By Bronwyn Bevan - March 2011
Rosebery, A. S., Ogonowski, M., DiSchino, M., & Warren, B. (2010). "The coat traps all your body heat": Heterogeneity as fundamental to learning. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(3), 322–357.
This study makes the case for the ways in which children's everyday experiences are foundational to learning science. The authors argue for the importance of instruction that capitalizes on the diverse experiences and ways of thinking that children bring to the classroom. The article has implications for the design of learning activities in informal settings, where, in the absence of testing pressures, educators might be more free to engage children in "science talk" to support deeper meaning-making.
Specifically, the article describes a combined third- and fourth-grade classroom where children come to sophisticated above-grade level understandings of both the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the particulate nature of matter through an emergent series of experiences that include a botched attempt to make ice cream (using sugar instead of salt which leads to ice cream failing to freeze) and a fire drill that sent them outside into the cold without their coats (where children began to visualize the ways in which heat was leaving their bodies). Before the fire drill, while investigating concepts of heat and temperature, children's understandings of why they wore coats in the winter remained under-developed ("to stay warm because it's windy and cold"). After the fire drill, their experiences trying to stay warm on a wintry day helped them to visualize the ways in which heat flowed out of their bodies into the cold air, and how wearing a coat "trapped" the heat close to their bodies. Analysis of children's conversations over an 18-week period showed how instrumental these everyday experiences, and the class's reflective conversations about them, were to developing children's scientific understandings. The analyses showed how children began to merge their everyday understandings with scientific principles and understandings when the teachers designed the classroom to include the following principles: (1) making the big ideas visible (e.g., watching water freeze and melt under various condition, both real and in a computer simulation); (2) "expanding the discourse space" by taking up the ideas that children seemed to mark as important, such as particular events or experience, and not limiting the conversation to official (textbook) science terms and phenomena; (3) engaging children in collaborative verbal analysis of events; and (4) noting how children's conversations, questions, and observations revealed which concepts or aspects of phenomena needed to be further elaborated.
The study makes the case for rooting and connecting science to students' everyday experiences, but it also shows how critical extended and ongoing conversations were for fostering children's abilities to make these connections. Informal educators need to take into account the need for time and continuity to help students make such connections.