The development of a learning progression for celestial motion

By Giovanna Scalone - June 2011


Plummer, J.D. & Krajcik, J. (2010). Building a learning progression for celestial motion: Elementary levels from an earth-based perspective. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(7), 768–787.

This study can be used by ISE professionals as a source of ideas to guide thinking about the use of a learning progression framework for astronomy education. Plummer and Krajcik claim that a learning progression describes one of the potential ways to gauge the pathway between the initial knowledge children first bring to school and the big ideas that the school aims to develop in them. A learning progression is designed around the major ideas of a discipline. The children start exhibiting more sophisticated ways of reasoning; that is, they will move along a progression within a content area, as they gain proficiency.

The authors have found that the research across many areas of astronomy (e.g., seasons, phases of the moon, earth shape, and gravity) shows that the nature of basic astronomical phenomenon is not well understood by most of the students, both in terms of their observational qualities and explanatory models. As a result, in this study, they have chosen to develop a learning progression focusing on earth-based observational topics.

It is the contention of Plummer and Krajcik that observational patterns are an appropriate starting point for instructing astronomy to elementary students because they describe the world from the child’s earth-based perspective. The authors developed learning trajectories, drawing from a cross-age study of children’s knowledge of apparent celestial motion. One usefulness of learning trajectories is that it focuses on a fine description that stems from students’ ideas. These learning trajectories were then tested against an instructional intervention with elementary students at a planetarium.

The results of the study point out the inadequacy of the traditional instruction and observations of the world in helping students move beyond an intermediate level of understanding, even by adulthood, in this concept area. The authors suggest that focused instruction is necessary to develop more sophisticated understandings of these topics. As students can articulate their learning progressions, they can be used to measure students’ understanding relative to a conceptual goal. In addition, this approach connects informal learning to formal learning by facilitating a discussion between teachers and ISEs.

Plummer and Krajcik suggest that “a productive direction towards learning progression development in elementary astronomy is through the creation and testing of separate sets of learning trajectories organized according to the nature of students’ cognition with respect to the conceptual framework” (an approach also suggested by Wilson, 2009).

Further Reading

Adams, J.P., & Slater, T.F. (2000). Astronomy in the national science education standards. Journal of Geoscience Education, 48(1), 39–45.

Agan, L., & Sneider, C. (2004). Learning about the Earth’s shape and gravity: A guide for teachers and curriculum developers. Astronomy Education Review, 2(2), 90–117.

Bailey, J.M., & Slater, T. (2003). A review of astronomy education research. Astronomy Education Review, 2(2), 20–45.

Kavanagh, C., Agan, L., & Sneider, C. (2005). Learning about phases of the moon and eclipses: Guide for teachers and curriculum developers. Astronomy Education Review, 4(1), 34.