As seen in this week’s video, “A Private Universe,” scientific concepts in astronomy can be difficult for students to grasp, as seen in the case of Heather, a very bright student in Boston. Students have their own explanations for phenomena they have observed, and it is often the job of the science teacher to correct misconceptions. To do this, teachers must first have a knowledge of a student’s current understanding. This fits well with the idea of constructivism, as discussed by Catherine Fosnot.
Fosnot discusses two ‘giants’ in the field of constructivism. There is Piaget with his concept of cognitive equilibration – the balancing of assimilation (the organization of experience with one’s own logical structures or understandings) and accommodation (comprised of reflective, integrative behavior that serves to change one’s own self and explicate the object in order for us to function with cognitive equilibrium in relation to it) (Fosnot, 1996. p. 13). There is Vygotsky, who proposed a “Zone of Proximal Development.” He argued that scientific concepts do not come to the learner in a ready-made form. They undergo substantial development, depending on the existing level of the child’s ability to comprehend the adult’s model (Fosnot, 1996. p. 18). Fosnot describes constructivism as using misconceptions to create disequilibrium, which facilitates learning (Fosnot, 1996. P. 29).
The workings of our universe are a mystery for many learners, as shown again by Vosniadou and Brewer in 1992. “[M]any children said that the earth is round but also stated that it has an end or edge from which people could fall. A great deal of this apparent inconsistency could be explained by assuming that the children used, in a consistent fashion, a mental model of the earth other than the spherical earth model” (Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992).
Heather’s struggle (and her teacher’s!) was familiar to me. In Grade 4 Science, as part of the “Light and Shadow” unit, I try to show students every year how the position of the moon in relation to the sun and the earth gives us the phases of the moon. I usually have students up holding the globe, a styrofoam ball and a big lamp. I think I have been somewhat successful in getting this concept across, but there are often interesting misconceptions that come up during class discussion.
So… Can technology help? In 2010, Sun, Lin and Wang made a VR model of the sun and moon for elementary children, and found that students with access to the 3-D model achieved significantly better grades that students receiving traditional instruction. I would love to try this with my own students!
Fosnot, Catherine. Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice. Teachers College Press, 2013 Chapter 2: Constructivism: A Psychological theory of learning
Sun, KT., Lin, CL. & Wang, SM. Int J of Sci and Math Educ (2010) 8: 689. doi:10.1007/s10763-009-9181-z
VOD “A Private Universe”. http://learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=9
Vosniadou, S., & Brewer, W. F. (1992). Mental models of the earth: A study of conceptual change in childhood. Cognitive psychology, 24(4), 535-585.