Engaging young children with the tentative nature of science

By Suzanne Perin - October 2016


Kirch, S. A. (2009). Identifying and resolving uncertainty as a mediated action in science: A comparative analysis of the cultural tools used by scientists and elementary science students at work. Science Education, 95, 308–335.


This study compares scientific practices in a research laboratory and a second grade classroom. Through conversation analysis, the author found that in both settings similar processes were followed to establish a mutual understanding about what was seen, done and concluded in a collaborative investigation. The author shows how “mutual understanding” differs from “agreement,” and suggests ways to structure science inquiry activities that can engage young children with the tentative nature of science while helping them to resolve discrepant procedures, observations or interpretations.

In order for students to develop an understanding of uncertainty as an essential part of the nature of science, the author recommends that classroom teaching should encourage an examination of how scientific thinkers identify and resolve varying degrees of uncertainty (McGinn & Roth, 1999). The author of this paper was particularly interested in whether and how early elementary school aged children engaged in scientific practices, and how they grappled with discrepant or tentative findings in the classroom.

To study how the resolution of uncertainty played out for professional scientists and for young science learners, Kirch examined daily conversations in an urban second grade classroom and in three medical college molecular biology laboratories represented by 18 higher-level researchers (3–25 years of experience among them). She categorized the conversations into three types (p. 316): (1) Uncertainty about reported procedures (Is my understanding of what you did in alignment with what you did? If not, why not?), (2) Uncertainty about reported observations (Is what I observe the same thing that you observe? If not, why not?) and (3) Uncertainty about reported interpretations (Is my interpretation in line with your interpretation? If not, why not?).

For the scientists, coming to a mutual understanding in each of these three areas was a way of critiquing the experiments and resolving questions. Coming to an understanding did not necessarily mean that they agreed on, for example, a given interpretation, just that the participants came to understand the position or interpretations of the other person in conversation. In the classroom, when the students did semi-independent investigations, the teacher primarily used clarification questions (as did the scientists) to guide the students’ interpretation. The teacher individually offered judgement on what the student did; this was also similar to what happened in the research laboratories although in the laboratory setting, judgement was rendered collectively from the research group and not from an individual. When the students’ science activities were demonstrations – which are designed to eliminate sources of uncertainty in order to demonstrate a fact – establishing a mutual understanding of observation was less important than when they are engaged in inquiry-based activity.

To help young children establish mutual understanding and resolve uncertainty, and to help them understand that these are a part of the nature of science, the author gives several recommendations for science educators (p. 333): • instruction should be explicit about how scientific knowledge is generated so that students can learn content with understanding; • engage students in “metareflection” so that they talk about what they accomplished and how they did it; • discuss and examine the actions that took place during a science investigation to review what the conversational exchanges accomplished rather than merely recounting what each individual said and • theorize with students about the purpose and process for the identification, resolution and reduction of uncertainty so that students better learn the durable yet tentative character of scientific knowledge.

Also see:

McGinn, M. K., & Roth, W.-M. (1999). Preparing students for competent scientific practice: Implications of recent research in science and technology studies. Educational Researcher, 28(3), 14–24.

Metz, K. (2004). Children’s understanding of scientific inquiry: Their conceptualization of uncertainty in investigations of their own design. Cognition and Instruction, 22(2), 219–290.