Understanding How Scientific Knowledge Is Constructed
Major Findings in the Chapter:
The research base on children’s understanding of how scientific knowledge is constructed is limited. Most studies have been conducted in laboratory settings and do not take into account instructional history and children’s opportunity to learn about this aspect of science.
Most children do not develop a sophisticated understanding of how scientific knowledge is constructed.
Methods of science dominate the school science curriculum, with little emphasis on the role of theory, explanation, or models.
Children’s understanding of science appears to be amenable to instruction. However, more research is needed that provides insight into the experiences and conditions that facilitate their understanding of science as a way of knowing.
Science is not only a body of knowledge, but also a way of knowing. One important underpinning for learning science is students’ understanding of the nature and structure of scientific knowledge and the process by which it is developed. Our vision of K-8 science features this understanding as one of the four strands. We have elevated this focus to the status of a strand for several reasons. We view understanding of the nature and structure of scientific knowledge and the process by which it is developed as a worthy end in and of itself. In addition, emerging research evidence suggests that students’ grasp of scientific explanations of the natural world and their ability to engage successfully in scientific investigations are advanced when they under-
stand how scientific knowledge is constructed. In this chapter we address how children come to understand both “how we know” in science and “why we believe” scientific evidence.
For more than a century, educators have argued that students should understand how scientific knowledge is constructed (Rudolph, 2005). One rationale that is often invoked, but not empirically tested, is that understanding science makes for a more informed citizenry and supports democratic participation. That is, citizens who understand how scientific knowledge is produced will be careful consumers of scientific claims about public scientific issues (e.g., global warming, ecology, genetically modified foods, alternative medicine) both at the ballot box and in their daily lives.
A second justification among educators is that understanding the structure and nature of science makes one better at doing and learning science (see review by Sandoval, 2005). That is, if students come to see science as a set of practices that builds models to account for patterns of evidence in the natural world, and that what counts as evidence is contingent on making careful observations and building arguments, then they will have greater success in their efforts to build knowledge. Viewing these processes from a distance—not merely enacting them—enhances students’ ability to practice science. Schauble and colleagues (1995), for example, found that fifth grade students designed better experiments after instruction about the purpose of experimentation.
We begin the chapter with an elaboration on science as a way of knowing, sketching the goals of the enterprise, the nature and structure of scientific knowledge, and the process by which it is constructed. This elaboration is intended to provide a sense of the target we have for students’ learning. That is, it represents currently accepted ideas about the nature of scientific knowledge that are important to teach in grades K-8.
Building on this model of science, we first turn to the cognitive research literatures to examine the intellectual resources relevant to this strand that children bring to kindergarten. In an earlier chapter (Chapter 3), we discussed the developmental research on children’s early “theory of mind,” that is, their growing awareness of their own and other’s minds and their understanding of expertise. In this chapter, we first discuss how during the K-8 years, they build on these understandings to develop some initial epistemological ideas about what knowledge is and how it is constructed. Next, we consider how they begin to think about what scientific knowledge is and how it is constructed. In the field of science education, this research is often found under the general heading of students’ understanding of the nature of science. Finally, we consider external influences on students’ understanding of science as a way of knowing, including teacher knowledge, the epistemic model that may underlie the curriculum, and the literature—albeit extremely small—that has been focused on classroom-based interventions in epistemic advancements.
Before delving into this research, one major caveat is in order. Almost all of the research investigating children’s thinking relevant to this strand has been conducted in the research laboratory, examining how their thinking develops over time irrespective of instructional history or opportunities to learn. It allows us to point to developmental trends and base-level competencies that can be expected in a given age span in normally developing children. However, inferences from this research base about the upper limits of children’s capability are inappropriate and are likely to yield underestimates. Furthermore, as almost all of this research attends to development and not opportunities to learn, it provides little insight into the kinds of experiences and conditions that facilitate children’s understanding of science and thinking about their own knowledge. A few studies have begun to explore the effects of teaching approaches on the development of epistemological understanding. We offer a limited discussion of this literature here. Later, in Chapters 6 and 9, we discuss in more depth studies that provide insight as to supportive classroom conditions and provide better proxies for what is possible when those conditions exist.
UNDERLYING MODEL OF THE NATURE AND DEVELOPMENT OF SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE
Before considering the research that may elucidate the intellectual resources and challenges that learning this strand might pose to children in the K-8 years, we briefly review approaches the field has taken to articulate the underlying model of building scientific knowledge. In this explication, we consider the goals of the enterprise, the nature and structure of scientific knowledge, and how knowledge is developed, with a focus on what is most relevant for student learning. (For a more complete discussion of our view of the nature of science, see Chapter 2.) While we acknowledge there is no simple correspondence with this model of science and the epistemic goals of the curriculum at any particular grade level, consideration of both relevant cognitive research and instructional design is informed by close consideration of the normative model.
Osborne and colleagues (2003) have proposed taking a consensus view to identify the ideas about science that should be part of the school science curriculum. They conducted a study to examine the opinions of scientists, science educators, individuals involved in promoting the public understanding of science, and philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science. They identified nine themes encapsulating key ideas about the nature of science that were considered to be an essential component of school science curriculum. These included science and certainty, analysis and interpretation of data, scientific method and critical testing, hypothesis and pre-
diction, creativity/science and questioning, cooperation and collaboration in the development of scientific knowledge, science and technology, historical development of scientific knowledge, and diversity of scientific thinking.
Sandoval reviewed Osborne and others’ definitions of science epistemology (e.g., Driver et al., 1996; Lederman et al., 2002; McComas and Olson, 1998) and presented a more manageable list of four broad epistemological themes, which we pause to discuss briefly. First, Sandoval asserts that viewing scientific knowledge as constructed is of primary importance that underscores a dialectical relationship between theory and evidence. Students, if they are to understand what science is, must accept that it is something that people do and create. From this flows the implication that science involves creativity and that science is not science because it is “true” but because it is persuasive.
The second theme is that scientific methods are diverse: there is no single “method” which generically applies to all scientific inquiries (experiments may be conducted in some fields, but not in others). Rather than relying on one or several rote methods, science depends on ways of evaluating scientific claims (e.g., with respect to systematicity, care, and fit with existing knowledge).
Third, scientific knowledge comes in different forms, which vary in their explanatory and predictive power (e.g., theories, laws, hypotheses; for more on this, see Chapter 2). This is a theme often overlooked in traditional analyses (including Osborne’s) but one that is central to understanding the constructive nature of science and the interaction of different knowledge forms in inquiry. Fourth, Sandoval asserts that scientific knowledge varies in certainty. Acknowledging variable certainty, Sandoval argues, invites students to engage the ideas critically and to evaluate them using epistemological criteria.
Another approach to defining the aspects of understanding the epistemology of science that science curriculum should inhere is to consider the aspects of epistemology that have been linked to enhancing the development of science understanding. Although the literature does not offer a systematic treatment of this notion, there are pockets of evidence that suggest a relationship between aspects of epistemology and students’ understanding and use of scientific knowledge.
For example, there is evidence that when students come to view argumentation as a central feature of science, this can have considerable positive effects on their understanding and use of investigative strategies (see, e.g., Sandoval and Reiser, 2004; Toth, Suthers, and Lesgold, 2002). Songer and Linn (1991) have also analyzed the effects of a dynamic versus a static view of science and found that a dynamic view is conducive to knowledge integration. Hammer (1994) has identified a relationship between views of knowledge (in terms of coherence, authoritativeness, and degree to which knowl-
edge is constructed) and achievement differences in science among undergraduate physics students.
In addition, there is also evidence that students’ epistemology of models—an aspect of epistemology that receives little attention in the normative and consensus views of the nature of science—has important implications for a range of conceptual and practical outcomes. Gobert and colleagues have studied the epistemology of models of students in the middle grades, high school, and college, including their understanding of models as representations of causal or explanatory ideas, that there can be multiple models of the same thing, that models do not need to be exactly like the thing modeled, and that models can be revised or changed in light of new data. They have documented correlations between measures of students’ sophistication in the epistemology of models and their ability to draw inferences from texts and transfer causal knowledge to new domains, as well as conceptual development (Gobert and Discenna, 1997; Gobert and Pallant, 2001).
Similarly, Schwartz and White (2005) studied seventh grade student learning using a software environment that allowed the students to design, test, and revise models. They examined a battery of pre- and postmeasures of physics content knowledge, inquiry, and knowledge of modeling. They found that students’ pretest modeling knowledge was the only variable that was a significant predictor of success for all three posttest measures, and it was the best predictor of both posttest content and modeling knowledge. While these studies examine but a few slices of epistemology, they suggest that certain features of epistemological understanding can offer students powerful leverage for science learning. These studies also suggest an important way to think about defining what students should learn about epistemology and the nature of science and call attention to an area worthy of future study.
UNDERSTANDING SCIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE IN THE K-8 YEARS
In this section, we separate the research literature into that concerned with the development of children’s understanding of knowledge in general and that more specifically concerned with the development of their understanding of scientific knowledge. Changes across the K-8 grades reflect increasing variability in students’ opportunities to learn about knowledge construction in science and increasing variability in their understanding of science as a way of knowing. Also contributing to the complexity of this picture, multiple literatures with fundamentally different methodological tactics and analytical lenses have contributed contrasting models of the limitations and emerging competences of K-8 students.
Understanding Knowledge Construction
There are multiple lines of research, largely disjointed, that are relevant to K-8 students’ understanding of knowledge construction. This research encompasses both a continuation of the developmental research literature and the “epistemic cognition” literature investigating stages in older students’ stances toward knowledge and knowing.
One line of research in the developmental literature involves a continuation of the theory of mind frame into the elementary school years. There is evidence that 6-year-olds (in limited contexts) are beginning to develop a view of mind as an “active interpreter.” That is, they become more aware that people actively construct their own understanding of the world and are aware of the role of prior knowledge in seeing. At the same time, the literature suggests, children continue to elaborate on their understanding of mind (and different mental states) throughout elementary school.
Young children’s understanding of the constructive nature of knowledge itself has not been studied extensively, but the limited research suggests that upper elementary school students tend to fall short of viewing knowledge as rooted in a theoretical world view. Kuhn and Leadbeater (1988), for example, fictionalized two conflicting historical accounts of the “Livian Wars.” They asked students to interpret the accounts in response to a variety of probe questions that they were asked after reading the two accounts. Students were asked to articulate differences between the accounts, consider reasons for the differences, and discuss whether both accounts could be correct. They were scored in terms of epistemological level, from treating the two pieces as factual accounts that might differ only in specific facts reported, to understanding that they reflect contrasting interpretations, filtered through world views. They found that no sixth graders responded in terms of the higher levels.
The work of Perry (1970/1999), consisting of longitudinal studies of Harvard male undergraduates, constitutes an early and influential line of research on stages in understanding knowledge construction. Researchers have made substantial methodological and conceptual advances since Perry’s time (see the discussion of instructional intervention studies in the next section). However, work that continues in the tradition of Perry maintains his general findings that, over the early to late adolescent years, individuals display shifts in their general stance toward knowledge and knowing. Specifically, many young people enter early adolescence embracing an “absolutist” or dualist view of knowledge and truth, one that assumes that there is one right answer to every question and differences of opinion are explainable by misinformation or faulty reasoning. At some point, usually during adolescence, youngsters become aware that others may disagree with them on matters about which they hold strong beliefs.
As these young people begin to understand that knowing necessarily involves interpretation and its consequent ambiguities, they may enter an epistemological crisis, characterized by what Chandler, Boyes, and Ball (1990) called “epistemic doubt.” In this state, they struggle with the erosion of their certainty and may lose confidence altogether that it is possible to be certain about anything. The temporary result may be subjective relativism, a stance epitomized in the quintessential adolescent remark, “Whatever.” Subjective relativism is the notion that as all beliefs are subjectively held, it is impossible to verify any of them with certainty, so no one’s beliefs or opinions are better or worse than those of anyone else.
This relativism is regarded as an early reaction to the recognition that knowledge is conjectural and uncertain, open to and requiring interpretation. In later adolescence or early adulthood, some individuals may pass through relativism to embrace a contextualist commitment to reasoned judgment, although this move is by no means typical or inevitable. The individual continues to understand that knowledge is neither certain nor complete but comes nevertheless to accept that, with good judgment and careful reason, it is possible over time to achieve successively closer approximations of the truth.
Much of this research has been performed with college undergraduates, and the homogeneity of the participants may in part account for the degree of general agreement in the findings about the overall nature of change. However, different models propose different numbers of sublevels along the way. Moreover, there are some disagreements about the extent to which change is regarded as universal or not, the ages at which shifts typically occur, and also the extent to which it is regarded as stage-like and structurally integrated, or composed of a series of relatively independent beliefs about knowledge and learning. Some accounts emphasize change that is primarily linear and hierarchical, whereas others propose that change is merely adaptation to one’s immediate or global environment and thus may not be unidirectional.
Most of the models appear to assume that epistemology is trait-like, so that it is a relatively stable feature of the individual. However, a few (e.g., Hammer and Elby, 2002; Sandoval, 2005) argue that epistemology is situational, an interaction of the individual’s cognitive and historical resources and environmental features that cue or elicit patterns of those resources.
At first glance, some of these ideas appear to be inconsistent with research that suggests that much earlier—indeed, by the time they begin elementary school—children already are well aware that individuals can hold different beliefs about the same objects and events. Beliefs are not simply copies of reality; they are products of the activity of knowing—therefore, they are subject to verification and are potentially disconfirmable by evidence (Perner, 1991). If young elementary schoolchildren understand these
concepts, how can adolescents be deemed to hold an “absolutist” position toward knowledge? Chandler, Hallett, and Sokol (2002) suggest that, although young children are aware of representational diversity, this does not mean that they consider it a necessary or legitimate aspect of knowledge. Instead, they are more likely to believe that there is one right answer and that other interpretations are simply wrong or misinformed.
Chandler, Hallett, and Sokol (2002) propose that young children do not understand that diversity of interpretations is “somehow intrinsic to the knowing process;” that is, that interpretation is an unavoidable aspect of all knowledge. Hence, the criteria for knowledge cannot easily be specified, and all knowing is associated with an unavoidable degree of ambiguity.
Understanding the Nature of Science and How It Is Constructed
Multiple lines of research are relevant to the issue of children’s understanding of the nature of science and how it is constructed. And once again, the relations between the lines of research are complex. Relevant lines of research include the science-specific developmental literature, the epistemic cognition literature focused on understanding of science as a way of knowing, and survey-based data focused on children’s beliefs about the nature of scientific knowledge and how it is constructed. Finally, we consider how science curricula, instructional interventions, and teachers’ notions of science may influence children’s understanding of science as a way of knowing.
It is straightforward to imagine how holding either absolutist or relativist epistemologies could lead to a distorted view of the nature of science. Indeed, research directed more explicitly at young students’ grasp of the nature of scientific knowledge and practice has produced findings with interesting parallels to the more general developmental literature. For example, Carey and Smith (1993) point out that many students do not understand that science is primarily a theory-building enterprise. They may learn about observation, hypotheses, and experiment from their science textbooks, but they rarely understand that theories underlie these activities and are responsible for both the generation and interpretation of both hypotheses and experiments. The commonsense epistemology that young students typically hold is unreflective; to the extent that they think about it at all, children often think of knowledge as stemming directly from sensory experience, even though they do know that some knowledge is inferred rather than observed (Sodian and Wimmer, 1987), and they are even aware that the same object may be interpreted differently by different observers (Taylor, Cartwright, and Bowden, 1991).
Carey and Smith (1993) suggest that children may not make clear distinctions between theory, specific hypotheses, and evidence, and they may expect to find simpler and more direct relations between data and conclusions than are warranted. Like the absolutists described in the developmental psychology literature, they tend to regard differences in conclusions or observations as being due to lack of information or misinformation, rather than legitimate differences in perspective or interpretation. There is limited or no awareness that one’s beliefs may be connected into coherent frameworks, and that these frameworks may have an influence on what one observes via the senses. For this reason, Kitchener and King (1981) argue students fail to understand that controversy is a part of science and that authorities are deemed, by definition, to share a common set of true beliefs. We suggest, however, an additional factor that may explain this finding, but that is not considered in this body of research. Children are rarely taught about controversy in science, so why would they come to view scientific knowledge as contested?
Carey et al. (1989) asked seventh graders a series of questions about the goals and practice of science and about the relationships between scientists’ ideas, experiments, and data. Students’ responses to these interviews were coalesced into three global perspectives about the nature of science, ranging from Level 1, in which scientists were regarded simply as collecting facts about the world, to Level 3, in which scientists were seen as concerned with building ever more powerful and explanatorily adequate theories about the world. A second interview study (Grosslight, Unger, Jay, and Smith, 1991) probed middle school students’ understanding of models and modeling and achieved similar results. Many children regarded models merely as copies of the world, a Level 1 perspective. Level 2 children understood that models involve both the selection and omission of features, but emphasis remained on the models themselves rather than on the scientists’ ideas behind the model. Finally, in Level 3 epistemology, models were regarded as tools developed for the purpose of testing theories.
Almost all seventh graders in these studies were at Levels 1 or 2, described by the researchers as “knowledge unproblematic” because from this view, disagreements about the nature of reality are considered due to ignorance or misinformation and knowledge is regarded as relatively straightforward. In contrast, in “knowledge problematic” epistemologies, seldom or never achieved by the students in these studies, knowledge is regarded as being organized into theories about the world that are actively constructed via a process of critical inquiry and that are often successively revised over extended periods of time.
The science education research on learners’ and teachers’ views about the nature of science is mixed (McComus and Olson, 1998; Lederman et al., 2002; Lederman, 1999; Osborne et al., 2003). When data are gathered em-
ploying survey instruments that probe learners’ views of science outside any specific context of inquiry, the results indicate that even high school and undergraduate students do not develop accurate views about the theory revision and responsiveness to evidence.
Similarly, Driver et al. (1996) interviewed same-age pairs of students at ages 9, 12, and 16 about the purposes of scientific work, their understanding of the nature and status of scientific knowledge, and their understanding of science as a social enterprise. They classified students’ responses about epistemology into three overall levels, with the lowest levels reflecting little acknowledgment of interpretation and successive levels indicating the importance of forms of thinking that do not rely solely on sensory input. The reasoning considered at the lowest level was reasoning grounded in phenomena; at the next, empirical reasoning based on relationships between variables; and finally, the highest level was reasoning that uses imagined models. Like the Carey and Unger studies, Driver et al. (1996) characterized children as moving from perspectives that emphasize unproblematic, sensory-based knowledge in which truth is considered a relatively simple objective to attain, to views in which science is acknowledged to depend on active interpretations of staged events (experiments), mental manipulations, and coherent, connected bodies of knowledge that may include many areas of uncertainty.
Much of this research literature suggests that K-8 students have a limited understanding of how scientific knowledge is constructed. However, it is not clear to what extent one can attribute such limitations to developmental stage, as opposed to adequacy of instructional opportunity or other experiences. In the words of Carey and Smith (1993, p. 243): “Two questions of urgent importance to educators now arise. First, in what sense are these levels developmental? Second (and distinctly), do these levels provide barriers to grasping a constructivist epistemology if such is made the target of the science education?”
Consider first the model of science as a way of knowing underlying the science children experience in the science curriculum, their primary source of information about the nature of the discipline. As noted in other chapters, in the upper elementary school years, the process of scientific knowledge construction is typically represented as experiment, with negligible acknowledgment of the role of interpretation or, more generally, the active role of the scientist in the process of knowledge construction. In the early grades, the typical emphasis on description of phenomenology through the basic science process skills of observation, categorization, measurement, etc., also reflects a distorted image of science, far removed from a constructivist epistemology.
In the same vein, science aspires to construct conceptual structures, with robust explanatory and predictive power, yet this is seldom either explicit or implicit in the K-8 science curriculum. An analysis of science
curriculum by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) indicates that all curricular content is typically represented as of equal importance, with little attention to its interconnections or functionality. According to Roseman, Kesidou, Stern, and Caldwell (1999), authors of the AAAS report, the science texts evaluated by AAAS included many classroom activities that either were irrelevant to learning key science ideas or failed to help students relate their activitiy to science ideas.
Science curriculum has long been criticized as reflecting an impoverished and misleading model of science as a way of knowing (e.g., Burbules and Linn, 1991; Hewson and Hewson, 1988). Methods of science dominate the school science curriculum, with little emphasis on the role of theory, explanation, or models. More contemporary views of science (Giere, 1991, 1999; Solomon, 2001; Longino, 1990) “as a multidimensional interaction among the models of scientists, empirical observation of the real world, and their predictions” are seldom included (Osborne et al., 2003, p. 715).
Although there are notable exceptions to this pattern, most K-8 curricula would appear to at least exacerbate the epistemological shortcomings with which children enter school. In the words of Reif and Larkin (1991, p. 733): “Science taught in schools is often different from actual science and from everyday life. Students’ learning difficulties are thus increased because scientific goals are distorted and scientific ways of thinking are inadequately taught.”
Another factor that needs to be considered in understanding and attribution of children’s shortcomings in this regard is teachers’ understanding of science as a way of knowing (Akerson, Abd-El-Khalick, and Lederman, 2000). The epistemic cognition literature has documented shortcomings in students at all levels of study, including college and beyond. It is not surprising that shortcomings in the understanding of science as a way of knowing have been identified in K-8 teachers.
A small literature of classroom-based design studies indicates that these limitations may be at least to some degree ameliorable by instruction. Design studies, in which researchers create conditions favorable to students’ learning about the scientific enterprise, show that elementary and middle school students can develop their understanding of how scientific knowledge develops (Carey et al., 1989; Khishfe and Abd-El-Khalick, 2002), including a more sophisticated understanding of the nature and purpose of scientific models (Gobert and Pallant, 2001; Schwartz and White, 2005). With appropriate supports for learning strategies of investigation, children can generate meaningful scientific questions and design and conduct productive scientific investigations (e.g., Metz, 2004; Smith et al., 2000).
For example, in the small elementary school in which she was the lone science teacher, Gertrude Hennessey was able to systematically focus the lessons on core ideas built cumulatively across grades 1-6. She chose to
emphasize generating, communicating, and evaluating theories via the intelligibility, plausibility, fruitfulness, and conceptual coherence of the alternatives (see Table 6-1). Research on her sixth grade students’ understanding of the nature of science suggested that they had a much better sense of the constructive, knowledge problematic nature of the enterprise than did sixth graders from a comparable school (Smith et al., 2000).
In another example, students showed improved understanding of the process of modeling after they engaged in the task of designing a model that works like a human elbow (Penner et al., 1997). In this study, students in first and second grade in two classrooms participated in a model-building task over three consecutive 1-hour sessions. They began by discussing different types of models they had previously seen or made. They considered the characteristics of those models, and how models are used for understanding phenomena. They were then introduced to the task of designing a model that functions like their elbow. After discussing how their own elbows work, children worked in pairs or triads to design and build models that illustrated the functional aspects of the human elbow. After generating an initial model, each group demonstrated and explained their model to the class followed by discussion of the various models. Students were then given an opportunity to modify their models or start over. In interviews conducted after the session, students improved in their ability to judge the functional rather than perceptual qualities of models compared with nonmodeling peers. They also demonstrated an understanding of the process of modeling in general that was similar to that of children 3 to 4 years older.
Researchers have also identified important curricular features that support the development of a more sophisticated epistemology. Curricula can facilitate the epistemological development of students when they focus on deep science problems, provide students opportunities to conduct inquiry, and structure explicit discussion of epistemological issues (see, e.g., Bell and Linn, 2000; Davis, 1998; Smith and Wenk, in press). It is also important to note that students’ understanding of epistemology does not grow unproblematically from inquiry experiences. In order to advance their understanding of epistemology, learners engaged in inquiry need explicit cues to reflect on their experiences and observations and consider the epistemological implications (Khishfe and Abd-El-Khalick, 2002).
The research base related to children’s understanding of knowledge in general and of scientific knowledge specifically is limited. Much of the work on knowledge has been carried out with college-age populations, although some studies in developmental psychology have looked at children’s under
TABLE 6-1 One Progression of Increasingly Sophisticated Metaconceptual Activities in Grades 1-6
SOURCE: Smith et al. (2000).
standing of how knowledge is constructed. Many researchers assume that epistemology is trait-like, although some argue that it is situational—an interaction of cognitive and historical resources with environmental features that cue or elicit those resources.
Looking across the various lines of research, most children in grades K-8 do not further develop the rudimentary knowledge and skills that are so evident during the preschool years. Young children tend to move from one level of understanding to the next slowly, if at all, and by middle school few students reach higher levels of understanding, at which knowledge is viewed as problematic and claims are necessarily subjected to scrutiny for their evidentiary warrants. In large measure, this pervasive pattern probably reflects more about the opportunities to learn that children encounter in their
education than a measure of what they could do under different conditions. Evidence from design studies, discussed in this chapter and to which we return in Chapter 9, suggests that, under optimal curricular and instructional conditions, children can develop very sophisticated views of knowledge. Yet the contrast is remarkable between the capabilities of preschool children and modal patterns of development in older children and the lack of sophisticated reasoning about knowledge in early adolescents.
We argue that in carefully designed, supportive environments, elementary and middle school children are capable of understanding and working with knowledge in sophisticated ways. Instruction in K-8 science can significantly advance their understanding of the nature and structure of scientific knowledge and the process by which it is constructed. Design studies, in which researchers create conditions favorable to students’ learning about the scientific enterprise, suggest that elementary students can develop higher levels of how scientific knowledge develops. With appropriate supports for learning strategies of investigation, children can engage in designing and conducting investigations that enable them to understand science as a way of knowing (Gobert and Pallant, 2001; Klahr and Li, 2005; Metz, 2004; Schwartz and White, 2005; Smith et al., 2000; Toth, Klahr, and Chen, 2000). The core elements of this scientific activity involve articulating hypotheses, laws, or models, designing experiments or empirical investigations that test these ideas, collecting data, and using data as evidence to evaluate and revise them. We will discuss this literature in depth in Chapter 9.
Current science education does not typically offer the kind of educational environments that have been shown to support children’s understanding of scientific knowledge. Rather, there is a tendency to overemphasize methods, often experimental methods, as opposed to presenting science as a process of building theories and models, checking them for internal consistency and coherence, and testing them empirically. This lack of attention to theory, explanation, and models may exacerbate the difficulties children have with understanding how scientific knowledge is constructed. It may, in fact, strengthen their misconceptions, such as the view that scientific knowledge is unproblematic, relatively simple to obtain, and flows easily from direct observation. While curricula may be one source of this problem, teachers’ lack of understanding of science as a way of knowing may also play a role. The role of teachers and teacher knowledge in science education is taken up in greater detail in Chapter 10.
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