Motivation as a Tool for Equity in Science Instruction
All students deserve science instruction that helps them to make sense of the world around them and to be scientifically literate, regardless of their aspirations, intended career paths, or backgrounds. Classroom educators play a critical role in providing equitable science education and supporting the motivation of all students in science. This section of the M-PLANS Toolkit is intended to introduce teachers to the ways in which enacting the motivation design principles (MDPs) can support equitable science instruction. Reciprocally, developing a stronger understanding of equitable science instruction can help teachers more fully enact the MDPs.
These reciprocal and mutually reinforcing processes of supporting motivation and equity promote student learning in equitable science classrooms.
We define an equitable science classroom as one where teachers:1
- Respect and embrace students’ identities, helping all students feel like valued members of a science learning community
- Position students as knowledge holders and help students draw on their backgrounds and experiences to identify with and engage with science
- Provide all students with opportunities to participate actively in high quality science instruction with high expectations for student learning
- Adapt instruction so that all students can and do learn
- Actively interrupt patterns of inequity in students’ learning experiences
At its core, promoting equity requires an understanding that unequal power structures in society and schools contribute to unequal academic outcomes for students who have been marginalized due to certain identity characteristics, such as race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Combating these inequities creates a more just society. Equitable instruction also requires an asset-based view of students and their families and the recognition that diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge enhance learning. An equitable science classroom therefore seeks not only to mitigate the effects of injustice on students, but also to empower students to use science in ways that reflect their home cultures and are personally meaningful to them, such as solving problems that matter to them and their communities.
Achieving an equitable science education requires work that extends beyond the walls of any individual classroom. However, the M-PLANS project is rooted in the belief that understanding and engaging in the reciprocal relationship between motivational strategies and equitable science instruction can be an important tool for teachers in furthering the goal of equity. The following sections provide additional information about this reciprocal relationship and orient readers to how to use other sections of the M-PLANS Toolkit to promote more equitable science classrooms.
In their 2024 Strategic Vision and Direction for Science, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) identifies scientific identity as a new key dimension to the desired science outcomes for young people, arguing that “identity outcomes are integrally tied to social justice and are key considerations when working towards more equitable science cultures and practices.”2 Helping students to develop a scientific identity, however, requires understanding the ways in which systemic inequities in society, science, and science education can influence student identity and, in turn, impact their motivation in science class.
Student identity is complex and includes more than membership in particular social groups such as race, ethnicity, or gender. Identity is also influenced by broader forces, such as sociopolitical history and community norms derived from experience. The table below outlines the components of our definition of identity.
|Identity is...||Identity is influenced by...|
There is a history of cultural exclusion, racism, and sexism within the discipline of science that influences student identity and may make it more challenging for some students to identify with science. Science as a process and the development of scientific knowledge are typically presented as the work of a handful of key scientific figures, mostly White and male. Moreover, key historical scientific and medical discoveries have stemmed from the exploitation of disenfranchised and marginalized communities, fueling mistrust of science and scientists within these communities. For example, the 40-year Tuskegee syphilis study, in which doctors intentionally gave Black men placebo treatments for their disease, remains well-known in many Black American communities and feeds skepticism of the medical establishment.3 Left unaddressed, this mistrust can contribute to an aversion for science and science-related careers and, therefore, decreased motivation in science classes for students who identify with these communities, reinforcing a cycle of underrepresentation of certain groups in science and science education.
At the same time, unequal access to high-quality science instruction also contributes to ongoing inequities and underrepresentation in the field of science. Because of systemic inequities and opportunity gaps in education, certain students may be less likely to have had sustained learning experiences in high-quality science classrooms. The National Resource Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education specifically identifies economically disadvantaged students, students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners, girls, and students in alternative education as groups that need to be expressly considered in equitable science instruction.4
Cumulatively, these systemic inequities can contribute to students feeling like science is disconnected from their identities and from issues that matter to them and their communities. They may feel that science is not for “people like me” or is not relevant to solving the problems that they care about. This disconnect can be seen in the Draw a Scientist Test (DAST), which has asked students of varying ages and backgrounds since the 1980s to do just that: draw their mental image of a scientist. The results of DAST show that, despite some changes in the drawings over time, most students still associate being a scientist with Whiteness, maleness, lab coats, and traditional lab environments.5 These qualities do not align with or appeal to all students’ identities. The corresponding feelings of exclusion or lack of identification with science presents unique challenges for teachers striving to motivate all students in science class.
The M-PLANS project aims to support science teachers in building a repertoire of asset-based, equitable teaching strategies to fulfill a vision of “science for all.” In particular, strategies aligned with the Belonging and Relevance MDPs address the importance of helping students identify with science, feel like they are part of a community of science learners, and relate their science learning to their lives and experiences outside the classroom. The table below depicts the alignment between Belonging and Relevance strategies and motivational challenges that may be present for students in science class due to inequities in science learning. The accompanying motivational approaches are important for all students, but can be particularly vital for members of underrepresented and under-served populations in order to combat the disconnect that some students may experience in science class.
|Student motivation challenge due to inequity in science learning||Motivation Design Principle (MDP)||MDP-aligned instructional strategy||Target motivation and equity outcome|
|Feeling a lack of identification with science||Belonging||Build a positive classroom community and engage all students in the process of doing science||Students view themselves as part of a larger community of science learners and feel that their home culture has a place in science class.|
|Seeing science as disconnected from their personal identities, out-of-school communities, or daily lives||Relevance||Explicitly connect science content to students’ individual identities and experiences, or provide opportunities for students to make the connections themselves||Students recognize that science can help them answer questions about real-world phenomena that are important or interesting to them and their communities.|
Many recent developments in science curriculum have sought to strengthen relevance connections for students, but teachers cannot rely on curriculum alone to promote students’ identification with science. Teachers know their particular students, whereas curriculum designers do not. Science educators who enact motivationally supportive and equitable instruction will value the diversity in their students’ complex identities and draw on students’ identities as an asset in science instruction. Teachers can use their intimate knowledge of students to help students make connections between science content and personal identity. The Belonging and Relevance sections of this toolkit include specific reflective questions, activity suggestions, and talk moves that can help teachers engage in this work.
The remaining three MDPs can also help teachers address challenges with student motivation in science class that may stem from prior instruction and historical/systemic inequities that particularly affect underrepresented groups. For example:
|Student motivation challenge due to inequity in science learning||Motivation Design Principle (MDP)||MDP-aligned instructional strategy||Target motivation and equity outcome|
|Lacking confidence in science due to disconnection with the discipline of science and/or low-quality prior instruction||Confidence||Provide scaffolding and learning strategies to help students feel that they can be successful||Students who are more confident in their ability to succeed in science are more likely to persist through difficulty and to opt into further science learning opportunities, increasing representation of diverse identity groups in science classes, majors, and careers.|
|Overly focused on “right” answers because of prior instruction OR preoccupied with not failing out of a fear of confirming negative stereotypes about science ability (stereotype threat)||Learning Orientation||Normalize mistakes and failure as part of doing science and part of the overall learning process||Students who are especially susceptible to stereotype threat and low academic expectations experience greater academic well-being and success when they perceive their classrooms as supporting learning and collaboration over competition.|
|Passively engaged due to not previously being trusted to regulate themselves in a science classroom or direct their own learning||Autonomy||Treat students as autonomous individuals who can make appropriate choices and whose ideas are worthy of pursuing||Autonomy promotes intrinsic motivation and academic initiative by helping students feel like they can control and shape their own learning experiences in science.|
Using the MDPs to support student motivation in science class can help provide all students with equitable, high-quality science instruction. In turn, science classrooms and science learning benefit when support for motivation helps to solicit and validate the diverse perspectives, experience, and knowledge that students bring to the classroom.
While motivationally supportive instruction can promote more equitable science classrooms, understanding issues related to equity in science and science education is also important for effectively enacting motivationally supportive instruction. Promoting students’ identification with science requires understanding the forces that may contribute to students’ dis-identification with science, including the broader sociopolitical context and systemic inequities discussed previously. It is also important for teachers to reflect on the ways in which their own identities and experiences in science have been influenced by larger systems, shaping their perspectives in ways that may differ from their students’. Questions for teachers to consider might include:
- What identities do my students already embrace and how can I assist them in embracing a science identity?
- As I design for motivation, how can I use my strategies to validate students’ interests, perspectives, and cultures?
- How does my identity as a teacher impact the way I present content to students?
- What implicit biases or assumptions may I bring to the classroom and how do they impact my instructional decisions and my students?
- What biases might my students have already experienced in prior instruction that I may have to proactively counter?
This critical awareness is essential for teachers to develop a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of students’ identities and their relationship to science, and to reframe science instruction that potentially excludes or alienates certain students. For example, a teacher’s attempts to enact the Relevance MDP may not fully resonate with students without such critical reflection and anticipation of how a diverse classroom of students may react. Consider the sample classroom discourse below that might occur in a lesson focused on NGSS performance expectation MS-PS-2: Motion and Stability, and a proposed reframing of that discourse that demonstrates a more equitable enactment of the MDPs.
|Original teacher relevance connection|
|“Let’s consider the force between a baseball bat and a ball to begin our discussion of forces and collisions.”|
|Potential equity concerns|
|The statement assumes that all students are aware of and/or interested in baseball. However, baseball does not have much presence in certain countries and communities. Conversely, some students may wonder if the teacher’s choice of example is drawing on stereotypes about their communities. The example may also be more relatable to boys than girls, which could communicate implicit messages about who is being invited into the lesson and who belongs in science.|
|Potential reframing sequence||Equity perspective informing new approach to MDPs|
|1. “Today we’re going to talk about forces and collisions. Can someone explain in their own words what a collision is?”||Not all students may understand some of the science vocabulary. Ensuring that all students understand a key term and allowing students to define the term in their own words supports confidence.|
|2. “Does anyone want to add on to that?...Great! And what are some synonyms or words you know that are similar to ‘collision’?”||Inviting multiple voices supports a sense of belonging. If there are multilingual speakers in the class, the teacher might also invite synonyms in students’ home languages to further promote belonging and a validation of students’ knowledge.|
|3. “Where have you seen or heard about collisions in your own lives?”||The teacher invites students to make their own personal connections to the concept, ensuring relevance.|
|4. “These are all great examples. I brought some marbles to class that we can use to create some collisions, and then we’ll see if we want to add anything to our list.”||Teacher has prepared an activity using gender-neutral objects that all students can experience in the classroom. Students who may have lacked confidence or been unable to make relevance connections before now have an opportunity to contribute.|
This example is not meant to be prescriptive; it illustrates some potential interpretations of equity concerns and a proposed new sequence of teacher prompts. The sample equity concerns outlined above may not apply to the same or similar prompt in every classroom situation. Returning to the idea of motivational strategies supporting equitable instruction, teachers can use Belonging and Relevance strategies to learn about students and students’ communities throughout the year, giving them crucial information to make appropriate decisions about what examples might work well in class and what kinds of reframing may be necessary.
We have focused here on the reciprocal relationship between motivation and equity supports that relate to the five MDPs, especially Belonging and Relevance. It is beyond the scope of the M-PLANS project to provide more comprehensive training about educational equity. However, multiple frameworks, teaching toolkits, and resources exist to help teachers learn more about promoting equity in education broadly, as well as in science education specifically. For example:
- Culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) is a set of pedagogical practices that can help teachers become more intentional in drawing upon students’ assets and situating scientific knowledge in students’ cultures and identities. CRP posits that effective teaching is considerate of the broader macro-level social, historical, and political contexts in which teaching and learning take place.
- Culturally sustaining pedagogy builds on CRP by actively using instruction to promote and sustain the cultural practices and knowledge of diverse students and communities, giving these practices equal status to the “dominant” ways of knowing.
- Anti-racist teaching is an approach that actively seeks to disrupt and dismantle inequitable systems, such as those that have contributed to the underrepresentation of certain groups in science and science education.
M-PLANS does not claim to represent these perspectives specifically, though some strategies in this toolkit are drawn from or inspired by these frameworks, and we link those strategies to external resources where teachers can learn more. We encourage teachers to seek out these resources and guidance from experts who focus on equity and social justice. Like many areas of science, the motivation research that M-PLANS draws on reflects the perspectives of scholars and research participants who are predominantly White and middle-class.6 The field is working to be more inclusive and critical, in part by consulting equity perspectives from other fields of scholarship, and we encourage readers to do the same. We conclude by proposing some next steps and resources for teachers who are interested in deepening their understanding of equity and equitable practices.
- 1(2018). Reframing Inclusive Science Instruction to Support Teachers in Promoting Equitable Three-Dimensional Science Classrooms. Journal Of Science Teacher Education, 29, 693-711. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/1046560X.2018.1500418.
- 2(2020). PISA 2024 Strategic vision and direction for science: A vision for what young people should know about science and be able to do with science in the future. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA-2024-Science-Strategic-Visi…
- 3(2020). Amid history of mistreatment, doctors struggle to sell Black Americans on coronavirus vaccine. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/black-vaccine-trust/….
- 4(2012). A Framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13165/a-framework-for-k-12-science-educatio….