Dominant discourses in engineering education

A team of educators, including researchers from the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, examine how dominant discourses might manifest in K-12 engineering education.
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A paper by Tufts researchers and colleagues from Vanderbilt University and University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension, recently published in the Journal of Engineering Education, sheds light on the interactions between dominant discourses and engineering educational concepts. 

Led by Vanderbilt doctoral student Natalie DeLucca, the research examined how teachers in K-12 classrooms incorporate language that legitimizes socially and culturally constructed values and beliefs, which might marginalize certain students. Two dominant discourses examined were (1) the discourse of ability hierarchy, reflecting values of sorting and ranking students based on perceived academic abilities, and (2) the discourse of individual blame, framing educational problems as solely the responsibility of individual students or families. 

The team – which included Merredith Portsmore, director of and research associate professor at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (Tufts CEEO) – interviewed 15 teachers from Tufts University’s Teacher Engineering Education Program and analyzed how teachers drew on discourses of ability hierarchy and blame when reasoning about problems of practice in engineering. 

The results showed that teachers both reinforce and disrupt dominant discourses. This dual role involved echoing specific language and preserving given roles, as well as utilizing different language or roles that implicitly challenged prevailing discourses. Notably, teachers displayed the ability to retool discourses of ability hierarchy, advocating for a more equitable distribution of resources while acknowledging the challenge of simultaneously preserving values of ranking and sorting students.

The researchers’ work promises to reshape conversations about the challenges faced by K-12 teachers incorporating engineering teaching and learning into their classrooms. The study underscores the critical importance of considering these dominant discourses when introducing new courses to the school system, recognizing that thoughtful integration requires an awareness of the existing educational narratives that may perpetuate inequalities. This insight is pivotal for educators and policymakers seeking to create inclusive and equitable learning environments for all students.

Read the full paper, “Examining Interactions between Dominant Discourses and Engineering Educational Concepts in Teachers’ Pedagogical Reasoning,” in the Journal of Engineering Education. Learn more about Merredith Portsmore and the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.

Research reported in this article was supported by the National Science Foundation under award number DRL-1720334. The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Science Foundation.