The Mystery Box activity may seem a long way from the kinds of scientific investigations children will do in later grades relating to the atomic-molecular structure of matter, but it actually has some important similarities. Students are using their reasoning abilities to draw inferences about something they can’t see. They are thinking about how to ask questions and how to learn from other people’s questions. They are learning that different kinds of questions can produce different amounts of information. Perhaps most importantly, they are learning that getting the right answer isn’t the only thing that matters in a scientific investigation. Negative evidence can be very useful.
While the Mystery Box activity doesn’t directly address the atomic structure of matter, it enables Ms. Winter’s kindergartners to practice making a distinction that will be essential in their understanding of matter. They are separating the use or type of an object (spoon or fork) from what it’s made of, or its “material kind” (plastic, wood, or metal). This may seem to be a simple task—indeed, it’s something that children generally master before they begin school. But they have to make this distinction clearly before they can learn about the detailed properties and microscopic composition of matter.
Science learning can be very effective when it is grounded in a task that supports multiple predictions, explanations, or positions. In such a setting, children have reasons to “argue” (to agree and disagree) and to back up their positions with evidence. These rich tasks involve the students in actual scientific investigations but require support and guidance from the teacher.
For example, the Mystery Box activity is a focused, teacher-guided activity, but the children are playing active roles, reasoning and theorizing. They are listening hard to one another and building on one another’s ideas. Ms. Winter is also actively involved, pressing them to clarify and explain their ideas to one another. The activity involves a whole-group discussion in which everyone takes