Science of Materials: A Case Study of Intentional Teaching in the Early Years
Hackling, Mark, Barratt-Pugh, Caroline, Teaching Science
Australia's Early Years Learning Framework and leading international researchers argue for more intentional and purposeful teaching of science in the early years. This case study of exemplary practice illustrates intentional teaching of science materials which opened-up learning opportunities in literacy and number. Student-led hands-on exploration of materials supported with carefully scaffolded discourse and representation with some peer tutoring provided rich learning opportunities for these pre-primary/foundation students.
The literature suggests that there are three key principles that should guide quality science learning with younger children: children should be engaged through hands-on explorations of natural phenomena; making meaning needs to be facilitated through discourse scaffolded by the teacher; and, understandings develop as students are engaged in constructing other representations.
In her review of the ways in which hands-on science activities facilitate learning, Satterthwait (2010) argues that materials centred learning supports peer interaction, object-mediated learning and creates embodied experiences. While students explore materials, their conversations provide opportunities for children to explore their thinking about the natural phenomenon exemplified by the objects they are working with. Changes to objects, brought about through manipulation, stimulate children's curiosity and raise questions which stimulate reasoning and direct learning. However, learning with materials needs to be appropriately contextualised for young children:
In particular, experiences that are embedded in the medium of story, play and objects that can be readily identified by children are powerful mediators of learning (Anderson, Piscitelli, Weier, Everett & Tayler, 2002, p. 230).
Activity provides a context and purpose for talk and it is the talk around the manipulation of materials that supports meaning making. Talk is productive when it supports inquiry (Hackling, Smith & Murcia, 2010), is based on students' interests and facilitates the intentional teaching of science learning outcomes (Epstein, 2007). As Alexander (2008) argues, discourse needs to be purposefully planned and steered by the teacher, be reciprocal in the sense that teacher and students share ideas and listen to each other, and the talk needs to be cumulative so that contributions build lines of thinking that lead to the intended learning outcomes. It is this type of talk that generates the sustained student thinking that was found to contribute to enhanced learning outcomes in a major European longitudinal study (Sylva, Melhuish, Sammons, Siraj-Blatchford & Taggart, 2004).
Student thinking can also be sustained through engaging students in teacher facilitated construction of representations of the natural phenomenon being investigated (Waldrip, Prain & Carolan, 2010). When representations such as drawings or mind maps are constructed, students need to interrogate the materials being investigated and their thinking about them. Manipulation of materials, discussion and the construction of representations can therefore engage students in thinking and reasoning about science phenomena.
The purpose of this study was to investigate intentional teaching of science in the early years through a case study of exemplary practice.
The two Pre-Primary classes which provided the context for this study were engaged in a topic about the construction of houses which integrated learning the science of materials, the mathematics of measurement using non-standard measures and technology processes related to construction of buildings and bridges. The main instructional mode was hands-on exploration supported with discussion and teacher supported representation of emerging understandings. Two classes, their teachers and other adults worked as a team utilising the classroom spaces and the outside area as one connected teaching and learning space. …