What Does It Mean to Know? Third-Grade Students Research Using Claims and Evidence in Science

By Kirch, Susan A.; Stetsenko, Anna | Science and Children, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

What Does It Mean to Know? Third-Grade Students Research Using Claims and Evidence in Science


Kirch, Susan A., Stetsenko, Anna, Science and Children


"When we say we know something, what does that mean?" That's the first question third-grade teachers asked their students as they introduced a unit called What Is Knowledge and Evidence? Two teachers used the following example, "If I say something like, I know there are 230 kinds of bees in the city, what does that mean? What does it mean when I say I know?" Students in these classes replied, "It means you ...

* are sure

* read it in a book

* learned it from a scientist

* have to prove it

* researched it

* can bring them to the bees and show them and count the bees and show them it's true."

What do people mean when they say they know something in science? It usually means they did an investigation and expended considerable intellectual effort to build a useful explanatory model. It means they are confident about an explanation, believe others should trust what they say, and believe that their claim is testable. It means they can expect to be challenged and called to defend their position, and that their interpretation could eventually be proven "wrong" someday. In addition to these practical implications, when an individual says I know, it reveals something about his or her worldview and experiences, maybe even individual motives and goals. In other words, knowledge is inherently personal. Learning is a process that can lead the development of a child (Vygotsky 1978), and learning science can influence whether a child wants to be someone who engages in exploration, explanation, and argumentation.

A New Tool for Teaching Evidence

What Is Knowledge and Evidence? is a unit designed to engage students in examining how scientific knowledge is developed and shaped over time. Based on our findings from tests in classrooms, we found this unit (which can be conducted in one week for approximately 30-45 minutes a day) provides elementary school students with an introduction to the purpose that evidence serves in science. This type of introduction to knowledge is an important prerequisite to learning common scientific forms of reasoning.

There are a growing number of resources to help elementary students structure scientific arguments (McNeill and Martin 2011), write arguments in science, and evaluate their own arguments and others' arguments (Norton-Meier et al. 2008). As prerequisites to learning the form of a high-quality scientific argument, it is important to address not only the link between claims and evidence, but also the role of evidence within the overall process of doing science, including processes of thinking, reasoning, and knowing. This broader focus allows for a deeper grasp of evidence such as making sense of the relationship between evidence and a claim.

We worked with 12 third-and fourth-grade teachers and 126 third-and fourth-grade students for two years to design and research new approaches to teaching and learning argumentation. Approximately 17% of classroom participants were receiving special education services and 29% were receiving English as a Second Language services. To make sure our diverse student body understood the questions throughout the unit, teachers allocated time for students to explore and discuss various questions. Here we present a summary of one of the five units on scientific evidence that we developed, What Is Knowledge and Evidence?

Day 1: Set the Stage and Introduce

After a brief introduction to the project team and general schedule, each teacher opened a whole-class discussion with the question: "When we say we know something, what does that mean?" Students explained that it means the person can prove it, that he or she researched it, and that he or she is sure about the information.

Ms. Harris asked her students, "Now, I told you I know that there are 230 kinds of bees in the city, how could you explore what I know? How could you explore how I came to know it? …

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