National Academies Press: OpenBook
« Previous: 2 Preschool and Elementary Systems and Structures
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

3

The Contextual Nature of Children’s Learning

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

During the preschool and elementary years, children’s worlds expand and grow in complexity in ways that steadily broaden their approaches to posing scientific questions, pursuing investigations, and designing solutions to self-defined engineering problems. Children’s learning in general is connected to and interdependent with both the human communities where they live and the natural ecosystems where those communities exist. This chapter looks at how both natural and social systems shape children’s science and engineering experiences.

As children make their initial ideas and understanding visible, consider disagreements and gaps in their knowledge, and evaluate how new data and experiences relate to and help refine their ideas, they engage in sensemaking (Schwarz, Passmore, and Reiser, 2017; Warren et al., 2001). Schwarz and colleagues write:

Sense-making … is the conceptual process in which a learner actively engages with the natural or designed world; wonders about it; and develops, tests, and refines ideas with peers and the teacher. Sense-making is the proactive engagement in understanding the world by generating, using, and extending scientific knowledge in communities. Sense-making is about actively trying to figure out how the world works and exploring how to create or alter things to achieve design goals. (p. 6)

Children’s sensemaking is shaped by their social, cultural, historical, and even political contexts and the norms and practices, implicit social goals, relationships, and material and semiotic resources available in those contexts (including materials that may be inherently biased). Learning to see the value in children’s sensemaking, or taking a sensemaking stance (Bang et al., 2017; Warren et al., 2001), is an important task of educators and others who support children’s learning, as subsequent chapters address.

This chapter explores how children engage in sensemaking and the many contexts in which they learn about disciplinary approaches to and explanations of the natural and the designed world, about themselves as thinkers and actors, and about scientific investigation and engineering design as distinctive approaches to understanding the world (Bricker and Bell, 2014). It does not address how children come to be proficient in investigation and design (addressed in Chapter 4) nor how to support children’s learning (addressed in Chapter 5). And in keeping with the rest of the report, the focus of this chapter is on preschool through fifth grade, though foundations for science and engineering learning begin from the start of children’s lives.

This chapter is organized around four big ideas. First, learning is a social and cultural process, where culture is understood as shared behaviors, practices, and orientations of socially distinguishable groups passed down from one generation to the next (Eisenhart, 2001). Second, learning is a process

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

of identity development. As children engage in scientific and engineering practices, they position themselves and get positioned by others as particular kinds of people (e.g., as people who competently do science or engineering). Third, children move through a range of cultural contexts where they learn science and engineering, and variations in these contexts shape what and how children learn. Fourth, how teachers teach and children learn science and engineering are shaped by social and political forces—learning in these disciplines is not neutral because the disciplines themselves are not neutral. Box 3-1 provides an example of how these big ideas play an important role in children’s learning and sensemaking. The box is followed by sections that elaborate further on each of the four big ideas.

LEARNING IS A CULTURAL PROCESS

Learning is not merely influenced by culture, it is a cultural process (Nasir et al., 2014), by which it is meant that people learn in interaction with others, through participation in cultural activity, and with material and conceptual tools. Culture is dynamic and constitutes a repertoire of practices rather than a set of traits or characteristics attributable to a group of people (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003). On one hand, there is some stability to culture and cultural practices, as culture is generational, defined by “patterns in the collective behaviors and central orientations of socially distinguishable groups” (Eisenhart, 2001, p. 201). On the other hand, cultural groups and their behaviors are adaptable as social, political, and geographic realities change. In response to changing conditions, cultural groups improvise and adapt existing cultural practices, such as uses of time, rituals, norms, discourse patterns, tools, beliefs, design of physical spaces, and values. Additionally, individuals are not defined by any one cultural group, nor are cultural groups homogenous. Thus, it is a mistake to make assumptions about learners based on one or two cultural groups to which they belong.

That said, children are always shaped and directed in their learning by the cultural groups in which they participate, and they build their own, rapidly developing internalized understanding about how those groups work, how to participate in them, and the ways of doing and being they value and marginalize (Legare, 2019). And as children participate in multiple cultural groups, they develop competency within a broad range of practices that, in turn, promote variation in how they participate in and make meaning of their communities’ activities (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003).

Viewing learning as a cultural process does not negate the role of biological processes (Lee, Meltzoff, and Kuhl, 2020). Neuroscientists have a growing interest in learning, investigating how experiences shape genetic expression. Biology and cultural experiences cannot be viewed as separate aspects of learning, nor should they be considered fixed or deterministic

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

variables of the learning process (Lee, Meltzoff, and Kuhl, 2020). Variability in learning and development points to the need to organize learning settings to be adaptive and responsive to learners. Encouragement and guidance from the adults in their lives shape children’s understanding of what kinds of expressions of their curiosity are valued and appropriate to their identity and the settings where they live. Participation in social and cultural practices affects an individual’s development at the same time that individuals push on, innovate, and ultimately “hand down” cultural practices to the next generation of descendants (Rogoff, 2003).

The inherently social and cultural nature of learning and development is well established (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2018b). Here, in discussing the chapter’s first big idea, that learning is a cultural process, the focus is on how symbolic resources, made available through talk and text, and material resources (i.e., physical objects and tools) mediate children’s opportunities to learn science and engineering. This section first considers how children’s interactions with these resources are constituted through relationships, then turns to the roles of discourses and material resources—all important dimensions of learning when construed as cultural.

Relationships and Culture

Humans primarily learn “from, with, and in relationships with social others” (Lee, Meltzoff, and Kuhl, 2020, p. 25), and these relationships occur within the multiple cultural groups to which children belong. Children imitate and get feedback from others in their immediate environment as they learn to talk, think, act, and use tools to engage in sensemaking and problem solving. These social others include family members, caregivers, siblings, friends, teachers, and other people with whom children might interact. Across all the settings in which they participate, children’s healthy development depends upon sensitive, attuned, trustworthy, consistent relationships with adults (Darling-Hammond et al., 2020; Osher et al., 2020).

Children also learn from, and with, the natural world, and these relationships between humans and the more-than-human world are, like children’s relationships with other people, also shaped by cultural beliefs and practices (Barajas-López and Bang, 2018). In contrast, perpetuating a nature-culture divide separates and elevates humans from the “natural world” such that places are seen as existing in the service of humans (Tuck and Yang, 2012).

Learning from and with others, including the natural and designed world, is a complex endeavor that involves (a) understanding unwritten rules of behavior that shape what and who gets counted as competent; (b) interpreting and adapting to new experiences; (c) managing emotions; (d)

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

a psychological need for belonging; and (e) judgments about the relevance, safety, or threat of the learning setting to one’s goals, self-efficacy, or identities (Lee, Meltzoff, and Kuhl, 2020). In the vignette given in Box 3-1, Nick’s behaviors were punished, while Carly’s actions reinforced school’s norms of compliance and bodily control rather than scientific norms of careful observation and curiosity.

Understanding the central role of relationship building and supportive environments in which children learn with one another in creating equitable science and engineering learning environments means that learners are recognized and supported in risk taking, managing uncertainty, and developing joint understanding with others (Jordan and McDaniel, 2014; Manz, 2018). Strong relationships in a learning setting make it more likely that youth will develop competence with important tools and semiotic resources in the setting (Nasir et al., 2020).

Discourse and Culture

Everyday life is accomplished through discourse. Discourse is commonly defined as language-in-use, including talk, nonverbal language, text, signs and symbols, and other semiotic resources such as gesture, eye gaze, prosody, and lexicon (Kelly and Green, 2019). Since Vygotsky (1962), developmental researchers have been interested in how learning includes the appropriation of, and can be seen in, patterns of communication and action. Discourse structures how people interact with each other, and a central way that children learn to act appropriately in various cultural settings is by learning the valued forms of communication in those settings. Discourse is cultural; it cannot be understood separately from the contexts in which it occurs.

Kelly (2017) describes science learning as developing a “repertoire of discursive practices” (p. 224). Discursive practices (or discourse) include language use, symbolic resources, values, beliefs, attitudes, and ways of being in the world. Discursive practices are central to defining, evaluating, and legitimizing knowledge in science and engineering. Indeed, framing science and engineering as practice, as envisioned in A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC, 2012), means that there are disciplinary discourse practices that are a part of the knowledge-building work.

Children’s access to and identification with science and engineering is accomplished, in part, through their increased engagement in the fields’ specialized discourse practices. Equitable science and engineering learning settings provide children opportunities for deepening participation in the fields’ specialized discourse practices, while not negating the productivity of other practices that are productive and familiar to them. For instance, argumentation is a central discourse practice of science, but too narrowly

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

defining what counts as productive argumentation can thwart youths’ productive participation and affiliation in the learning community (Bricker and Bell, 2008). Revisiting Box 3-1, Nick astutely and excitedly shared his observations with peers, listened to and contributed to peers’ inferences about geologic time, and joyfully wondered about the curious presence of the computer charger along the trail—his contributions were on point with the stated goals of the lesson. Yet, the historical culture of schooling set parameters for what counted as productive engagement in science and what constituted appropriate discourse.

Research on discourse in education highlights how language use affects learning, but also how language use reproduces and creates social groups (Wortham, Kim, and May, 2017). Discourse practices of schooling, science, and engineering are intimately connected to culture and power. The more rigidly learning settings define acceptable science or engineering discourse, the less likely youth will affiliate with those fields of study (Brown and Spang, 2008; Varelas et al., 2008). For example, the restricted space of traditional school science discourse, with its emphasis on abstract vocabulary, makes it difficult for minoritized learners “who do not command middle-class language practices to participate or be understood” (Rosebery et al., 2010, p. 326) to fully participate or have their contributions be fully understood. Varelas and colleagues (2014) provide another example of how minoritized learners—in this case, Latinx third graders—make sense across informational text and empirical inquiries, using language as they engage in sophisticated sensemaking.

Exploration of the Material World

Sustained and diverse exploration of material resources (physical objects and tools, both natural and made by humans) is central to the development of children’s scientific and engineering reasoning (Kelly and Cunningham, 2019; Legare, 2014), their ideas about how the world works (Wertsch, 1985), and their understanding of themselves as competent actors who can effect change in their immediate environment (Schlegel et al., 2019). Investigating the material world—from observing a caterpillar over time to measuring the length of a shadow at different times of day to testing how well a structure can keep ice cream cold—builds critical banks of experiential knowledge that support future learning, not only within science and engineering (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004; Shapiro and Nager, 2000) but also in other domains such as literacy (Lesaux, 2012).

Experiential knowledge of materials forms a central resource that can support learners as they encounter canonical explanations of scientific phenomena or engage in engineering design activities (Duckworth, 1972; National Research Council [NRC], 2007; Worth, 2010). Exploration of

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

materials can also become central to the development of model- and simulation-based reasoning across the elementary grades (Lehrer et al., 2001). Hands-on exploration and design work can also be thought of as a form of learning-through-doing (Keune and Peppler, 2019; Papert, 1980). In contrast, Nick’s “kicking dust” in Box 3-1 was not recognized as a mechanism for sensemaking. The use of his foot (while his hands were full) was not recognized as a tool for exploration or as evidence of his attempting to share his finding with his peers. As a result, the sanctioned tools for investigation in his hands were overlooked as resources for continued sensemaking.

LEARNING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING IS A PROCESS OF IDENTITY FORMATION

What counts as successful learning? Histories of assessment, evaluation, and research predict most people’s lists would include children’s understanding of science and engineering knowledge at the top of the list. Yet, researchers have questioned the reliance on narrow measurement of knowledge and skills as primary indicators of science learning (Luke, Green, and Kelly, 2010). The move toward understanding learning as competent participation in practices is a step toward broadening what counts as learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991; NRC, 2012). An additional step is to understand learning as a process of identity formation (Big Idea 2). How and what children learn is related to the kinds of people children see themselves as, the kinds of people they want to become, and the people they are able to be in a learning context (Hand and Gresalfi, 2015).

Recognizing the centrality of identity calls attention to the individual knower, the kinds of social and cultural practices that enable learning, the opportunities one has to participate legitimately in the social practices that are important to a community of practice, and the meanings one makes of those opportunities (Lave and Wenger, 1991). As learners gain access to the knowledge-generating practices of a community (i.e., scientist or engineers) and get positioned in particular ways by members of a group, they begin to see themselves in relation to the norms and values of that community, as an aspect of identity formation that develops over time (Nasir and Cooks, 2009).

Cultural studies of science learning reveal that learners who succeed in school forms of science may not have positive attitudes about it (Kanter and Konstantopoulos, 2010), may comply with classroom norms without being intellectually engaged (Aikenhead, 2006), may make distinctions between “doing” science and “being” a scientist (Archer et al., 2010), or may not see themselves as being “science people” (Carlone, Haun-Frank, and Webb, 2011).

Viewing learning as identity formation means that science and engineering educators’ work is to nurture humans, not only to nurture humans’

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

minds. Science and engineering identity development have been documented among elementary-aged youth (Kane, 2012; Tai et al., 2006) and even among younger children in their play choices (Rowe and Neitzel, 2010) and in the kinds of science or engineering engagement families provide (Pattison et al., 2020). In a study of 58 amateur adult astronomers and 49 birders, Jones and colleagues (2017) found that many hobbyists’ lifelong science interests began in childhood, shaped by family members and the social capital they provided through science-related leisure activities. Lifelong learning in these hobbies is an indicator of sustained science identity work (Bell et al., 2012).

Many researchers see identity development as situated in the interactional contexts in which people participate rather than a stable set of personality characteristics (Falk, 2009; Gee, 2000; Penuel and Wertsch, 1995). Pattison and colleagues’ (2018) identity-frame model demonstrates the processes involved in science and engineering identity work. The model highlights youths’ performance and definition work coupled with others’ recognition and positioning work. Children engage in performance work when they make bids to be recognized as a certain kind of person. Identity performances can come in the form of asking lots of questions, holding the floor to explain why one fiddler crab’s claw is bigger than another, authoring oneself as the class expert about the solar system, or making a passionate argument for the logic of using a unique material in a small-group’s engineering design. Definition work comes in the form of youth actively claiming identities (“I’m a tinkerer”), roles they can play in the activity (“I’ll be the scribe”), and how they define or frame the activity (“This is a fun puzzle!”). In recognition work, bids to get recognized as a certain kind of person can be taken up or rejected by others (Gee, 2000). Others may also position youth in ways that support or threaten youths’ identity bids, for example, by nurturing or squelching particular actions or statements.

For instance, identity work is visible in the vignette (Box 3-1) as Nick performs himself as a curious, enthusiastic investigator, he makes bids to be recognized for his sensemaking, and is framing the activity as an opportunity to notice, wonder, share discoveries with peers, and make connections. Ms. Rivers does not recognize his identity bid and, instead, ascribes an unwanted identity of “troublemaker endangering peers” to his performances. Compliance and control were valued over sensemaking. In another context, Nick may have been celebrated for his enthusiastic, embodied sensemaking, which would bolster his ongoing science identity work.

There is a racialized storyline here, too (Nasir et al., 2012), that factors into how youth and adults define what and who counts as being scientific and what is labeled legitimate scientific practice (Bell, Van Horne, and Cheng, 2017). Nick’s behavior gets interpreted as deviant, defiant, and unkind to peers, and he is bodily removed from the activity. This is an all-too familiar story in science and engineering learning settings. Black children

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

are punished more often and more severely than white peers engaging in similar behavior (Basile, 2021; Joseph, Hailu, and Matthews, 2019; Milner, 2020), and may proscribe their own opportunities to learn in order to avoid being labeled as troublemakers (Wright, Wendell, and Paugh, 2018).

A growing body of literature demonstrates that educators overlook children of color’s brilliance in early childhood settings (Salazar Pérez and Saavedra, 2017), elementary school science (King and Pringle, 2019; Varelas et al., 2012), and elementary engineering (Pattison et al., 2018; Wright, 2019). In a study of 25 African-American first through third graders’ identity work relative to science, Varelas and colleagues (2012) found that “doing school” was a cultural narrative tightly intertwined with “doing science.” This construction of “science person” emphasized the accumulation of knowledge and complying with school’s behavioral norms and regulations, which can squelch sensemaking, problem solving, risk taking, and expressions of emotional investment, which are all part of developing science and engineering identities (Varelas, Kane, and Wylie, 2011). Nick’s experience reflects much of what the research shows is a common experience for many Black children.

SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING LEARNING OCCURS ACROSS CONTEXTS

Children’s science and engineering learning develops in multiple settings, in and out of school, and over time (Big Idea 3). These settings differ in the specific forms of engagement with other people, places, and materials that support children’s learning.

The available evidence base about children’s science and engineering learning is shaped by the settings in which that learning happens and the opportunities involved in conducting research in those settings. Research on children’s science learning is often conducted in formal education settings with similarly aged peers (preschool, elementary schools), or in laboratory-based settings involving individual children or child–caregiver dyads. Research in these settings sets aside the complexity of the social contexts in which much of children’s learning actually occurs—including multigenerational family groups, and in self-selected social groupings that are often of mixed age—which are all contexts that are relevant to how and where children spend their time. Informal learning environments provide important opportunities to study how learning unfolds in these more complex social groupings (Callanan, 2012). To understand what science and engineering education might look like in formal preschool and elementary school settings, it is crucial to recognize that children bring with them a wide repertoire of knowledge and strategies developed within and across the multiple sites of their activity; from children’s perspectives none of these sites are “prior to” the others (Vossoughi and Gutiérrez, 2014).

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

The Role of Families in Children’s Learning

For children, the family unit is a critical social context in which learners both build and make use of their “funds of knowledge” (Moll et al., 1992) and begin to develop the cultural frames that they will use to organize their understanding of themselves as learners and as teachers. The family unit also brings individual learners into contact with a range of more and less formal learning environments in which children can develop generalizable knowledge and understanding of science and engineering. These experiences also contribute to a child’s corpus of experiences, observations, and ways of relating that they will draw upon in future, more formal science and engineering learning. For example, in their study of Indigenous families engaging in robotics and storytelling, Tzou et al. (2019) found that parents use family and cultural stories, or storywork (Archibald, 2008), to teach their children about ways of knowing and reading the land, as well as their familial and communal responsibilities, both now and in the future. As families built their family stories through robotics, they navigated across their knowledge of robotics, place, family stories, and language. The stories themselves seemed to motivate families to exercise considerable agency over the robotics materials to accurately re-create scenes in their stories. In this way, the act of programming through robotics became a way to build toward cultural thriving and Indigenous futures.

As another example, Bustamante (personal communication, October, 28, 2020) and his colleagues worked with a group of families and caregivers in a predominantly Latinx community. Family elders told stories about going to the grocery store with children; many of these stories involved culturally situated science practices like using one’s senses to make observations (e.g., of produce) and crosscutting concepts like structure–function relationships (e.g., of when an avocado may be useful for making guacamole). The group co-designed signs that encouraged families to involve children in selecting produce through making careful observations, and to share their cultural knowledge linking observations with produce selection. Both of these examples, in addition to illustrating the role of families in children’s learning, also illustrate the multiple ways of knowing that can add value within children’s science and engineering learning, above and beyond a purely Eurocentric perspective.

The portrait of the social nature of learning that children often encounter first with and within family units points to the importance of organizing for social engagement in formal school settings in the preschool and elementary years, not only among age-alike peers but among families and schools (Ishimaru, 2019). Recent research has reframed the family as an intergenerational group in which learning and teaching are distributed in flexible and varying ways (Bang, Montaño Nolan, and McDaid-Morgan,

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

2018). Within the familial learning community, members can work together to coordinate cultural ways of knowing with formal scientific and engineering ideas and practices that are valued in formal educational and professional settings. Within these settings, every generation brings expertise and knowledge into the group from their experiences in other contexts and sources of expertise.

The role of the family as a resource to support children’s learning alongside formal education (e.g., as part of school–family partnerships) is well documented. For example, in Bryk’s (2010) study including hundreds of elementary schools in the Chicago Public School system, he found five major factors that influence school improvement, with strong family–community ties among them. Mapp and Kuttner (2013) found that effective school–family partnerships involve school staff that can recognize, honor, and connect family funds of knowledge to school learning and families in multiple roles, including as supporters, advocates, and decision makers. Family engagement has been found to be a powerful antiracist tool in pushing schools to de-center whiteness in the literacy curriculum (Delgado-Gaitan, 1990; Reyes and Torres, 2007). Finally, research is increasingly showing that family engagement can have a positive impact on specific disciplinary learning in mathematics (Epstein and Sheldon, 2016), and that young children within family contexts can jointly engage in scientific inquiry around everyday phenomena of interest (Keifert and Stevens, 2019).

Informal Settings Designed for STEM Learning

Science centers, zoos, botanical gardens, and natural history museums are all examples of designed, curated institutional settings that work both to elevate and celebrate various forms of scientific achievement and domination (Harraway, 1984), and to invite and support the public to explore science and engineering in self-directed ways (Falk and Storcksdeick, 2005). These institutions provide spaces where families can explore and explain phenomena together (Gutwill and Allen, 2017; Willard et al., 2019) and discover or pursue topics they are passionate about through programs, camps, and exhibits (Hassinger-Das et al., 2018; Honey and Kanter, 2013; Pattison and Dierking, 2018). There are a variety of pedagogical traditions that guide the design of different informal learning environments, and they can influence children’s science and engineering learning in multiple ways (NRC, 2009).

Informal settings can have their drawbacks. Learning in informal environments has been described as “free-choice learning” (Falk and Dierking, 2002), but critical studies have also shown that many learners feel excluded, uncomfortable, or unsure about how to engage with the types of learning experiences these institutions provide (Dawson, 2014). Engagement with

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

traditional sites of science and engineering learning (such as science centers, natural history museums and zoos, as well as scouting programs and outdoor camps) has long been inequitably distributed and dominated by upper-income and white families (Wonch Hill et al., 2020).

They also, of course, have unique affordances. Physical and material forms of play, exploration, and discourse that can be difficult or impossible to support in formal school settings can be encouraged and supported in environments that are spacious, often outdoors, and rich in materials to manipulate and novel settings to explore, and where opportunities and time frames for discussion are more flexible than in most school settings (Bennett and Monahan, 2013; Wohlwend et al., 2017). These environments can provide powerful opportunities for sensemaking (Callanan, Martin, and Luce, 2015), even in contexts that may sometimes initially appear to be “free-wheeling nonsense” (Wohlwend et al., 2017, p. 447).

These opportunities are also highly influenced by the kind of invitations that are extended to visitors. For example, working with 4- to 6-year-olds, Willard and colleagues (2019) examined the talk of parent–child dyads as they explored an exhibit about gears. Signage that prompted caregivers to “explore” with their child produced substantively different conversations, and different patterns of interaction with the gear system, compared to prompts to “explain” the exhibit. Peppler, Keune, and Dahn (2020) have demonstrated that including details about the specific end users whose needs are the subject of engineering design challenges can provoke learners’ empathy for the end user, which then supports more diverse and elaborated engagement with the stages of the engineering design process, as compared to design challenges that do not specify their end user. Both of these examples (as well as the example from Bustamante, discussed above) suggest the distinctive opportunities that well-designed informal STEM learning environments can provide for learners and their families as sites for sensemaking and intellectual risk taking (Bencze et al., 2020; Pedretti and Iannini, 2020), which can contribute to children’s positive identity formation as science learners among older youth (Lin and Schunn, 2016).

Place-Based Learning

All children learn in places: whether at home, at playgrounds, in neighborhoods, or at school, places are ever present. In science education, place-based education (Semken and Freeman, 2008; Sobel, 2004) can have many meanings: from place as a context for connecting local issues to science concepts (Semken and Freeman, 2008) to land-based education that deeply investigates the relationships between humans and the more-than-human world within complex systems (Barajas-López and Bang, 2018; Malone,

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

2018; Nxumalo, 2019) and considers multiple timescales, including Indigenous people’s time (Learning in Places Collaborative, 2020).

Place-based education refers to both geographical locations as well as lived experiences in communities and the natural environment (Gruenewald, 2003). Humans’ understanding of place is shaped by family and cultural knowledges and practices and consists of interdependent relationships across local and global scales. Therefore, place-based learning can happen across a full range of settings—places such as parks, forests, or recreation areas; in alleyways, parking lots, and other urban settings; or in rural areas such as farms or creeks.

Place-based science learning often emphasizes the connection between ecological and social systems. It provides a way for children to encounter phenomena in the natural world, wonder and notice, engage in investigations in their communities, and possibly design solutions and work toward local collective action (Lim and Calabrese Barton, 2006). The place-based observation that Nick engages in, as illustrated in Box 3-1, is an example of the opportunities for learning and sensemaking that places afford. Nick notices and wonders about trees, their age, and evidence of human presence in the place.

Places can also provide children with a sense of belonging within both ecological and human communities (Malone, 2018). For example, for children from Indigenous communities that are deeply connected to the land, learning science with place and land (Cajete and Bear, 2000; Kawagley, Norris-Tull, and Norris-Tull, 1998) is a deep way of knowing and being in the world. Therefore, in the places where outdoor learning occurs, those places embody environmental and social narratives and norms that are racialized, historicized, contested, and powered (Gruenewald, 2003; Lim and Calabrese Barton, 2010; Nxumalo, 2019). From this perspective, people and their actions within outdoor learning settings are not neutral or random; they are, instead, situated within historical and spatial contexts that invite or prohibit opportunities for learning (Tzou and Bell, 2012).

Digital Media and Online Learning

Another context for children’s learning involves their use of technology; this was true even before the global COVID-19 pandemic that interrupted many children’s face-to-face schooling. Most children spend significant portions of their time online and engaging with digital resources. An enormous array of digital media devoted to science and engineering are available and can play constructive roles in expanding young people’s understanding of science and engineering phenomena, environments, and ways of working. When integrated with other modes of exploration and discussion, narrative

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

digital media can support young children’s science talk and understanding (Penuel et al., 2010). Emergent work with young children suggests the scalable promise of conversational agents in supporting children’s sensemaking when viewing public television science programming (Xu and Warschauer, 2020). This is important in part because of the high frequency with which children engage with science-related media such as educational television shows (Silander et al., 2018).

Digital simulations can also be used effectively to support preschool and elementary grade children’s learning, with appropriate scaffolding and support from teachers (Smetana and Bell, 2012), though relatively few classroom-based (i.e., not laboratory-based) studies have focused on the use of digital simulations in early science (Falloon, 2019). Digital science journals and other tools for capturing and visualizing photo and video data have also been found to uniquely support science investigation in preschool (Presser et al., 2017, 2019). This work with digital science journals showed how the tools could help children to observe, document, review, and make sense of phenomena that occur across a range of time scales (e.g., plant growth, movement down a ramp; Presser et al., 2019). Finally, emergent findings looking at digital game-based learning in elementary science are suggestive of these games’ potential in supporting learning; the systematic review of the (limited) literature also, however, identified possible barriers, including the attitudes of parents and teachers (Hussein et al., 2019).

Electronics can also play an important part in children’s informal explorations of engineering. Well-established robotics and programming initiatives and resources for preschool and elementary grade learners have demonstrated young children’s ability to design and solve engineering problems using computational strategies (Bers, González-González, and Armas-Torres, 2019), and a range of programs and materials designed to support young learners’ exploration of robotics and programming have been studied in classrooms (Pila et al., 2019; Strawhacker and Bers, 2019). Horn (2018), Peppler and colleagues (2019), and others (Kumpulainen, Burke, and Ntelioglou, 2020) have also explored how electronics and computational tools can be integrated into other domains of engineering and making with young learners, including through textiles and visual art. Through making and engineering experiences, children can build their fluency with both electronics and analog materials and ways to integrate them to create artifacts that express their ideas or solve problems that matter to them (Peppler, Halverson, and Kafai, 2016).

LEARNING IS NOT NEUTRAL

Learning is not neutral (Big Idea 4). What is learned, how it is learned, and what counts as competence in learning is continuously shaped by the values, practices, norms, and opportunities in a given setting. These settings

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

themselves exist in relationship to historical and social structures of power. Consequently, learning has moral and ethical dimensions.

Historically, white, middle class, heteronormative, and monolingual discourse practices and values define what is “normal” and expected learning and development (Spencer et al., 2020). This functions to (a) restrict the content and form of science valued and communicated through science education and (b) locate children, particularly minoritized youth, in positions that undermine their engagement in meaningful science learning (Bang et al., 2012)—as illustrated in Box 3-1, with Nick’s contributions being dismissed and punished. Children from nondominant communities are asked to give up who they are and how they know to engage in school science, and the result can be that family and community knowledge is positioned as “less rigorous” or “less scientific” than Eurocentric scientific knowledge impacting who is seen as a science learner (Warren et al., 2020). In this way, children who express their learning in language and behaviors that fall outside of those norms get labeled, implicitly and explicitly, as deficit (Brown, Mistry, and Yip, 2019).

EQUITY AND LEARNING ACROSS CONTEXTS

The three key elements considered in the discussion of the first big idea (learning is cultural)—the roles of relationships, discourse, and materials—each have a substantial impact on the design of learning environments and thus children’s increasing opportunities for access to high-quality science and engineering (Approach #1). For example, when teachers build relationships with children, it can make it more likely that children will take up the tools and resources of a setting (Nasir et al., 2020).

Learning inherently connects to children’s increased achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering (Approach #2). Children engage in performance and definition work and this is coupled with others’ recognition and positioning work (Pattison et al., 2018). Inequitable disciplinary practices impede children of color from developing positive identification with science and engineering (Basile, 2021; Joseph, Hailu, and Matthews, 2019; Milner, 2020; Wright, Wendell, and Paugh, 2018).

These big ideas have important implications for an expansive perspective on what constitutes science and engineering (Approach #3). Because learning is cultural (Big Idea 1) and because learning science and engineering is not neutral (Big Idea 4), the discourses used for science and engineering learning matter. Expanding how science and engineering discourses are defined can bring more children into the work; alternatively, defining these as needing to match white, middle class ways of speaking and expressing ideas leaves children out (Rosebery et al., 2010; see also Bang et al., 2012; Spencer et al.,

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

2020; Varelas et al., 2014; Warren et al., 2020). Furthermore, science and engineering learning occurs across contexts (Big Idea 3). Taking advantage of and connecting to families and places can also help to develop this more expansive perspective—as shown, for example, when families told stories of the land while engaging with robotics (Tzou et al., 2019).

The scenario of Nick presented in Box 3-1—and the larger research project within which it is situated (Learning in Places Collaborative, 2020)—provides one example of how instruction can support children to see science and engineering as part of justice movements (Approach #4). In the project’s efforts to make Indigenous people’s and future time visible, and to broaden children’s perspectives on time and place, the project pushes children to work toward more just futures. Participating children see Indigenous people in the curriculum (thus refusing their invisibility, as is much more typical in school settings). Further research on learning in contexts within projects aimed at seeing science and engineering as a part of justice movements is warranted.

SUMMARY

This chapter explored the rich and varied ways that children make sense of their worlds, learn to connect their increasingly sophisticated sensemaking to their emerging identities as scientific knowers and doers, and engage in learning across settings within and across ever-expanding and overlapping communities. Children engage with multiple cultural groups and develop skills with a broad range of dynamic practices, or repertoires of practice. Yet, learning science and engineering is not only about accumulation of knowledge and skills. Rather, learning science and engineering is a process of identity formation that is ongoing throughout a person’s life and can start in productive ways during childhood. When children have opportunities to engage in meaningful scientific work within communities that position them as competent knowers and doers of science, and with the support of adults and peers who know the learner and can recognize and respond to their expressions of their ideas, children can form identities that reinforce connections to being scientists and engineers. Families, other learning partners, out-of-school settings, and digital media can all serve to expand children’s opportunities for sensemaking. However, learning settings and learning science and engineering are not neutral. All learning occurs in places that involve powered and racialized relationships that affect what and how children learn.

Across contexts and modalities, children’s science and engineering learning is powerfully shaped and potentially supported by both their relationships with others and their opportunities to express and make sense of their own experiences of the world. Subsequent chapters take up how

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

children engage in investigation and design (Chapter 4), how learning environments and instructional design can support them in doing so (Chapters 5 and 6), and how different levers can support the development and enactment of those learning environments (Chapters 7, 8, and 9).

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

This page intentionally left blank.

Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page53
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page54
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page55
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page56
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page57
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page58
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page59
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page60
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page61
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page62
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page63
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page64
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page65
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page66
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page67
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page68
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page69
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page70
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page71
Suggested Citation:"3 The Contextual Nature of Children's Learning." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page72
Next: 4 Developing Children's Proficiency in and Through Investigation and Design »
Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators Get This Book
×
Buy Paperback | $40.00
MyNAP members save 10% online.
Login or Register to save!
Download Free PDF

Starting in early childhood, children are capable of learning sophisticated science and engineering concepts and engage in disciplinary practices. They are deeply curious about the world around them and eager to investigate the many questions they have about their environment. Educators can develop learning environments that support the development and demonstration of proficiencies in science and engineering, including making connections across the contexts of learning, which can help children see their ideas, interests, and practices as meaningful not just for school, but also in their lives. Unfortunately, in many preschool and elementary schools science gets relatively little attention compared to English language arts and mathematics. In addition, many early childhood and elementary teachers do not have extensive grounding in science and engineering content.

Science and Engineering in Preschool through Elementary Grades provides evidence-based guidance on effective approaches to preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction that supports the success of all students. This report evaluates the state of the evidence on learning experiences prior to school; promising instructional approaches and what is needed for implementation to include teacher professional development, curriculum, and instructional materials; and the policies and practices at all levels that constrain or facilitate efforts to enhance preschool through elementary science and engineering.

Building a solid foundation in science and engineering in the elementary grades sets the stage for later success, both by sustaining and enhancing students' natural enthusiasm for science and engineering and by establishing the knowledge and skills they need to approach the more challenging topics introduced in later grades. Through evidence-based guidance on effective approaches to preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction, this report will help teachers to support the success of all students.

  1. ×

    Welcome to OpenBook!

    You're looking at OpenBook, NAP.edu's online reading room since 1999. Based on feedback from you, our users, we've made some improvements that make it easier than ever to read thousands of publications on our website.

    Do you want to take a quick tour of the OpenBook's features?

    No Thanks Take a Tour »
  2. ×

    Show this book's table of contents, where you can jump to any chapter by name.

    « Back Next »
  3. ×

    ...or use these buttons to go back to the previous chapter or skip to the next one.

    « Back Next »
  4. ×

    Jump up to the previous page or down to the next one. Also, you can type in a page number and press Enter to go directly to that page in the book.

    « Back Next »
  5. ×

    Switch between the Original Pages, where you can read the report as it appeared in print, and Text Pages for the web version, where you can highlight and search the text.

    « Back Next »
  6. ×

    To search the entire text of this book, type in your search term here and press Enter.

    « Back Next »
  7. ×

    Share a link to this book page on your preferred social network or via email.

    « Back Next »
  8. ×

    View our suggested citation for this chapter.

    « Back Next »
  9. ×

    Ready to take your reading offline? Click here to buy this book in print or download it as a free PDF, if available.

    « Back Next »
Stay Connected!