Productive learning frames in the science classroom

By Suzanne Perin - March 2011


Hutchison, P., & Hammer, D. (2010). Attending to student epistemological framing in a science classroom. Science Education94, 506–524.

Students often come to informal learning settings expecting to engage just as they would in a science classroom. This may pose a challenge to ISE educators who want to break out of the "classroom game," in which students are expected to receive and reproduce knowledge. How do educators set the tone to "reframe" the interaction to something more productive, in which the learners have a role in the production and assessment of knowledge, leading to a deeper understanding of concepts or theories?

Based on their past classroom experiences, students may arrive in class with what the authors call an unproductive frame; that is, they expect that they can be successful by accurately and efficiently providing facts without delving into the subject. They find or produce answers without necessarily understanding important concepts or theories. In this sense, skills related to the "classroom game" contrast greatly with skills related to scientific practices. A productive frame,in comparison, is enacted by the students and instructor and reflects how students use knowledge, whether students see initiating explanations as part of their role, how students make connections between in-class concepts and natural phenomena, how students seek connections between concepts, and the language they choose to use and how they use it.

This article is a case study by the first author, who was the instructor of a physics course for pre-service elementary education undergraduates, in which he reflects on how he and his students engaged in framing classroom activity productively. The analysis illustrates what productive framing can look like. In the case presented, the students:

It shows that if productive framing is an instructional approach, there are significant and sometimes counterintuitive implications for teaching practice, applicable in informal settings as well as the formal setting of the study. An example from the article is when the class discussion is occurring in productive frame but the scientific terminology is not correct. A common tension for educators is that, although both correct terminology and productive framing are ultimately the goal, always insisting on correctness may be detrimental to learning the patterns of participation that characterize productive frames. To demonstrate how the teacher's influence can reframe the class, there is a case in which the instructor was sitting amongst the students while the students were discussing, then, to clarify a point, he moved to the front of the class, took a piece of chalk, and the orientation of the class turned to a more traditional format.

A question for consideration: How do ISE educators encourage productive frames for learning, when students might not be expecting, desiring, or experienced in engaging with concepts in that manner?