Authentic Knowledge

“…learners of science have everyday representations of the phenomena that science explains. These representations are constructed, communicated, and validated within everyday culture. They evolve as individuals live within a culture” (Driver, et al., 1994, p. 11).

I am from a small community of approximately 6,000 people in northwestern British Columbia. While we have a small museum/art gallery (half of the ground floor of the building is the museum, the other half is the art gallery), we do not have many resources as far as math and science field trips go. We do have a fish hatchery, as well as mineral exploration sites, past mines, forests, and so on relatively nearby, but we are limited as far as more diverse hands-on experiences outside the classroom go. While I agree that students construct knowledge through immersion in their surrounding environments and cultures, I also know that if I simply left it at that, many of my students would not be provided with the opportunities needed to extend their thinking and to continue to develop a sense of inquiry as they got older. Because of this, I am finding virtual learning environments for science and math increasingly important the more I learn about previously inaccessible opportunities and options now available.

As Driver et al. (1994) point out, “the symbolic world of science is now populated with entities such as atoms, electrons, ions, fields and fluxes, genes and chromosomes; it is organized by ideas such as evolution and encompasses procedures of measurement and experiment. These ontological entities, organizing concepts, and associated epistemology and practices of science are unlikely to be discovered by individuals through their own observations of the natural world. Scientific knowledge as public knowledge is constructed and communicated through the culture and social institutions of science” (p. 6). Classrooms by nature have the potential to support this “culture and social institutions of science.” Students actively engage with peers, both socially and collaboratively, sharing perspectives and knowledge, generating ideas, and developing questions and hypotheses; “knowledge is not transmitted directly from one knower to another, but is actively built up by the learner…” (Driver, et al., 1994, p. 5). However, at the same time, Yoon et al., (2012) point out that, “as noted in the NRC (2009) report and elsewhere (Squire and Patterson 2009; Honey and Hilton 2011), learning in informal spaces is fluid, sporadic, social, and participant driven — characteristics that contrast with the highly structured formal classroom experience” (p. 521). While the “structured formal classroom experience” is changing, virtual environments, or environments that integrate digital technology to create an inquiry-based classroom, continue to create a much different classroom experience for learners. Sherry Hsi (2008) argues that it is through this “…direct experience and manipulation with virtual objects” that informal learners are given the opportunity to build “their intuitions about basic scientific phenomena” (p. 892). In this way, Hsi points out, information technologies have “transformed…informal learning institutions” through the creation of “…freely available educational resources accessible over computer networks and the Web to create extended learning opportunities outside of formal schooling” (p. 891), as well as providing opportunities for educators to use pre- or post-visit activities with their classes, and to access virtual explorations for remote learners via the internet.

The next question is how to effectively integrate digital technologies and virtual environments into existing curriculums. Yoon et al., (2012) conducted a study at “a premiere science museum in a large urban city in northeast USA using augmented reality visualization technologies” (p. 520). Their study focused on electrical conductivity and circuits, and research was conducted on four groups using digital technology and increasing levels of scaffolding to support learning. The traditional “hands-on” group was presented with two metal spheres; one connected to a battery by a wire and the other connected to a light bulb. When a student grabbed the spheres, the circuit was completed and the light bulb lit up. The second group was presented with the same scenario, but this time, the addition of digital technology allowed for a visual representation as well, as the completion of the circuit triggered a projection of the animated flow of electricity onto the student’s hands, arms, and shoulders. Groups three and four also had the digitally enhanced experience, along with varying levels of additional scaffolding to support learning. Yoon et al.’s research concluded “that the digital augmentation, in and of itself, is an effective scaffold” (p. 531); however, the results of their study also found “…increased cognitive abilities in terms of theorizing about the phenomenon from students in Condition 4, suggesting that scaffolds might be necessary to reach more advanced learning” (p. 538). True learning should represent a balance. As Driver et al. (1994) point out, “If students are to adopt scientific ways of knowing, then intervention and negotiation with an authority, usually the teacher, is essential” (p. 11). Driver et al. offer that the teacher must introduce new ideas or cultural tools, provide support/guidance as needed, allow students to make sense of the ideas/tools themselves, and then assess students’ understanding to inform further action. Yoon et al. noted that “When asked what they thought was the most and least helpful scaffold, 100% of the students identified collaborating in a group as most helpful. The least helpful scaffolds were identified as the knowledge prompts (57%) and the directions (37%)” (p. 532).

When exploring various learning environments and communities this week, I was struck by the incredibly amount of information as well as opportunities that are now available. The Exploratorium ( in San Francisco, California, offers an incredible number of websites (i.e., “Time-lapse Weather Watching,” “Total Solar Eclipse Turkey 2006”), videos (webcasts, video clips, podcasts, and slideshows), blogs, and so on, to support learning in both science and mathematics. By incorporating some of these resources into science lessons, teachers have the opportunity to expose students to information they would likely not be exposed to otherwise, as well as to engage learners, and allow for new and potentially powerful collaborative discussions. A second learning environment that I explored this week (although it was not listed in Lesson 2) was Google Expeditions. I had never used Google Expeditions before, but found it while looking for resources to share on our forum. While I have not yet used this with a whole class (due to trying to figure out how to find that many cell phones, as well as how to make enough cardboard viewers) my initial experiences with it have been pretty neat! There are an incredible number of science-based expeditions that teachers “guide” while students “explore.” The “guide” setting provides teachers with leveled questions as well as important information on locations, species, artifacts, etc. viewed by the students. While this resource does require that each student has a phone and a viewer (which can be made, but does take some time for the first one), it really does provide a virtual experience for the student as the ultimate effect is being right in the scene provided on the screen. Students I have experimented with have been incredibly excited and engaged, asking many questions about what they saw and learned. While I find that many students in my classroom do not really know where to even start asking questions because many of the topics we discuss are outside their realm of experience, Google Expeditions allows for students to have an “experience” to base their questions on.

I was thinking about a comment that I commonly hear today about our learners, that learners today just do not understand concepts as well as learners did in the past. One colleague commented that in the past “we strove for excellence, while today we’re just hoping for some effort.” While there are perhaps elements of truth built into this statement, given the new understandings I have gained from this course, I would question whether students in the past really had a greater understanding of concepts, or if we just assumed they had a greater understanding, without understanding ourselves just how strong a hold misconceptions actually had.


Driver, R., Asoko, H., Leach, J., Scott, P., & Mortimer, E. (1994). Constructing scientific knowledge in the classroom. Educational Researcher, 23(7), 5-12.

Hsi, S. (2008). Information technologies for informal learning in museums and out-of-school settings. International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education, 20(9), 891-899.

Yoon, S. A., Elinich, K., Wang, J., Steinmeier, C., & Tucker, S. (2012). Using augmented reality and knowledge-building scaffolds to improve learning in a science museum. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 7(4), 519-541.


  1. Your post was very insightful to read, Mary. I liked your take on the importance of virtual learning environments in today’s education. I have also heard what you hear from colleagues about how learners today don’t understand concepts as well as learners in the past. It’s definitely a common conversation I hear in the staffroom. My interpretation of it is that in the past, more traditional teaching methods were employed that honed students to become certain types of learners (e.g. fact-based) whereas today the versatility of teaching methods allows for different students to succeed. At the same time, teachers are also learning to become more versatile educators to foster the growth of all learners.

  2. Hi Gloria,

    Thank you for your response. Your point that students were essentially trained to become a certain type of learner in the past is a good one. It also of course meant that students who did not, or could not, conform to that structured style of learning either dropped out or were removed from the traditional classroom setting. Today, as you point out, we are becoming much more aware of, and skilled at, differentiating our teaching for the diverse learners in our classrooms. Between this and the fact that we are attempting to prepare students for future jobs that we can no longer predict or rely on, our teaching styles and the tools we use are certainly changing!

  3. Hi Mary,
    Great post. I was thinking about your discovery of google expeditions (I really like it) and the problem with having the technology available (cell phones and viewers ) to use it effectively. What I have done in the past is created modules or stations that students can rotate through and one of the stations is the google expeditions. If any of your students have new iPods (the ones they can see video on) they too can be used instead of cell phones. Also if you check on you can often find google cardboard (or knock offs) for about three dollars. At one point I saw a set of ten cardboards for about 20.00. I found trying to make the cardboard viewers pricier than buying a kit.

    I would also like to comment on the thread that you and Gloria have created. There are a few things I find myself discussing a lot. One is that students today are bombarded by infinitely more than previous generations yet we often validate what they know on outdated curriculum that may not be important to them or their future careers. Also, students are often overwhelmed by the options they have before them. Previous generations walked a well-worn path to their careers. Secondly, so many of my students are already forced to specialize in every aspect of their life. Gone is the student-athlete who participates in all sports just for the love of it. My students from a young age have been forced into a specialization before they even reach middle school. This specialization means if it is basketball they play then their life is basketball. Our elementary basketball teams (in every school) are basically the kids who play rep ball all year. Same happens for almost every other sport. WhenI was in high school, I played on almost every team. That type of athlete no longer exists. The good across the board athlete is no longer good enough to make a team stacked with rep players. If they are forced to specialize in so many areas is it any wonder we have a hard time getting the artsy student to see the value in math or the math student to see the value in poetry?
    There is just too much going on and changing to compare our current students to any other generation.

    1. Hi Catherine,

      Thank you for your response. I was just checking Amazon yesterday actually to see if I could find Google Cardboard (or something similar)! I did make a couple of my own viewers out of cracker boxes, but yes, it was time consuming and they are mediocre to say the least. Your station idea is a great one – I will have to try that, thank you!

      I also really appreciated your point about the pressure put on students today. I agree that many students are overwhelmed. It is interesting because I work in a school that has a very diverse population. On one side, we have French Immersion students who tend to come from higher income families. On the other side, we have students on the “English” side who generally come from low-socioeconomic households, or who bus in from a First Nations reserve 30 minutes away. The students on the “French” side often end up having higher anxiety because they are enrolled in so many extra-curricular activities either at lunch hours (when their parents pick them up to take them to lessons) or after school when they have a variety of outdoor sports, music lessons, dance, swimming, and so on. Weekends often have tournaments and most days after school they have some sort of commitment (and I teach in an elementary school). The students on the “English” side struggle with regulating their behaviour on a daily basis and sometimes need extra activities and time outside, but tend to be more laid back and are just thrilled with any opportunity we can provide for extra-curriculars during the school day because they often cannot stay after school, and do not have extra money available in the household for paid lessons, programs or sports. Somewhere in between these two is a happy medium, but it does seem that many students today just have so much on their plates that they no longer get to enjoy just being a “kid.” My own son played rep hockey from age 11 on and it meant he could not join any other teams because the coaches told him (and us) that if he was committing to a rep team then that was his focus and priority. There was no room for any other commitments as far as they were concerned.

  4. Thanks for the comprehensive review and thoughts!

    I really agree with your opinion that “true learning should represent balance.” Educators should incorporate a variety of learning methods and strategies with a balance of traditional teaching and more advanced technologies/pedagogical points of view. As learners today are so ‘plugged in,’ the learners of today are vastly different from the learners of before. As a result, educators will also need to adjust their methods to accommodate the needs of the changing audience. Perhaps it’s not an ‘understanding of concepts’ that should be called into question, but rather the approach to teaching the concepts and whether current assessment methods are appropriate to those methods?

    1. Hi Darren,

      Thank you for the response. You make a great point about stopping to reflect on our own teaching approaches and assessment methods rather than questioning students’ understanding of concepts. Students absolutely learn differently than they did in the past. They are no longer passive participants who are preparing for the same, well-defined job their father works. Instead, they are actively engaged and are preparing for jobs that may not even be invented yet. They are challenged to think outside the box, to have a voice, and to ask questions. Instead of wondering why students are not understanding concepts, it’s up to us to rethink how to teach the concepts in a way that will access learning styles of today. The more I learn about virtual environments and simulations in science, the more I am convinced that these technology-based approaches have the potential to transform the way students learn in a classroom.

  5. Mary, thank you for delineating Exploratorium’s affordances for engaging students in science.

    The names of specific features and resources, such as: “Time-lapse Weather Watching,” “Total Solar Eclipse, help to envision the possibilities for science in our own classrooms. Your post raises the point that instructional scaffolds coupled with digital technology such as virtual expeditions are important to advanced learning.

    What kinds of scaffolds have you tried that work well to support students in, as suggested by Mary, their “generating ideas, and developing questions and hypotheses?” In what ways might these instructional scaffolds work well as a pre and post activity to a Google Expedition or VFT to the Exploratorium?

    Thank you for your thoughts,

    1. Thank you for your response, Dr. Khan. I have found, both in my time as a secondary and elementary teacher, that the two most successful “prompts” for students were visual representations and the opportunity to share knowledge in a peer group. Based on this, initial scaffolding for me would incorporate these two aspects of learning. It could be that students would be presented with an image, or series of images, and asked to consider (perhaps individually first and then in a small group) the image in reflecting on their own prior experience(s) and knowledge. From there, students could work with peers (again, in a small group) to generate ideas, questions, and hypotheses (based on the topic/images presented) that could then be shared with others, or with the class as a whole. I feel that this would work well as a “pre” activity. In terms of a post-activity, I think I would again begin with a visual, but this time in the form of a student-created visual (i.e. drawing) that represented a connection the student could make between their “pre” activity questions or hypotheses and the experience they had during the simulation or real-life tour. The visual would prompt students and prepare them to discuss (sort of a visual brainstorm) the concepts that I would actually want to access, which would be the experiences they had and how those experiences relate back/connect with the original ideas, questions, and hypotheses generated. Students could then use their experience to re-evaluate (in a small group – again, here I think peer collaboration would be important) these ideas, questions, and hypotheses to determine if their views or knowledge has changed post-simulation/tour.

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