Iris Tabak and Brian J. Reiser Northwestern University
Working in small groups with computer-based learning environments provides an opportunity for students to investigate and discuss their own explanations of natural phenomena. Incorporating domain-specific strategic support in the design of these environments can make student investigations and discussions more productive by focusing them on key variables and relationships in the domain. However, interacting with these environments may not be enough to help students develop understandings and ways of communicating that are consistent with scientific views. A support system that combines interactions with these environments with teacher-student discussions in both small-group and whole-class formats provides more comprehensive support.
We describe a computer-based investigation environment that incorporates domain-specific strategic support, where students investigate an episode of natural selection in the wild. The environment was used as part of a unit on evolution at a Chicago public high school. We illustrate the complementary roles of this environment and student- teacher discussions in both small-group and whole- class formats in supporting science learning. Keywords -- classroom interaction, science education, computer-based inquiry support
Learning science consists of developing ways of examining and explaining phenomena that are consistent with the practices of the scientific community. Definitions of science learning that emphasize developing cognitive structures ( Glynn & Duit, 1995; White, 1993), and that emphasize developing particular ways of communicating ( Lemke, 1990; Pea, 1991), both call for learning to occur in a context where students actively engage in designing experiments, making observations, and constructing, communicating and debating explanations. One successful approach for creating such a context is having students conduct investigations in small collaborative work groups ( Minstrell & Stimpson, 1996), often using computer- based learning environments to design and run experiments ( Roschelle, 1992; Roth, 1995). This approach provides students with the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time engaging in the process of science.
The degree to which the student talk and understandings that emerge from these collaborations converge with scientific views depends on the types of interactions students have with the environment, and the types of discussions that evolve around these interactions. We suggest that these interactions and discussions can be more profitable if the student- directed inquiry takes place in investigation environments employing domain-specific support that is designed to focus students on the key dimensions, relationships and processes in a domain. In addition, it is important to combine student collaborations using these environments with teacher-student interactions in small-group and whole-class forums. Teachers can model profitable investigation strategies when talking with students during their investigations, and they can help them articulate their findings in ways that are more consistent with scientific views. Whole-class discussions can supplement the support provided by teacher-student interactions in small-groups by sharing insights and guidance across groups.
Earlier research has tended to focus on the role of computer-based learning environments in facilitating discussions ( Pea, 1991; Roth, 1995), or on the interrelationships between teacher direction in small- group and whole-class discussions ( Minstrell & Stimpson, 1996). Our goal is to explore how to design an integrated unit that capitalizes on the strengths of all three types of support: computer- based scaffolding, teacher-student interactions during small-group work, and teacher-student interactions during whole-class discussions. Understanding how the design of learning environments guides students' inquiry decisions and the content of their discussions, and how combining different discussion formats can help students realize more learning opportunities than any format alone, can help us design more effective