

Students’ Participation

As previously mentioned, there are relatively few studies that focus on the role of students in science classes, which could indicate that students are often considered to be passive receptors of teachers’ actions. However, the limited impact of educational proposals for science education on “real” teaching practice has generated a growing concern and interest in studying, among other factors, students’ contributions to classroom interaction. In this section, we present an interpretation of the development of the field comparing works that employ the metaphor of students as passive subjects, receptors, or reproducers, more or less competent, of the educational proposals/guidelines put into practice by teachers, with another metaphor that treats students as active subjects, producers, or co-authors, who participate in and contribute to the construction of the lessons, content through their own logics and ideas. At all times, we work to avoid polarizing characterizations that obscure the complexity of the research processes and their subsequent interpretations.

Students as Reproducers

Regarding the few works that employ the metaphor of students as receptors or reproducers of didactic recommendations, we found that they used categories such as concepts, meaning constructions, communicative repertoires, and internalizations to refer to what was being “received” or “reproduced.” An example of this from Brazil are the articles by Laburú, Moura, and Freitas (2015) and Grimes and Schroeder (2015), which adopt a Vygotskian perspective to study the “internalization,” or lack thereof, by college students of the scientific concepts being communicated by their teachers. The first study was grounded in an analysis of semiotic resources such as gestures and the second in an analysis of the discursive interventions after an activity intended to change their previous conceptions about evolution. Other treatments of students as reproducers of what they are taught were also carried out in Brazil, by Briccia and Pessoa (2011) and by Santos Lombardi, Correa, and Peters (2016). The first work shows the construction of a student body with epistemological and antidogmatic elements regarding science after reading a history book in a middle school education class, and the second documents the expansion of the communicative repertoires of students when dealing with scientific topics in English classes.

In these approaches to classroom interaction, even with current theoretical and methodological frameworks from sociocultural psychology, the more or less efficient metaphor of students as reproducers of teaching proposals prevails.

Students as Active Participants

Our analysis of qualitative research using the metaphor of students as active subjects, which contribute to educational practice in science lessons, focuses on three groups: two in Brazil, one led by Eduardo Mortimer, and the other by Danusa Munford, together with our research in Mexico.

Candela’s (1999) work takes on an analysis of discursive interaction in the social context of the classroom, which facilitates the understanding of how knowledge (situated teaching and learning) is co-constructed, as well as how teachers and students contribute to the production of educational practices and social relationships in this context (Lave, 2011).

The ethnographic works of Candela (1990, 1997), pioneering research into science education in the classroom, address the active participation of students, describing them as “knowers” and producers of school knowledge, who bring their cultural and everyday understandings about the curricular content, even in public elementary schools in marginalized areas, to the social interaction within the classroom. They show that, in general, they are also discursively constructed by teachers as knowers and that their active participation on occasion can influence the approach of their teachers, even when teachers are following the textbook guidelines (Candela, 1997). In different works, Candela (1990) analyzes the forms of student reasoning and of argumentation regarding course content (Candela, 1991) but, at the same time, their tendency to look for consensus (Candela, 1995). She documents, empirically, the participation of boys and girls as co-authors of institutional practices, collaborating in the development of educational tasks in elementary schools (Candela, 2005) and co-constructing school science. The ethnographic and discursive (Edwards & Potter, 1992) approach allows her to also study the construction of local power within the classroom (Candela, 1998) and to show that students not only respond to the demands of teachers but also evaluate their classmates and the teachers themselves, questioning the content and responding with silence or with attitudes contrary to those requested by the teachers, depending on the meaning that the topics and activities in science classes hold for them.

In her most recent work, based on the theoretical frameworks developed by Nespor (1994), Candela (2010) studies the relative autonomy of university students studying physics who create their own academic and social itineraries in order to participate in the professional networks of physics as a discipline. With this same theoretical perspective, María de la Riva carries out a multigrade-level research project, a rarity within the literature, in which she analyzes the perspectives of Mexican students moving from elementary school (6 to 12 years old) to high School (13 to 15 years), where they will encounter different academic, spatial, temporal, and cultural rules and organizations (de la Riva & Candela, 2010). Naranjo (2015) has developed an original ethnography analyzing several modes of communication (actions, gestures, glances, discourse) in the classroom. She documents, among other things, the construction of diverse student identities as well as how they participate in guarding, sanctioning, and/or supporting their peers in order to complete classroom tasks and as co-authors of classroom norms. These works study the social construction of knowledge in classroom contexts through the metaphor of students as active subjects, but they pay less attention to the characteristics of constructed scientific knowledge in the classroom.

Eduardo Mortimer is one of the Latin American researchers with the most experience and presence in chemistry education at the international level, and he has important publications with international researchers such as Rosalind Driver, Andrée Tiberghian, María del Pilar Jiménez-Aleixandre, and above all with Phil Scott. In this article, we are only analyzing the articles from his group that focus on the participation of students in the classroom, although there are fewer of those than there are of his many works focused on teachers. These articles, above all on middle school chemistry education (12 to 15 years old; Cardoso, Mortimer, & Kelly, 2011), are grounded in the theoretical-methodological frameworks of the works of Chin and Brown (2002), Candela, (1999), Mercer (1995), Lemke (1990), and Kress, Jewitt, Ogborn, and Tsatsarelis (2001), among others. In some of these works, the researchers engage in an analysis of argumentation, sometimes studying argumentative patterns of students defined in accordance with the philosophy of Toulmin (1958; Tavares, Jiménez-Aleixandre & Mortimer, 2010) and other times analyzing the spontaneous questions that students ask, interrogating these patterns with the argument that they do not account for the rhetorical roles of the participants themselves (Aguiar, Mortimer, & Scott, 2009). Within this group of articles, some also suggest that the procedures students develop depend on what science concepts within the interactive contexts mean to them. We should note that these works with a sociocultural focus and with a strong influence from the works of Vygotsky and Bakhtin adopt an intermediate position between the ethnography that seeks to analyze the perspectives of educational actors and that of the scientists interested in orienting science education in a specific direction (as proposed by Toulmin’s patterns of argumentation, or the interactive dialogical interventions). This perspective adopts the metaphor of students as active subjects and represents an important contribution in the field establishing a bridge between everyday educational practice and the most recent didactic orientations for science education.

Recently, Danusa Munford has led an interesting research project studying the argumentation of youths and adults in Brazil from an ethnographic perspective with an analysis informed by pragma-dialectical theory (Van Emeren, Grootendorst, & Henkemans, 1996). By studying the participation of students within situations explicitly designed to generate debate, they found that students joined their teachers in discursive, argumentative practices constructing complex scientific concepts and practices. However, these discursive, argumentative practices were not necessarily circumscribed by a “model” of scientific argumentation or based on evidence. Additionally, Munford and Souto (2015) developed explanations about these results considering social aspects and cultural characteristics of this population as well as its Brazilian context. In another study, researchers explore how different attitudes (including fantasy) toward science emerged within a class of first graders. They emphasize that these ideas highlight the social dimensions of scientific knowledge and the importance of recognizing and evaluating the culture and previous knowledge of students (Munford et al., 2014).

The work of Coutinho, Goulart, and Pereira (2017), in Brazil, is also relevant for its ethnographic orientation in the process of studying the participation of children in early education contexts, observing and exploring their environment. These researchers, who have also worked with Danusa Monford, return to the work of Roth, Goulart, and Plakitsi (2013) in order to study the participation of children. They understand science learning as a phenomenon of enculturation, by which students appropriate the meanings and language of the teacher but are also considered to be able participants in the collective construction within an environment of collaboration through their own logic and culture. This work draws from innovative frameworks, such as the actor-network theory of Latour (2005), in its analysis of educational activities in which the sociomaterial networks that hybridize human and nonhuman actors facilitate an analysis of the constant negotiation that generates knowledge in a classroom context.

Within the work of these three groups there are different ways of obtaining and reconstructing data. In the works of Candela (1990, 1991, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2006, 2010, 2013) and the Munford’ groups (Munford, Nogueira, & Coutinho, 2014; Munford & Souto, 2015; Coutinho, Goulart, & Pereira, 2017), the analysis is grounded in what the data “says,” highlighting the complexity of teaching practice and the richness of the student participations according to their own logic. Some of the works of Mortimer, as in others of Ana María Pessoa (Sasseron & Pessoa, 2011), show a tendency to obtain data and analyze it according to predefined categories, with prescriptive traits aimed at evaluating “good” teaching. Taken together, these studies, with Anglo-Saxon influences but also with characteristics derived from the sociopolitical contexts of Brazil and Mexico, reveal how students contribute to the construction of science education, therein challenging myths that characterize them as simple followers of the “trail” left by their teachers.

Although several of the works we have surveyed tend to characterize students’ participation according to models derived from scientific works (Toulmin, for example), from an “etic” perspective, they also demonstrate a growing awareness of the importance of going beyond the experimental didactics proposals in order to qualitatively study the impact of educational proposals in real classroom contexts. They appear to increase the consensus regarding the richness of student participation and on the importance of understanding what the education process means to students and acknowledging the alternative ideas, argumentations, and reasoning they express within situated discursive interactions.


The literature review of studies on science classroom research we present here highlights the diversity of contributions from research in this field, as well as the relationship between theoretical perspectives and regional methodological traditions, in order to better understand shared issues.

Our specific interest focused on ethnography as a qualitative approach with a growing presence in classroom research. That said, within the studies surveyed here, several different ways of conceiving ethnography stand out. Some refer to themselves as ethnographic simply for including observations from within the classroom or for using certain “ethnographic techniques,” while others take on ethnography as a complex theoretical-methodological framework that implies an ideological, political, and sociocultural approach. We also encountered different ways of using ethnography: (a) studies that analyze isolated interventions aimed at improving teaching (such as De Longhi, 2000), (b) studies that employed previous categories to analyze classroom interaction (such as Massoni & Moreira, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014), (c) studies that tended to classify data and/or construct models in order to interpret classroom interactions (such as Tavares, Jiménez-Aleixandre, & Mortimer, 2010), and (d) studies that arrived at categories by analyzing interactions in order to describe the perspective of the participants in their respective contexts (such as the DIE studies).

These differences in the ways of conceiving of and employing ethnography appear to be related to the academic trajectories of the researchers, as indicated by their theoretical, ideological, and methodological approaches, as well as their academic relationships and specific interests. For example, throughout our survey a clear tension stands out between the etic and emic approaches, each one related to the theoretical-methodological allegiances of their researchers, which, however, were modified somewhat through their findings.

We recognize the significant contributions of the etic didactic perspectives, initially based on individualist theories and methodologies of psychology (influenced by Piaget) but that were reworked to include insights from social psychologies (influenced by Vygotsky) which were better calibrated to account for the complexity and heterogeneity of classrooms. On the other hand, applying didactic orientation in the classroom can also demonstrate their limitations and the need to account for other social factors, although in some cases the researchers orient their conclusions to teachers’ incompetence.

Although the etic perspective still enjoys a strong presence in many of the works we surveyed, above all in those with a didactic orientation, we identified a growing tendency to incorporate an emic perspective, geared toward trying to adopt the perspective of the participants interpreting them as dynamic actors within the classroom, considering their specific trajectories and sociocultural contexts in order to interpret their behaviors. We also noticed a growing tendency to conceive of science education in the classroom as a complex sociocultural, human, historical, provisional construction, open to alternative theories and there in transcending empiricist-inductivist frameworks.

Regarding ethnography, we can say that its growing incorporation into classroom research, even with its pretended arrogance (Sánchez & Noblit, 2017), works to get closer to the voice of the main educational actors (teachers and students) in order to understand their problems, the logic of the processes they engage in on a daily basis, and to “document the undocumented” aspects of their work (Rockwell, 2009), all in an effort to broaden our understanding of the complex construction of scientific knowledge in the classroom (Candela, Rockwell, & Coll, 2004).

We argue that it is necessary to acknowledge that science education in everyday contexts is a process that we do not know or understand in all its complexity and that ethnography is a theoretical-methodological option with important potential to approximate this complexity. On the other hand, we also believe that interdisciplinary collaboration (diverse natural sciences, psychology, anthropology, sociology, sociolinguistics) and dialogue among diverse theoretical approaches and from different perspectives will, without disqualifying or imposing anyone, allow a better understanding of the field.

Future Research Agenda

While much of the work within this field is working to refine the conceptual tools used to study in depth nuanced characteristics of social interactions, it is necessary that we continue to expand our inquiry into the complex and heterogeneous contexts of Latin American classrooms. Nespor’s (1994) work makes room for interesting perspectives by suggesting a way to bridge macro-contexts with micro-contexts. He argues that classroom walls are porous and allow for a confluence of temporally and spatially distinct processes (e.g., knowledge of communities far and near, of different socioeconomic and cultural and political conditions) that are incorporated into the classroom by human participants (teachers, students, and authorities) and nonhuman actors (texts, theoretical and material tools). On the other hand, if we compare classrooms as isolated cases, it is possible that we will find few similarities between them. But if we consider them as nodes within a regional network, we will be able to identify their common flows and influences. For this reason, we argue that it will be important to create professional networks focused on concrete themes, with an increasingly interdisciplinary perspective and a wider range of conceptual and methodological tools (Candela et al., 2004).

Other growing topics that should be developed more thoroughly in the future are, for example, the multimodality of communication processes within the classroom (Kress et al., 2001; Naranjo, 2015). It is also important to develop studies on scientific education from an intercultural perspective, particularly considering the debt we have with the 50 million indigenous people in our region in taking into account their cultural perspectives and contributions to knowledge. In this sense, Mortimer’s (1995) work, which documents the coexistence of daily, cultural, and scientific ideas, challenges the empiricist perspective in the possibility of neutral, unique interpretations of natural phenomena and makes room for dialogues among different alternative explanations. The research that compares teachers’ explicit and implicit understandings is popular at present, but these comparisons do not account for the fact that these versions of knowledge are socially constructed in context (Lave, 2011) and that different ideas can coexist in the same person regardless of their mutual contradictions (Mortimer, 1995).

Finally, we acknowledge that our narrative interpretation is one of many potential interpretations and is biased by our own academic histories. However, even though it is subjective, we try to be coherent with the ethnography, rigorously summarizing the perspectives and contributions of other researchers. We want to conclude this article by recognizing the important contributions of teachers’ work and acknowledging the creative collaborations of students that transcend simplistic and deficient perspectives that do not take into account the difficulties of teaching and learning under everyday working conditions.


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  • 1. There are concepts such as “saberes docentes” that do not have a proper translation into English. That is why, as in Anderson-Levitt and Rockwell (2017), we decided to maintain it in Spanish. Saberes docentes are related to different dimensions of knowledge the teachers construct through their practice while teaching.