Academic journal article Childhood Education

A Child Constructs an Understanding of a Water Wheel in Five Media

Academic journal article Childhood Education

A Child Constructs an Understanding of a Water Wheel in Five Media

Article excerpt

One might conclude that first we learn, then we report our understanding to others. This proposition sounds direct, almost uncontroversial. Yet it ignores a common feature of human intelligence: the anticipation of our report before it occurs. As we learn, we anticipate what medium we will use to report our understanding. Consequently, as we study aspects of a phenomenon, we do so from a bias inherent in the medium we anticipate using to report. Also, as we report, some media will allow us to discover certain gaps in our understanding that would not be prominent in a different media.

If a child studies poppies in the field, knowing that she will be asked to draw her understanding for others to see, she will study the poppies' visual characteristics: their variegated color, their proportional size of blossom to stem and the overlapping structure of their petals. If that same child expects to videotape the poppies for a class presentation, her eye will catch the fall of petals to the ground, the wave-form pattern of the whole field in a breeze and the bend of a blossom as a bee lands upon it. The reporting medium affects one's view of the phenomenon in advance of the report.

In addition, the media may maximize certain types of discoveries. If the child makes a painting, she might notice during her presentation of this painting that all of her poppies face to the right. Although she had not encoded this pattern while in the field, she subsequently realizes from her painting that this may or may not be true. The painting causes her to ask a question that had not occurred to her before or during the trip to the poppy field. If she had used videotape as the reporting media, she might notice that the bees she filmed swooped down as they launched themselves from the blossom. Is this a general characteristic of bee flight or only a characteristic of bees laden with pollen, a coincident of the few she filmed? In the act of reporting, different media cause children to ask different questions (Eisner, 1994; Forman, 1994).

In this article, the author examines a single case of a boy trying to understand a water wheel and shows what it means to "know" the water wheel. As we follow Filippo through his struggle to know and to represent, we should come away with a more complete view of the constructivist nature of understanding. At times, Filippo is trying to understand how to represent. At other times, Filippo is trying to understand how the water wheel works. The interaction between these two aspirations creates a dynamic system of knowledge construction.

Five-year-old Filippo attends La Villetta School in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Founded under the leadership of Loris Malaguzzi, the preprimary schools in Reggio Emilia have gained international acclaim. (These events became part of a long-term project called An Amusement Park for Birds [see Forman and Gandini, 1994].) But Filippo's story can be repeated wherever teachers give children the opportunity to explore and express their ideas in a variety of media. In Filippo's case, these media include words, drawing with a marker and making models from different materials.

Telling What He Understands

Filippo begins by describing a water wheel placed in a stream at the foot of a mountain. Perhaps he is inspired by a memory from a trip he took with his parents to the countryside. He remembers a water wheel attached to some type of building. The wheel turns in the water.

Filippo then begins a story about a fish caught and brought up out of the water by one of the water wheel paddles. He is quite animated as he tells his classmates about two fish, one that was caught by the paddle and crying for help and one in the stream that was laughing at the other's plight.

At this point, it may be inaccurate to say that Filippo is telling us what he understands or even what he remembers. Granted, his story implies an understanding that fish are aquatic animals swimming under the surface of a flowing stream, that they are smaller than the water wheel, and that they might get confused and be caught by the churning blade. …

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