"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, November 4, 2013

Making Sense, Not Just Data Collection

Pupils in elementary schools can certainly collect data. Children can both observe and measure. Science education requires these skills. In this area, the method of inquiry is indeed powerful especially when children are allowed hands-on experience. It is the peak of engagement. Science, however, does not end with data collection. Science may indeed be empirical, but it really goes much farther than just making and collecting observations. Science is supposed to make sense. The following is an example:

The above displays the measured amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa. Of course, the measured numbers are already presented here in an organized manner. In this particular case, the measured values are shown in a graph. Values of carbon dioxide levels at plotted against the time of the year these were measured. This illustrates the second part of what science does, data analysis. Data analysis, however, is still not the last part. It still has not made sense. It still has not offered any new knowledge. Science is supposed to explain. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing throughout the past five decades. Inside this overall trend, there is an annual modulation, with peaks and troughs in May and October, respectively. Why? If one can provide an explanation then one is attempting to make sense. This is science.

Science education, unfortunately, in the elementary years has either focused on one aspect, learning theories and explanations, or on the other aspect, collecting and analyzing data. Learning a theory has been unfortunately associated with rote learning or memorization. Theories are after all the knowledge mankind has gained from science. Thus, in schools where skills are placed higher than content, the teaching of theories is compromised. This is sad because what makes a scientist is not just the ability to collect data, but more importantly, how to connect the new information with existing knowledge. This is one aspect that makes a pure inquiry-based science teaching very challenging. Children can easily follow instructions or even make up their own as they explore and discover, but making sense of what they experience requires knowledge. A teacher must know when to act as a "sage on the stage" and when to serve as a "guide on the side".

A recent article in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (Zangori, L., Forbes, C. T. and Biggers, M. (2013), Fostering student sense making in elementary science learning environments: Elementary teachers' use of science curriculum materials to promote explanation construction. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 50: 989–1017. doi: 10.1002/tea.21104closely examines how much priority is given in science classrooms to data collection versus making sense:
While research has shown that elementary (K-5) students are capable of engaging in the scientific practice of explanation construction, commonly-used elementary science curriculum materials may not always afford them opportunities to do so. As a result, elementary teachers must often adapt their science curriculum materials to better support students' explanation construction and foster student sense making. However, little research has been conducted to explore if and, if so, how and why, elementary teachers modify science curriculum materials to engage students in explanation construction. We use an embedded mixed methods research design to explore elementary teachers' (n = 45) curricular adaptations and pedagogical reasoning. We collected and quantitatively analyzed a matched set of 121 elementary science lesson plans and video recorded lesson enactments to investigate the extent to which inservice elementary teachers engage in instruction to more productively support students' explanation construction. Our findings suggest that the curriculum materials heavily emphasized hands-on engagement and data collection over explanation construction and that the teachers' adaptations did not fundamentally alter scientific sense-making opportunities afforded students in the lesson plans. Interviews and other artifacts were also collected and analyzed to construct a multiple-case study of four of these elementary teachers. Findings from the case study suggest that the teachers' conceptions of explanation construction and concerns about the abilities of their students to engage in scientific explanations impacted their curricular adaptations. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 50: 989–1017, 2013
In short, science teaching in elementary classrooms has been focusing a lot on data gathering and not so much on understanding. It is inquiry-based but it is nonetheless rote learning. In both lesson plans and enacted lessons (evaluated by actually observing the classrooms), making sense gets the shorter end of the stick:

Above figure copied from
Zangori, L., Forbes, C. T. and Biggers, M. (2013), Fostering student sense making in elementary science learning environments: Elementary teachers' use of science curriculum materials to promote explanation construction. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 50: 989–1017. doi: 10.1002/tea.21104
If children are not taught to make sense of what they see, hear, smell, touch and feel, then children are not being taught science....

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