a colourful choise

handbook for international teaching materials

Auteurs: Ineke Mok & Peter Reinsch
©Parel, Utrecht 1999

Chapter 5

The Applied Sciences

By Fred Mulder


This chapter is devoted to those subjects that are ostensibly less subjected to a particular cultural coloration, the scientific subjects: mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and technology. Science education is becoming increasingly pragmatic. Many textbooks contain situations from everyday experience. In education, the applied sciences are approached through reality. Lesson-material and assignments refer to real situations and connect directly with the pupils' experiental world. The opportunities for implementing an intercultural complementation of the material lies in this connection with the everyday life. Fred Mulder comments on examples from lesson material and makes suggestions for dealing with sciences in the classroom.

In a nutshell

Imagine that someone does not know that The Netherlands is a multi-cultural society. Give him or her a school textbook covering a scientific subject with the request that s/he should glance through it from beginning to end. Would our unsuspecting, browsing reader say: "What a diversity of ethnicity there is in that country!"

It is hardly likely. And not due to an absence of people in school textbooks, but because virtually all of these people are of indigenous origins. When a person from an ethnic background appears, s/he is mostly only a name. An example can be found in 'Numbers and Space', a textbook used in secondary education, in which the six participants in a race are called Hans, Jan, Mary, Dinesh, Dolores and Jasper. In the same book the following sentence appears: "Achmed's train arrives at 10.47". In quite a few books this is the only type of reference to the multicultural composition of Dutch society. And, if the reader is acquainted further with people from ethnic minorities, the context is usually problematical.



From:·S. Selander, Sweden

Source:·Gotborn, L. et al. (1994) Naturkunskap B. Stockholm: Natur Och kultur, (Engl. Nature Study), Upper secondary school.

This concern is shared by our colleague from Sweden, Staffan Selander. In response to our request for collaboration on this book, he has compared a number of recent science books. In his conclusion he proposes that physics is less directly concerned with people than other sciences. Therefore, migrants appear seldom. Nonetheless, when they do appear, they are associated with problems remarkably frequently.

In this context, he mentions a book in which migrants or people from other countries are only depicted pejoratively in a photograph and its caption. In Atomic Fission women from Chernobyl are depicted with the caption: "Women leave their homes after the Chernobyl catastrophe." An example of the negative aspects of atomic plants. A photograph in the chapter on Food and Health has the caption: "The child's swollen abdomen is a sign of malnutrition." And on the subject of Diabetes: "For a diabetic it is important to control blood-sugar levels." The accompanying photograph is of a black girl.

In a book in which people from all points of the globe with a diversity of physical characteristics appear, this photograph would possibly indicate that all children can develop chronic illness, and the colour of her skin would not seem significant.

This conclusion shows clearly that it is often difficult to determine exactly why a certain book is interculturally inadequate. Sometimes the problems lie in the overall perspective underlying the text.

While it appears that science is not directly concerned with people, this chapter makes it clear that prejudicial perspectives are just as frequent as elsewhere.



The development of multi-cultural education has, broadly speaking, passed the sciences by. But they are being given a second chance. Education in the sciences is facing up to reality and contains an increasing number of contexts and situations that are gleaned from the scope of the pupils' probable experience. This realism opens some channels for renewed attempts to introduce an intercultural approach. In biology, physics, chemistry technology and mathematics, such an approach is inspired by the realisation that these disciplines have been developed throughout the world and that non-western cultures have made a considerable contribution.

That, in a nutshell, is the vision that has stood as a basis for this chapter. Within this vision it is crucial to differentiate between three levels of approach: the classroom, Dutch society and the globe.

Biology, physics, chemistry, technology and mathematics will not be dealt with separately. Examples, they will be drawn from each of the subjects. Most of the examples are passages from school textbooks: segments of text, illustrations, combinations of both. Scrutinising scientific textbooks through intercultural spectacles is not a cheering experience. Examples of the wrong approach abound. These examples have been supplemented with comments and suggestions for class work.

5.1·deals with the way science textbooks view non-western societies. This chapter is divided into three sections.

5.2·moves on to the level of the multi-cultural society in The Netherlands. How can one glean from science textbooks that the The Netherlands is a multi-cultural society? A few of these examples indicate how the sciences can be taught to a multi-cultural class.

5.3·addresses itself to contributions made to the development of the mathematics from non-western parts of the world. The suggestions can be quite rightly said to apply to biology, physics, chemistry and technology as well. This entails paying attention to the history of the subject in the broadest sense, including non-European and non-western contributions.

Virtually all examples underscore the conclusion that school textbooks are inadequate when read through a pair of intercultural spectacles. Regularly, teachers will be obliged to correct inadequacies or outright blunders. At best, the book can offer a mere point of departure and one can try to exploit that to the full. This may seem somewhat bleak, but hats should be doffed to those teachers who see opportunities to put both points into practice. At the same time, there are teachers who say: "I would like to put the book aside from time to time. Is there no alternative material I can use to complement a lesson or series of lessons?"


5.1 The Image of the Non-Western Society


This fragment is from a maths book and constitutes the beginning of a chapter about measuring length.

Close to the coast of Africa lies an island that once had the name Rimboea. The people who lived there had certain customs they did not want to give up.
It is well known, for example, that the Rimboeans used a palm leaf as a measurement stick. If you asked how far away the next tribe lived, they answered in 'thrown sticks'. If they had to measure the thickness of something they used the Rimboean for 'clods of earth'. (1)


1.1·What things did the Rimboeans use to make measurements? Do we still use them ourselves?

This book was still in use in the eighties. It is worth scrutinising in some detail. To start with there is a small matter that could easily be missed: 'Close to the coast of Africa'. Now where exactly would that be? The coast of Africa is tens of thousands of kilometres long. It seems the author considers a more accurate location unnecessary, an attitude which coincides with the image of Africa as undifferentiated, diffuse and far away. It is ironic that this vague locational reference should appear at the beginning of a chapter specifically dealing with the subject of measuring length and distance.

The island used to be called Rimboea; what it is called now is obviously not important. The name is clearly derived from the word 'rimboe'. This word, meaning 'jungle', has two associations depending on your perspective. A Westerner who enters the 'rimboe' is seen to be undaunted by danger and hardship, but those people who live in the jungle are primitive and backward.

The second sentence contains a hefty value judgement: 'certain customs they did not want to give up'. Was that necessary? Has anyone tried to persuade them to change? The rest of the text describes these customs, all products of the authors imagination. To force the point home the last assignment puts the Rimboeans firmly in their place: 'Do we still use them ourselves?'

Something of this calibre is unlikely to crop up in present-day school textbooks. It has been introduced here as a magnification of those phenomenon that can be found in textbooks of today in a more subtle and concealed form.

What should a teacher do about a text of this type? It is difficult to give generalised and comprehensive advise, because what works in one class can fail to connect in another. Nonetheless, here is some advice for the teacher who finds a passage to be too objectionable for unamended use in class. Personally, I prefer to let the pupils dismantle the text themselves by asking them leading questions. In the case of 'Rimboea' one could ask: 'Is this story true or is it made up? What do you think? How can you tell?' While answering these questions in a class discussion, elements of the teachers own analysis are bound to crop up. It is only afterwards that an opinion should be given. Give pupils the chance to speak for themselves, but do not exert any pressure. If necessary, the teacher can propose to the pupils that this piece of text should not be used. It is easily replaced by other material.


"Every year in The Netherlands we use about 60 million tubes of toothpaste: that is more than four per person. It seems we take a great deal of care to make sure our teeth stay clean and healthy!

Those peoples who are more closely bound to nature pay less attention their teeth. Their food is usually tough so that the gums are massaged through long chewing. Their teeth stay in good condition. It is the custom among some peoples to chew resinous substances or to use a piece of wood with a split end: the predecessor of the toothbrush.

From the earliest times, the ancient Egyptians used mouth washes and toothpaste-like substances to refresh their mouth and possibly to alleviate pain. Tooth decay was less widespread than in our own age."(2)

It sounds rather good: eating tough food keeps your teeth in good condition without much effort. However, the positive message can only be read into this text with the help of some good intentions, because the rest of it conjures up associations with under-development. This is due to the vocabulary: 'peoples' and 'more closely bound to nature'. The phrase 'predecessor of the toothbrush' makes a considerable contribution to the pejorative connotation. The author suggests that these 'peoples' will adopt the use of toothbrushes at some future date. There is, in other words, a gaping chasm between developed teeth-brushers and under-developed non-teeth-brushers. This is a variation of the mechanism that displaces people back in time that we encountered in the previous example.

The Dutch comedian Youp van 't Hek envisaged the ultimate scenario: "...a toothbrush salesman who had an agreement with NOVIB about a gigantic order for 300,000 toothbrushes a year to be sent to Africa".11

Noteworthy is the reference to the (ancient) Egyptians. They fulfil and intermediate position. With their mouth washes and 'toothpaste-like substances' they were already half way along the road to 'modern man'.

An African House

"As a contrast to modern domestic architecture there is a photograph of an African house. This is a so-called 'mud hut' erected from loam and dry grass as it has been for centuries. The construction, a cylinder with a cone-shaped roof, has apparently had its efficacy proven." (3)

On the basis of a cursory reading, it seems that the African house has been described in a positive manner. However, on a second glance it is apparent that the African house has been presented as a contrast to 'modern domestic architecture', as if modern domestic architecture is not African. It is as if domestic architecture in Africa never evolves, but is an immutable fact. That stasis is of itself a well-know negative stereotype when applied to Africa. Writers of school textbooks should not write sentences such as these that conjure up prejudices among the pupils. Take note of the way the term 'apparently' implies scepticism. It indicates that although the author has no personal experience in the matter, one can assume on the basis of a centuries long tradition in this type of building that it fulfils its function. Implicitly, the author is saying: ' This house would be inadequate for us Westerners, but for the people there it serves well enough.' Or am I being overly sensitive?

Japan and The Netherlands

"There is a shortage of knowledge in poor countries. The high degree of prosperity in countries such as Japan and The Netherlands is due to the extent of the knowledge we have acquired."(4)

This quote is a marginal note separated from the main body of the text in a chapter about behaviour. The chapter includes material about the transference of knowledge. The first sentence contains a broad generalisation; the second bears witness to a limited view of the differences in prosperity between countries. And the message from the combined sentences is: poor countries are poor because they lack knowledge.

This passage is hardly necessary to the book's main argument. As a teacher you would probably not even bother to pay attention to it. But the pupil who does read the text will be picking up ideas that could dovetail effortlessly with prejudices s/he has already acquired. In order to pre-empt this, it would be a good idea if the teacher were to stop momentarily to deal with the note.

In the case of an intellectually-adept class, say A level pupils, I would personally take the risk of asking the following question: 'Is knowledge a necessary pre-requisite for prosperity, or merely desirable. What does it say in the text? What do you think? ' If the pupils are familiar with logical discourse, then it is fun to turn them loose on the text and let them 'crack' it themselves.
On a more elementary level one could ask: 'Who can think of a country that has a lot of knowledge and is still poor?' A single contradictory example is sufficient to expose the generalisation in the first sentence.


5.2 The Multicultural Class

In chemistry classes the pupils have to learn a great many names of elements, along with their symbolic notations. The symbolic notation for the element oxygen, for example, is 'O' from the Latin 'oxygenium'. New pupils who are multilingual might not yet know the Dutch word for oxygen ('zuurstof'). Using the internationally-recognised notation 'O' to clarify the word is a simple solution. And the multilingual pupil has most likely learnt the Latin term 'oxygenium' in her or his own country. In many languages the names for some of the chemical elements are close to the Latin. In Turkish the word is 'oksijen'. For a Turkish pupil, it would be much nicer to hear the chemistry teacher use the well-known word 'oksijen' than the potentially well-know 'oxygenium'.

A conversation of this nature contributes to a good understanding between the teacher and the new pupil, because the teacher is showing a willingness to appreciate the pupils background.

Learning the names of some of the elements in several different languages is an excellent investment from a didactic and pedagogical point of view. And it is simply achieved in a school with multilingual children.

The example above concerned oxygen, but there is also a substance called carbon ('koolstof') and a carbon compound called carbon dioxide ('koolzuur'). In a Dutch class this usually generates jokes about cabbage ('zuurkool'). Puns of this type are often difficult for multilingual pupils to understand. They can feel shut out, or imagine that they are missing something important, or even that they themselves are the object of fun. The teacher must not be too quick to assume that the pun cannot be explained. To continue with the example of a Turkish pupil, although cabbage is not very common in Turkey, it is not entirely unknown to Turks living in The Netherlands. There is also a Turkish name for it: 'lahana tursusu'. The teacher who can write that on the board will have won over the pupil.

S 39

The following quotation is a classic example from the literature concerning scientific terminology in connection with second-language acquisition. The point is that if you find a text too difficult for the pupils, is it wise to start re-writing it?

The original version:

"Before the two parts can be soldered together they should be cleaned thoroughly with sand paper. To allow a tin-solder, an alloy of tin and lead, to flow smoothly, you should first put S 39 on the end of the soldering iron."

The re-written version:

'-·clean the parts thoroughly with sand paper;
'-·rub a bit of S 39 onto the end of the soldering iron;
'-·hold a piece of tin-solder against the end of the soldering iron.' (5)

What is it about the first piece of text that is such a nuisance? It is the use of complex sentences and the fact that the actions are not described in the order in which they should be carried out. The re-written version has solved both of these problems. But a price has to be paid. The logical cohesion has been lost, and the reader is also not apprised of the composition of tin-solder. Besides the reduction in information, there are also practical objections. Teachers need a high level of linguistic competence to produce texts that meet their own demands. And re-writing also requires a considerable investment as far as time is concerned which is hardly sustainable over a longer period. Most teachers will have to limit their initiative to an oral explanation in words the pupils will understand.

My advice would be: always state clearly which passage in the book your oral explanation refers to, especially if the book is used for homework assignments.


The applied sciences can put a multi-cultural context to very good use as is illustrated in the following maths assignment in which frequent visits to countries of origin are touched upon.

 "Aicha and her parents will be driving to Morocco in the summer. She are going to a village in the vicinity of Oujda. It is a journey of approximately 3,500 kilometres. Once they flew. There are direct flights once a week from Amsterdam to Oujda. How many kilometers would that be with the airplane?" (6)

 When teachers are at work with alternative material that contains a more explicit intercultural character, the lesson can take some unexpected turns. There is nothing wrong with this, but it cannot do any harm to deal with it briefly.

For this reason, teachers must be very careful when deriving their contexts from the countries where multilingual pupils originate. The everyday environment that forms the basis of the pupils' experience is predominantly Dutch, and there is a risk that a context derived from the country of origin might mean nothing to them. They could be caused serious embarrassment, because they are deeply aware of the expectation that they will recognise the situation. Imagine that in dealing with the 'Amsterdam-Oujda' assignment, a Moroccan pupil whose turn it is has never even heard of Oujda. This can be a painful experience, not what was intended. (Incidentally, the chance that this will happen with Oujda is small. A very large proportion of the Moroccans living in The Netherlands come from the vicinity of the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco. Seen from the centre and the east of the Rif area, Oujda is certainly an important city.)

The following contains an unexpected turn of events that occurred in a lesson based on the assignment concerning the journey to Oujda.

Mahmoud: How do you know that? Have you been to Morocco?

Teacher: Yes, but not to Oujda. I took a budget flight to Agadir.

Mahmoud: We aren't allowed to do that.

Murat: Yes, it's the same going to Turkey. Budget flights are only for ourists. That's discrimination.

Teacher: I didn't know that. How come? (7)

 Suddenly discrimination was the topic of the class discussion. The teacher's reaction in situations such as this one is of crucial importance for her or his relationship with the class. It is tempting to put the discussion about discrimination aside due to a shortage of time or to re-schedule it. Ultimately, it is more beneficial to allow the class to change course and for the teacher to enter into discussion with the pupils.




 Source:·Young, Robert M. "Racist society, racist science", in: Racism and education: structures and strategies. Gill, D. et. al. (ed), Sage, pp.303-319

 Young proposes a historical and social approach to the teaching of science in order to reveal the cross-cultural nature of science and to help pupils deconstruct science as a belief system in which particular views of the world are constructed.

 "The overall model for a science curriculum should be one that always considers all the following in their mutual interrelations:




-·who benefits


 When we begin to think of alternative perspectives, we can look at science as a way of expressing the values of a given culture. We can also begin to question those who want to maintain the separation between science and culture." (p.314)

 "There are alternative ways of thinking about the world - alternative world-views - in different cultures as well as in our own. If we try to think like anthropologists, we can look at scientists as a tribe and the assumptions of science as a belief system. There is a literature about some of these matters which shows how our 'tribe' and others construct their world-views or cosmologies and set up knowledge systems, technologies and cures within that framework..." (p.312)

Concrete examples are, of course, studies of human races and racial traits.


5.3Non-Western Contributions to the Applied Sciences

Omar Khayyam's Triangle 

In 'Getal en Ruimte' (Numbers and Spaces), part 4V AB (presently out of print), there is a Chinese 'Pascal's Triangle' depicted in the chapter on 'combinatoriek'. I once used this chapter with a group of multilingual students, several of whom, being of Chinese origins, were appreciative. However, students from Iran protested that this was not Pascal's Triangle but Khayyam's Triangle. I asked if they meant the poet Omar Khayyam and, indeed, they informed me that Khayyam belonged to that breed of universal scholars now extinct. His year of birth remains unknown, but he probably died in 1123.

My curiosity was now genuinely aroused and I asked if they had an Iranian school textbook dealing with Khayyam's Triangle. One Iranian student arrived for the next lesson with one of her own early mathematics books. The triangle was referred to as 'the Triangle of Pascal-Khayyam'. Both viewpoints were correct, even though it had to be acknowledged that Khayyam was first. Pascal published his version in 1653. The Chinese triangle from 'Numbers and Spaces' appeared to have been attributed to one Chu Shih Chieh, who wrote about it in 1303: later than Khayyam but prior to Pascal.

What pragmatic conclusions can we draw from this example for teachers? Seeing as there is no such thing as a truly intercultural school textbook for an applied science, it is important to be aware of potential intersections and make use of them.


Black Egyptians and White Greeks

In the western imagination the Egyptians in the era of the Pharaohs were white. In reality it is almost certain that they were black. Naturally, their skin colour is irrelevant to a consideration of their achievements. However, recently educational programmes have been developed, in particular in the United States of America, in which the dark skin colour of the ancient Egyptians is pronounced.

 "In order to promote a higher level of self-esteem among black pupils, the Webb School in Washington's poor inner-city has changed to a so-called Afrocentric school curriculum. (...) The small children at the Webb School now learn that they are descendants of black princesses and kings, that Africans invented time and fire along with just about everything else, and that the white Greeks stole all their classical wisdom from the 'black' Egyptians, and that white racism is the cause of all evil." (8)

 This provides no solution either. The following is an example of a more balanced approach.

 "The link between the sides of a right-angled triangle that is generally known as Pythagoras' Theorem has been described, proven and applied in several different locations during the course of history. As a clay tablet from circa 1900-1650 BC bears witness, the Babylonians used it to calculate the diagonal of a square with one known side measurement. Pythagoras himself lived about 500 BC and it is known that both he and his fellow Greek mathematicians travelled to Egypt and Mesopotamia. According to some sources, Pythagoras even went to India." (9)

 A study of Pythagoras' Theorem is still mandatory, even in the new curriculum. It would be wonderful if school textbooks would provide historical information in the manner shown above. But they do not. Make sure, therefore, that you can add a bit of history. An entirely comprehensive treatment should not be your aim. Allow your own curiosity about historical developments to help you select a number of subjects, ones, moreover, that have readily available sources, and in the course of the year introduce them to the class. The story of Pythagoras' Theorem is a good candidate to my mind. 'The Crest of the Peacock' mentioned above is a suitable source of information.


My last example concerns the means of determining the qibla, the direction in which Muslims must pray - facing Mecca that is.

There are prayer mats with in the middle a compass, called a 'Mecca metre', which points out the correct direction. This context is a wonderful opportunity to move into interculturality on three levels: firstly, the class; secondly, Dutch society; and thirdly, the whole world. Islamic pupils in the class will feel engaged. Even when they are not strict on religious observances, they will certainly be familiar with the practices. Take into account that there are also non-Muslims living in Islamic countries.

Given the multicultural character of Dutch society, an acquaintance with the means of determining the qibla would be useful for all pupils. Mosques in The Netherlands are also built with the necessary orientation towards.

On the third level, that of the whole world, this example gives insights into the contributions made by the Islamic world to developments in mathematics and astronomy. Most of the two hundred Islamic manuals on astronomy that appeared between 750 and 1750 AD dedicate at least one chapter to the qibla. Different methods are described. In some constructions the earth is still depicted as a flat surface, which offers a fair estimation of the qibla for a area not extending too far beyond Mecca itself. However, no Islamic astronomer would have seriously considered the earth to be flat.

Other constructions work with large circles in order to indicate directions and shortest distances on a globe. (These are circles that divide a globe into two halves.)

 'Mecca' is a rich and efficient context that serves more than one objective by striving to encompass the three levels of intercultural education. This is a great advantage as far as alternative material for use alongside a textbook is concerned, because choosing and dealing with a context requires a significant investment in terms of time, both on the part of the teachers as well as the class.

'Mecca' is also a rich context in the terms of subject content itself. Using 'large circles' an elegant link can be made to mathematically-related problems in completely different contexts. Take the following assignment for example: 'Explain why a plane flying from The Netherlands to Vancouver maintains such a firm northerly course?'

5.4 Notes

1 Wiskunde in uitvoering (Mathematics in Action), part 1 (out of print). p.186.
2 Scheikunde voor mavo (Chemistry for Secondary Education), part 1. Groningen: Wolters Noordhoff, 1986. p.87.
3 Wiskunde in katernen voor het MTO (Mathematics in Sections for Middle Technical Education), part 1. Rijswijk: Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 1991. p.95.
4 Biologie overal (Biology Everywhere), part 5V. Educaboek, 1992. p.147.
5 Hofmans-Okkes, L., Schoolboeken leren lezen. (Learning to Read School Textbooks). Coutinho, 1987. p.33.
6 Mulder, F., Wiskunde een Wereldvak (Mathematics around the World) Freudenthal instituut RU Utrecht/SLO Enschede, 1992. p.107.
7 Wiskunde een Wereldvak. (Mathematics around the World) Utrecht/Enschede: Freudenthal instituut RU Utrecht/SLO, 1992. p.14-15.
8 In: NRC Handelsblad, 16 oktober 1993.
9 From: Handreikingen Basisvorming Openbaar Onderwijs - Wiskunde. (Guidelines for the Foundations of Education - Mathematics)Utrecht: APS/SBOO, 1993. p.36.

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