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Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators (2022)

Chapter:5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design

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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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5

Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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 chapter summarizes what research suggests are the key features of learning environments and instructional practices that support children’s participation in forms of science and engineering activity. It illustrates how these features support investigation and design, including how they may productively vary to support children of different ages or experience. The review of research is guided by findings described in Chapters 3 and 4: children come to school with orientations toward, as well as proficiencies and interest in, investigation and design. Whether and how children show their competence depends on contextual factors; furthermore, it is important to draw from and provide support for children’s developing interests, identities, and the contexts in which they engage in science and engineering.

How to design high-quality and equitable learning environments for preschool through elementary science and engineering is the focus of this chapter. Thus, the identification of key features of learning environments and instructional practices is guided by a commitment to equity (see Chapter 1). Instructional practices aligned with this commitment elicit, honor, and leverage the diverse repertoires of talking, being, and sensemaking that children bring to instruction, and it is important for teachers to recognize their own orientations to this work. This stance considers how the repertoires of minoritized children (or other children who are potentially marginalized on the basis of gender, [dis]ability, or learning difference) can be, and are likely to be, silenced by the content and valued practices of classrooms that are not intentionally designed with equity and justice at the foreground.

MOVING BEYOND DICHOTOMIES

Preschool and elementary learning environments have sometimes been dominated by discourse emphasizing dichotomous distinctions. These dichotomies include (1) calls for early childhood learning environments to center free play versus calls to center school readiness and academic learning (Clements and Sarama, 2004; Sarama et al., 2017; Weisberg et al., 2016); (2) recommendations that children discover ideas by themselves versus those that highlight the need for explicit instruction (Furtak et al., 2012; Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark, 2006); and (3) framing children as natural scientists versus claims that children can engage only in a subset of science practices (Metz, 1995, 2004). These dichotomous framings pit educational approaches against each other in ways that are often not evidence based or productive for instructional design.

Instead, the committee was guided by the following perspectives. First, the committee views children’s play and learning as mutually supportive. Free play and open-ended exploration play key roles in young children’s learning

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

(e.g., Charara, Miller, and Krajcik, 2021; Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek, 2008); they make children’s interests visible and provide opportunities for children to learn social-emotional skills crucial to learning more broadly (e.g., Veiga, Neto, and Rieffe, 2016). During free play, children also naturally engage in mathematics (Seo and Ginsburg, 2004) and science (Bulunuz, 2013; Gross, 2012). Adults support play and strengthen the learning of these skills by purposefully designing the environment and facilitating interactions that draw on and extend children’s activity (Bustamante, White, and Greenfield, 2017; Weisberg et al., 2015). Intentional and sequenced instruction leads not only to improvements in learning (e.g., Whittaker et al., 2020) but also enriched play (Sarama et al., 2017).

Second, the committee recognizes that children’s science and engineering practice activity can be supported, rather than usurped, by purposeful instruction, and that adults and children can share responsibility for posing questions and problems, designing investigations, and developing explanations (Furtak et al., 2012; Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn, 2007; Reiser, 2004). Dichotomous notions of teachers “telling vs. not telling students” are likely to be unhelpful; instead, guidance on what forms of support teachers can provide, when, and for what purposes are more useful (Furtak and Alonzo, 2010; Manz and Suárez, 2018). Finally, as discussed in Chapter 4, children are capable of and benefit from engagement in a wide spectrum of science and engineering practices; however, the form of their engagement and the contexts they experience as productive and meaningful will differ, both from secondary students and across the preschool through elementary trajectory (Metz, 2011; National Research Council [NRC], 2012).

KEY FEATURES OF THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT

Science and engineering educators, especially at the middle and high school levels, have generated an evidence base of key features of learning environments, formal and informal, that support and develop learners’ science and engineering learning (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2019b; Schwarz, Passmore, and Reiser, 2017). Although research in preschool through elementary science and engineering is less extensive, emerging evidence suggests that when key features of the learning environment are coupled with instructional practices that build from them, preschool and elementary children can engage in science and engineering practices and learn sophisticated science ideas that are meaningful to their experiences and everyday life (Lehrer and Schauble, 2015; Metz, 2011; NRC, 2007). This chapter is organized around five features of the learning environment that support learning, which are summarized in Table 5-1. These are interacting parts of a system rather than features on a checklist. Furthermore, the elements synergistically support multiple

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

dimensions of children’s work; they are separated here for analytic purposes and organized to illustrate the activity that they can support.

Children Engage in Science and Engineering in a Caring Community

A productive science and engineering learning environment for preschool through elementary school is one where children feel safe, feel their contributions are valued, and see their work as important to others (Carlone, Haun-Frank, and Webb, 2011; Eshach and Fried, 2005; Jaber and Hammer, 2016; Krist and Suárez, 2018; Lee, 2017; Liston, 2008; McWayne et al., 2020; Scardamalia, 2002). This kind of learning environment centers equitable and respectful relationships among children, be-

TABLE 5-1 Features of the Learning Environment That Support Learning

Children… Features of the Learning Environment
Engage in science and engineering in a caring community.
  • Teachers and children set and revise norms.
  • The learning environment promotes a collective culture.
  • Teachers build relationships with children, families, and communities.
  • The learning environment invites the emotional dimension of science and engineering work.
Orient to investigation and design in contexts they find meaningful.
  • Children’s work is anchored in rich contexts, phenomena, and design challenges.
  • Teachers attend to and value children’s initial ideas and experiences.
Refine their explanations and solutions through sensemaking with data.
  • Children work with tools, resources, and data to test and refine ideas and solutions.
  • Children discuss and make decisions, including questioning and problematizing.
  • Children’s activity is grounded in iterative refinement of artifacts and children are positioned as sensemakers.
Learn with and from each other.
  • Teachers and curricula invite a wide range of semiotic resources and ways of showing thinking.
  • Teachers and curricula use flexible structures to support collaboration and collective thinking.
  • Teachers elicit and work with children’s ideas.
Are assessed in ways that show their learning and inform instruction.
  • Formative assessment is used for multiple purposes.
  • Formative assessment systems draw on multiple forms of evidence.
  • Formative assessment includes probes and support for children.
  • Teachers develop understanding of the interpretation and potential biases involved in formative assessment.
Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

tween children and teachers, and with the community more broadly. These learning environments promote a collective culture and invite and respond to the emotional dimensions of science and engineering work (Jaber and Hammer, 2016; Larimore, 2020; Scardamalia, 2002). Teachers play a pivotal role shaping the classroom culture by working with children to set, reflect on, and revise norms and establishing relationships with children, families, and communities (Chinn, 2006, 2012; Esteban-Guitart and Moll, 2014; Herrenkohl et al., 1999).

Carefully attending to and supporting norms and roles for participation in the science and engineering community (Nasir et al., 2014) is important for supporting a collaborative, caring culture. Norms and practices that are effective in community building in preschool and elementary science and engineering—building in part on relevant literature in secondary levels—include

  • Leveraging children’s social identities in service of their scientific understanding and engagement (Carlone, Scott, and Lowder, 2014) so that “being me,” “being scientific,” and “being a good member of the classroom community” are synergistic.
  • Emphasizing science and engineering as collectively constructed as opposed to individually owned (Stroupe, 2014; Zhang et al., 2009).
  • Minimizing sorting mechanisms and hierarchies between children by celebrating a wide range of proficiencies beyond success in final-form science (e.g., innovative problem solving, unique scientific observations, persistence through a task, insightful inference, intense curiosity, risk taking, tolerance for ambiguity, ability to focus) (Bang et al., 2017; Rosebery et al., 2010).
  • Explicitly discussing and supporting science and engineering practices while allowing children to shape those practices and recognizing a wide range of scientific and engineering performances (Agarwal and Sengupta-Irving, 2019; Herrenkohl et al., 1999; McNeill, 2011; Ryu and Sandoval, 2012).

A caring, collective culture can also influence the way that children relate to each other, how the class engages together in sensemaking, children’s uptake of science and engineering practices, their sense of what constitutes a “smart science student,” and their science and engineering identities (Carlone, Mercier, and Metzger, 2021; Kane, 2015, 2016; Varelas et al., 2008). Teachers who develop a collaborative science and engineering culture set up opportunities for children to work together in small groups and as a whole class, expecting them to share and listen to each other and jointly construct conceptual understanding (Carlone, Haun-Frank,

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

and Webb, 2011; Engle and Conant, 2002; Herrenkohl and Mertl, 2010; Peterson and French, 2008; Sandoval et al., 2019). Such teachers also seek to disrupt normative views of knowledge as final form and individually owned, with the teacher as the implied audience and arbiter of children’s contributions, ideas typically well established by the elementary years (Carlone, Scott, and Lowder, 2014). When sharing correct answers and seeking positive evaluation from teachers are the focus of children’s activity, divisions among children become more pronounced and taking risks is more difficult. When all children feel they have a stake in and responsibility for their peers’ learning and well-being, more children recognize themselves and get recognized by others as competent and capable.

As teachers develop positive relationships with children in moments of interaction, they position learners in their classrooms as important for the community (Kane, 2015, 2016; Watkins et al., 2017) while also potentially challenging their own beliefs about how children may learn best (Loucks-Horsley et al., 2009). These relationships are most likely to be supported when teachers are intentional about interrogating their own positionalities and identities and those of the children with whom they work (Mensah and Jackson, 2018). They can build these relationships through routines like morning greetings, demonstrating interest in their ideas, and checking in with them about difficulties and successes during the investigation and design process. Finally, teachers are able to develop respectful and equitable relationships with the communities and children’s families by learning about children’s and their families’ lives—from the kinds of natural phenomena and design challenges that relate to their goals and needs (which can be helpful for contextualizing investigations and design) to their cultural norms for communicating and collaborating (Chinn, 2006, 2012; Esteban-Guitart and Moll, 2014; Hudicourt-Barnes, 2003; McWayne et al., 2020; Wright, 2019).

Moreover, scholars have increasingly highlighted the role of emotion in doing and learning science and engineering and have begun to develop accounts of classroom environments that draw on emotional dimensions to support individual and collective learning (Jaber and Hammer, 2016; Wright, 2019). Scientists and engineers experience a sense of puzzlement, frustration, and sometimes failure as they recognize the gaps in their thinking or as troublesome issues re-emerge (Kimmerer, 2013; Knorr Cetina, 2001; Radoff, 2017). They also, however, report joy as they think with new and exciting ideas and see new things (Fox, 1983; Kimmerer, 2003). So too are accounts of children’s learning of science and engineering replete with descriptions of children’s emotions (Engle and Conant, 2002; Jaber and Hammer, 2016). Davis and Schaeffer (2019) note that although children’s experiences of environmental problems have affective dimensions, these are rarely elicited or studied, particularly among minoritized

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

youth whose communities are directly impacted. Furthermore, minoritized children may fear repercussions of behaviors (such as Nick experienced in Box 3-1) that may lead them to proscribe their full engagement with the science or engineering work of the classroom (Wright, Wendell, and Paugh, 2018; see Box 5-1).

Preschool programs have historically been conceptualized to address the whole child (Bishop-Josef and Zigler, 2011; Larimore, 2020), intentionally focusing not only on academic learning but also on physical and social-emotional development, with health and family engagement as key components (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020). The

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

preschool day offers multiple opportunities for collaborative learning; it includes whole-group discussions, guided small-group activities, free choice learning centers, and outdoor exploration and routines with opportunities for socially interactive learning. For these reasons, emotional and instructional support have both been identified as key dimensions of preschool classroom quality (LaParo, Pianta, and Hamre, 2008; Mashburn et al., 2008). Preschool educators have been found to use the most effective holistic instructional practices when facilitating science activities, in comparison to their practices in other subject areas (Cabell et al., 2013). Preschool thus has unique affordances for caring and collaborative science learning. The approaches described in this chapter appear to be just as important for elementary learners, though they are often less of a focus for research and professional learning.

Children’s Activity Is Oriented to Investigation and Design in Meaningful Contexts

As described in Chapters 3 and 4, it is important to make connections across content areas and across sites of activity. Meaningful contexts serve as much more than a “hook”; they honor the student perspective by helping them to see that the work they are doing is helping to address the problems and questions they have raised. Thus, productive environments anchor children’s activity in meaningful contexts, phenomena, and design challenges—linked to the experiences, knowledge, interests, and identities of children and their environments. Productive contexts for science and engineering can emerge from children’s interests and observations in their classrooms, homes, and communities (Eshach and Fried, 2005; French, 2004; Katz, 2010; NRC, 2012; Tu, 2006). For example, McWayne and colleagues (2018) worked with preschool educators and parents to co-design a relationally and culturally situated science, technology, and engineering program. During Lunar New Year, families brought lucky bamboo into the classroom, spurring engineering activities to reinforce the concept of stability. Family activities, such as neighborhood walks, inspired the creation of scrapbooks that later guided engineering design activities in which children refined their understanding of force and motion. Research in kindergarten has similarly documented how neighborhood nature walks can springboard science investigations of organisms and their adaptations (Samarapungavan, Patrick, and Mantzicopoulos, 2011); furthermore, family walks can inspire intergenerational sensemaking about biological and physical phenomena (Marin and Bang, 2018). There are fewer examples of emergent uptake of children’s interests and activities for upper elementary science and engineering learning (see Kelly, Brown, and Crawford, 2000, as an exception).

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

Problematizing phenomena in children’s lives and introducing phenomena and design challenges that resonate with children’s experiences (Penuel and Reiser, 2018) also support productive contexts for science and engineering. For example, by exploring the growth of a cob of corn left out in the rain, second grade children can apply their understanding of plant growth to a new phenomenon, addressing standards related to structure–function relationships and how plants and animals meet their needs (NASEM, 2017; Novak et al., 2019). By seeking to design toys for other children, they can explore ideas of force, motion, and magnetism (Krajcik et al., 2021). Children can explore water’s different forms by pursuing the question, “what happens to rain after it hits the ground?” (Baumfalk et al., 2019). Contexts can also connect investigation and design to issues of justice and equity by incorporating phenomena and design challenges that are relevant in children’s communities (Cody and Biggers, 2020; Dalvi, Wendell, and Johnson, 2016; Davis and Schaeffer, 2019; Haas et al., 2021; Mensah et al., 2018; Upadhyay, 2009).

Teachers in these environments attend to and value children’s initial ideas and experiences, playing a crucial role in welcoming and valuing multiple ideas and experiences and working with children’s ideas to develop disagreements and questions that will situate further design and investigation. As noted in Chapter 4, children (and adults) struggle to pose investigable questions in new contexts and do not always recognize disagreements or gaps in their understanding. Teachers can provide support by offering sustained exploration of the shared phenomenon or design challenge; eliciting children’s ideas and experiences to make it clear that everyone has something to contribute; valuing uncertainty as indicating that there is “something to figure out”; asking probing questions; pointing out differences in ideas; and co-constructing problems and questions with children (Bismack and Haefner, 2020; McGill, Housman, and Reiser, 2021; Metz, 2011; Phillips et al., 2018; Reiser et al., 2017; Watkins et al., 2018; Zembal-Saul and Hershberger, 2020).

Overall, productive environments anchor children’s activity in meaningful contexts, phenomena, and design challenges. Investigation and design can emerge from children’s exploration of familiar contexts, such as the classroom’s block area or their schoolyard (Fleer, Gomes, and March, 2014; Larimore, 2020). Instruction can also introduce phenomena and design challenges that connect to children’s experiences and support subsequent investigation of disciplinary core ideas (Cunningham, 2017; Penuel and Reiser, 2018; Wright and Gotwals, 2017). Teachers may need to provide support by attending to and valuing children’s interests and experiences and by helping children articulate questions and disagreements that establish a need for iterative investigation and design work.

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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 Iteratively Refine Their Explanations and Designs

Productive science and engineering learning environments sustain investigation and design over time so that children can revise their thinking in response to new evidence and ideas. Although children’s initial ideas about natural phenomena or design challenges are often productive, scientific accounts of the world often involve more causal complexity than everyday settings (Perkins and Grotzer, 2005) and involve invisible causal agents (i.e., forces and molecules). Consequently, children need opportunities to refine their ideas and iterate on proposed design solutions based on evidence and further information. Sustained opportunities for investigation and design provide repeated opportunities for children to grapple with science and engineering practices, engage with data, and develop deep conceptual understanding (Lehrer and Schauble, 2015; NRC, 2007, 2012). These opportunities frame science and engineering as a coherent endeavor unfolding over days, weeks, or months (Reiser et al., 2021; Schwarz, Passmore, and Reiser, 2017).

Access to tools, resources, and data can help children make progress on gathering information and testing and revising their ideas. Toys and manipulatives in preschool classrooms can promote exploration and building. Science and mathematical tools such journals, rulers, and magnifying glasses can support observation and data collection (Brenneman and Louro, 2008; Tu, 2006). Access to a range of texts, including informational text, can support children to identify with the goals, practices, and pursuits of science and engineering and provide support for developing explanations (see Chapter 6).

Technologies such as cameras and digital journals can provide unique affordances for documentation and support data visualization (Presser et al., 2017). Media, including simulations and games, can extend children’s science and engineering learning by allowing children to manipulate variables and test hypotheses (Grindal et al., 2019; Presser et al., 2019; Smetana and Bell, 2012). Some of these technologies are particularly helpful for providing access to phenomena that are too large, small, slow, or fast to perceive without the tools (Presser et al., 2019). Tools accompanying public television programming also show promise (Xu and Warschauer, 2020). Designs based on embodied cognition use bodies themselves, and their movement, as resources for learning (Foglia and Wilson, 2013; Lindgren and Johnson-Glenberg, 2013; Ma, 2017; Samarapungavan, Bryan, and Wills, 2017; Shapiro, 2019); engaging children in dance, drama, or physical simulations support understanding of complex concepts (Danish et al., 2020; Georgen, 2019; Keifert et al., 2020; Varelas et al., 2010).

Science and engineering rely on a range of empirical methods (NRC, 2007) and these forms of investigation have different affordances in pre-

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

school through elementary school (Table 5-2). The forms of investigation each provide opportunities for engaging in the science and engineering practices and link back to children’s own questions and problems, making them authentic and meaningful.

For example, observational methods may inform the development and refinement of questions and more controlled forms of investigation, and vice versa (Lehrer, Schauble, and Petrosino, 2001; Metz, 2011; Presser et al., 2017; Samarapungavan, Patrick, and Mantzicopoulos, 2011). To illustrate, Monteira and Jiménez-Aleixandre (2016) described a kindergarten class’s inquiry into snails, where questions about feeding preferences emerging from long-term observation supported experiments to determine preferences. This snail experiment in turn opened up new questions, which children pursued by observing marks left on food to conjecture about snails’ mouthparts, engaging with text, and finally, closely observing a limpet’s mouth with a hand lens. Similarly, Manz (2015, 2016) described how third graders compared Wisconsin Fast Plants to understand whether the amount of light a seed received mattered for growth and reproduction. The children argued that their investigation did not adequately allow them to understand the growth of plants in a wild area behind their school—recognizing, first, that the plants in the backyard were different kinds than those studied in the investigation and, second, that the amount of light provided by the lightbox and sun might differ. The teacher supported children to propose a field-based investigation of different areas in the backyard to describe light and develop counts of the plants in plots. In each case, teachers supported children to make sense of how their investigations helped them make progress on their questions, what new gaps and questions investigations had surfaced, and what new data were needed.

Giving children opportunities to discuss or make important decisions about how to define the questions or problems they are exploring, how to go about that exploration, and how to evaluate their efforts is crucial to the development of a science and engineering classroom community for meaningful sensemaking (Duschl, 2008; Ford and Forman, 2006; Lehrer, Schauble, and Petrosino, 2001; Manz, 2016; Metz, 2008). Scientists and engineers face uncertainty not only about the best explanation for a phenomenon or the best design, but in how to define problems, how to design investigations, what measures or evidence to focus on, and how to make sense of variability in data. Children need to engage with this uncertainty to understand science and engineering practice (Driver et al., 1996; Ford, 2005; Manz, Lehrer, and Schauble, 2020). Further, a robust body of research in education and psychology shows the value of learners grappling with uncertainty and failure (e.g., Hiebert et al., 1996; Kapur and Bielaczyc, 2012; Reiser, 2004).

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

TABLE 5-2 Forms of Investigation and Material Resources

Investigation Type Description: Children…
Field Study; Place-Based Work Observe and interact with ecological and life cycle phenomena in their environment (e.g., nature walks, school gardens).
First-Hand Observational Studies Over Time Observe a phenomenon over a period of time (e.g., examining plant growth or tracking weather).
Building, Tinkering, and Optimizing Explore a phenomenon through interacting and trying out ideas (e.g., exploring ramps, force and motion).
First-Hand Comparisons and Experiments Compare conditions, varying one factor and trying to understand causes or differences (e.g., plant growth in different conditions).
Simulations Engage with a representation of a phenomenon, testing parameters.
Second-Hand Data Use data collected by others to develop claims and explanations.
Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×
Affordances: Children… Considerations
Observe phenomena and designs as they occur in the world, including in the school’s immediate area; develop relationships with and within ecosystems; ask should-we questions. Using outdoors for learning (as opposed to recess) may be unfamiliar to children and may require norm setting.

Repeated visits to distant location may not be practical; lessons may benefit from visits to the schoolyard instead.

Available outdoor spaces may not align with learning goals and planning may be needed to identify relevant phenomena.
Observe, pose questions, draw, and measure. May be less useful for causal questions and may entail descriptive questions.
Explore materials and ideas, posing “what if” and “how can I” questions and gaining familiarity with ideas in contexts they co-create. Hard to record ideas; may require planning for creative options.

Work may not generate useful comparisons so may require complementary learning experiences.
Explore and see causal effects to support explanations; may measure, compare, and represent data. May require extensive experience before causal questions are sensible.

May yield inconsistent results when conducted by children, so may require contingency plans or improvement of investigative procedures.
Easily and efficiently manipulate variables and/or test design solutions. Simulation meaning may be opaque to children, which may necessitate explication or complementary learning experiences.

Simulations may demonstrate ideas rather than fostering sensemaking, which may necessitate different choices.
Analyze datasets that may be hard to collect within the constraints of classrooms. Data collection and representation may be opaque to children and may require explication and scaffolding.
Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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 can understand and engage with several forms of uncertainty and decision making when

Engineering learning experiences often emphasize problem solving without making space for children to engage in processes of identifying problems to be solved, identifying criteria and constraints, gathering more information to learn about the problem, and/or redefining the problem. Rather than allow children to engage in this work of “problem scoping” (Atman et al., 2007; Watkins, Spencer, and Hammer, 2014), often curricula present problems that are already well defined, or teachers do the work of problem scoping for children. Children need opportunities to do this work themselves, because practicing problem scoping can make space for them to engage in question-asking, identify creative solutions, and involve skills that need to be developed and practiced.

Boxes 5-2 and 5-3 illustrate some of these forms of uncertainty and show that engaging children in making decisions about investigations and designs are not equated with open exploration. Children need support from adults to consider decisions.

Organizing instruction around developing and revising artifacts across lessons can help orient instruction around sensemaking by connecting children’s work to a broader conceptual context, and can help position children

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

as sensemakers. Preschool and elementary science lessons often emphasize data collection and representation removed from efforts to construct explanations or models (Zangori, Forbes, and Biggers, 2013). Often, models, explanations, and even designs are developed at the end of a series of activities as a way to express or showcase what children have learned or to make the “correct explanation” public (Gouvea and Passmore, 2017; Schwarz et al., 2009). When children are asked to develop tentative models, explanations, or prototypes at the beginning of a unit, they make their ideas visible and have a chance to engage with each other’s ideas, setting up a need to investigate and supporting a sense of coherence as they return to artifacts over time (Reiser et al., 2017) (see Box 5-4). Organizing investigation and design around constructing, using, evaluating, and refining explanations, models, and prototypes can also help focus children’s efforts around disciplinary criteria, such as the explanation that best accounts for available data or the design prototype that best meets solution criteria (Schwarz, Passmore, and Reiser, 2017; Vo et al., 2015).

As children iteratively refine their ideas and artifacts, teachers use tools and resources and facilitate discussions and decision making to help maintain a focus on the purpose of investigative and design work by reminding children of where they are in their inquiry, articulating and/or posting the central challenge or question, and connecting children’s ideas back to the purpose at hand (Manz, 2016; Winokur and Worth, 2006). Children benefit from support to interpret observations, reminding themselves of the

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

meaning of numbers and representations; they also need support to move beyond conclusions about trends in data to explanations of why and how findings occurred (Brenneman and Louro, 2008; Hapgood, Magnusson, and Palincsar, 2004; Herrenkohl, Tasker, and White, 2011; Presser et al., 2019; Zangori, Forbes, and Biggers 2013). Moreover, teachers acknowledge chil-

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

dren’s contributions, attributing observations, data, and ideas to individuals or the community (Monteira, Jiménez-Aleixandre, and Siry, 2020). Before introducing read-alouds that provide canonical information, teachers can review with children the progress they have made in their investigations and what questions remain; during read-alouds, they can connect information to children’s discoveries and questions (Palincsar and Magnusson, 2001; Varelas et al., 2014; Zembal-Saul, McNeill, and Hershberger, 2013). Lastly, teachers need to make adjustments based on the class’s progress and emerging questions. In this kind of responsive teaching, teachers attend to the substance of children’s ideas and respond through opening up discussion and adjusting resources, support, and next steps (Colley and Windschitl, 2016; Peterson and French, 2008; Robertson, Hammer, and Scherr, 2016; Schwarz et al., 2020).

In summary, children’s sensemaking can be supported by providing opportunities for them to produce and refine artifacts as they articulate explanations, develop models, and test designs. Children can engage with a range of information sources—including empirical investigation, second-hand data, and informational text—to revise their initial ideas. Within this work, children can be positioned as active sensemakers and can discuss decisions about investigations and criteria for their work; they can also question and problematize situations with data, allowing them to explore authentic local contexts and problems. Because children’s iterative sensemaking is often unpredictable and nonlinear, instructional and assessment practices involve adjusting resources and support based on children’s progress and emerging questions. Further, the creation and refinement of artifacts and the discussions that emerge from this process make children’s sensemaking visible and can serve as formative assessment evidence for teachers, as described later in this chapter.

Children Learn with and from Each Other

The practices of science and engineering are inherently dialogic (Feinstein and Waddington, 2020; Kelly, 2014); scientists and engineers are able to ask questions about phenomena, define a problem space, propose methods of investigation or design, and co-construct explanations and solutions through collaborative negotiation and meaning making. Similarly, when children work together to investigate or design solutions, they engage in discourse and rely on a host of resources and productive strategies for communicating their observations, decisions, and reasoning (Ballenger and Carpenter, 2004; Colley and Windschitl, 2016; Mercer, Dawes, and Staarman, 2009; Paugh, Wendell, and Wright, 2018; Peterson and French, 2008; Rosebery et al., 2010; Suárez, 2020; Varelas et al., 2008; Warren et al., 2001).

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

Discourse needs to be intentionally supported in science and engineering learning environments. An important feature of this support is the acknowledgment and disruption of power hierarchies that operate in the classroom related to (1) the discourse that is allowed and valued in classrooms; (2) the roles that children and adults play in meaning making; and (3) the differential social status assigned to children and adults in collaborative discourse (Engle, 2012; Wendell, Wright, and Paugh, 2017). In such learning environments, the curriculum and teacher invite a wide range of semiotic resources (i.e., talk, representations, materials, and actions used for communicative purposes, including multiple languages and embodied actions) and ways of showing thinking, including drawing on different cultural repertoires. Teachers can use flexible structures that support collaboration, and within those, use talk moves to elicit and work with children’s ideas toward sharing tentative explanations, planning investigations, and agreeing on or evaluating explanations, solutions, and actions.

Equitable science and engineering learning environments recognize the vast range of communicative or semiotic resources that children leverage in the service of figuring out natural phenomena and addressing design challenges, especially for multilingual learners (Bang et al., 2017; NASEM, 2018a; Nasir et al., 2014). Children bring and develop a range of semiotic resources. These do not always match the canonical forms of communication typical of learning environments (see Table 5-3). Centering academic English and technical vocabulary at the expense of other forms of communication can ignore or dismiss the meaning-making strategies that emergent multilingual children bring, and thus perpetuate inequities (Flores and Rosa, 2015; García and Kleifgen, 2019; Lee and Stephens, 2020; NASEM, 2018a).

For instance, Warren and colleagues (2001) observed that an upper elementary student, Jean-Charles, used lexical and grammatical structures from Haitian-Creole when distinguishing between growth and development in insects. Using Haitian-Creole, Jean-Charles made a conceptual distinction between the process of growing (vin gran) and a stage of development (vin tounen); without access to this familiar language, Jean-Charles’s participation and learning could have been truncated.

Teachers and the curriculum materials they use to organize their instruction may use flexible structures to support children’s collaboration and collective thinking. Through collective efforts to understand each other, children can meaningfully engage in science and engineering practices that develop their conceptual understanding of the world and of the disciplines (Engle and Conant, 2002; Kelly, 2014; Suárez, 2020). For this reason, equitable science and engineering in preschool through elementary learning environments use a range of participation structures (i.e., how children and teachers are expected to participate in tasks, as well as the roles and respon-

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

TABLE 5-3 Semiotic Resources Children May Develop and Use

Type of Semiotic Resource Use in Context
Words in Other Named Languages Bilingual fifth graders write a science report about elements in the periodic table using words associated with English and Spanish (Poza, 2016).
Gestures Multilingual children (second and fourth graders) in an informal setting rely on a combination of pointing and metaphoric gestures, in conjunction with speech, to illustrate their model for how electrical energy is transmitted through a DC circuit (Suárez, 2020).
Artifacts and Materials A multilingual kindergartner relies on objects (e.g., xylophones) and representations (e.g., drawings) to explain how and why bottles filled with water produce different sounds when blowing on them (Siry and Gorges, 2020).
Everyday Words Multilingual third and fourth graders propose that “the coat traps the heat” when reflecting on the thermodynamic processes that underlie the insulating properties of coats (Rosebery et al., 2010).
Technical Term/Scientific Vocabulary A monolingual third grader proposes placing a “velcrum” under a plank of wood to create a lever. The teacher uses this as an opportunity to introduce the technical term fulcrum, reinforcing the use of this term by labeling the fulcrum on a model of a lever, and encouraging children to use it during discussions (Hooper and Zembal-Saul, 2020).
Individual and Collective Whole-Body Movements A small group of multilingual fifth graders plan and act out an interpretation of the water cycle, using their position, interaction, and motion to show water particles collecting, evaporating, forming clouds, and precipitating. A classmate suggests a change to better show the relationship between rain and clouds (Kotler, 2020).

SOURCE: Based on Hooper and Zembal-Saul (2020); Kotler (2020); Poza (2016); Rosebery et al. (2010); Siry and Gorges (2020); Suárez (2020).

sibilities participants take on) to promote talk (see Table 5-4). For instance, at the beginning of an investigation, children could individually develop their initial models of the water cycle, which they would later share with small groups and then the whole class. This combination of individual and group work can help unearth similarities and differences in children’s conjectures and reasoning, and frame the kinds of investigations they need to conduct to better understand the relationships among evaporation, precipitation, and groundwater (Zangori et al., 2017). After completing their investigations, small groups of children can share their updated models with the rest of the class to represent their current understanding based on the evidence and to get feedback from their peers and the teacher (Zangori et al., 2017).

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

TABLE 5-4 Participation Structures for Investigation and Design

Participant Structure Configuration Teacher’s Role Affordances and Equity Considerations
Turn and Talks Pairs or small groups Draw on ideas for whole-group work Enhanced discourse and engagement for children; share initial ideas and thoughts. Provides low-stakes ways of starting conversation and helps build a caring community.
Group Tasks (Herrenkohl and Guerra, 1998; Varelas et al., 2008) Pairs or small groups Decide structures and tasks; determine roles; circulate and support children Enhanced discourse and engagement for children; collaborative engagement in science and engineering practices. Provides scaffolded ways of starting and sustaining conversation. Assigning or having children choose sensemaking roles (not just logistical roles) enhances learning opportunities. Can minimize hierarchies and competition between children with varying academic histories.
Collective Exploration (French, 2004; Siry, 2013) Whole group, small group, or centers Help children narrate investigation and design; highlight connections Children work collectively with materials; children build on others’ ideas. Can help to make visible contributions of children who may be marginalized in other subjects. Can minimize hierarchies and competition between children with varying academic histories.
Collectively Sharing Artifacts (Cartier et al., 2013) Small group, jigsaw, or whole group (e.g., gallery walk) Select and structure artifacts shared; highlight connections Children learn about others’ ideas and designs. Can help to make visible contributions of children who may be marginalized in other subjects. Can minimize hierarchies and competition between children with varying academic histories.
Open-Ended Discussion (Gallas, 1995; Warren and Rosebery, 2011) Whole group Attentive listener and participant Teachers and children learn about children’s ideas; children can pose questions and explore connections. Can provide a space for collectively developing and making visible the norms for science and engineering discourse, as well as welcoming a range of ways of knowing. Can minimize hierarchies and competition between children with varying academic histories.
Guided Discussions (Colley and Windschitl, 2016; Winokur and Worth, 2006) Whole group Invite and probe children’s ideas; help children relate ideas to each other’s; support sensemaking Children move toward decisions and explanations. Can provide a space for collectively developing and making visible the norms for science and engineering discourse, as well as welcoming a range of ways of knowing. Can minimize hierarchies and competition between children with varying academic histories.
Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

Learning environments are enhanced when teachers use targeted pedagogical strategies that invite children to make their thinking visible and encourage others to engage with those ideas; that is, teachers in these environments elicit and work with children’s ideas. Cartier and colleagues (2013) describe the kinds of “focused talk” that teachers can rely on to engage children in a dialogue intended to develop their thinking toward the lesson’s learning goals. Teachers’ focused talk can serve to make children’s thinking visible, such as when a kindergarten teacher supported children to graphically represent the forces they thought acted on a person as they sailed down a slide (Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten, 2018). Additionally, focused talk can guide children’s thinking in productive directions, such as when the teacher encouraged her fourth graders to explain how the flow of electrical energy through a bulb could be responsible for heat and light, and then highlighted a child’s idea that electricity running through a wire would produce heat (Colley and Windschitl, 2016). Finally, teachers’ focused talk can be useful for directing children’s attention to salient features of the problem space, such as when the teacher asked her fourth graders to rub their hands together to experience how kinetic energy can be transformed into thermal energy, as a way of embodying what was happening in the bulb’s filament (Colley and Windschitl, 2016).

Peterson and French (2008) examined how preschool educators supported young children’s explanatory language during science activities. They found teachers used modeling and eliciting language, encouraged explanations through observation and prediction, and promoted collaborative discussion among children and peers. At the beginning of units, teachers modeled and elicited language by naming and describing objects and phenomena as children observed and/or experienced them. They also posed open-ended questions and later encouraged children to share their observations and predictions with questions such as “What happened?” and “What do you think will happen?” To ensure that results that contradicted children’s predictions would not be discouraging, teachers emphasized the satisfaction of learning through science and praised children for making predictions (regardless of whether these were correct or not). Teachers modeled taking an open stance, using words such as “maybe” to highlight that uncertainty is an important part of exploration and investigation. Finally, teachers invited children to comment and respond to peers’ ideas, highlighting how disagreements are a normal part of collaborative science learning.

Studies of elementary school classrooms have described how teachers can use pedagogical strategies that allow them to orchestrate discussion among children, with the intent of eliciting children’s ideas and creating opportunities for their peers to engage with them. For instance, teachers can use “Talk Moves” (Michaels and O’Connor, 2012; Michaels, O’Connor, and Resnick, 2008) that are meant to make children accountable to (1) the

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

learning community, as they listen intently to their peers’ explanations and engage with them; (2) the standards of reasoning, as children evaluate the logic and plausibility of conclusions; and (3) knowledge. Being accountable to both the learning community and the standards of reasoning creates a situation in which children listen to their peers’ ideas and assess the explanatory power of the models discussed (Engle and Conant, 2002). These talk moves, however, can be used in ways that are rote (without attention to the disciplinary substance of children’s ideas) or to elicit and highlight the “correct” idea. In these cases, they do not support collaborative work, and can instead re-instantiate the teacher or text as authority and some children’s ideas as more valuable than others (Colley and Windschitl, 2016; Manz and Renga, 2017; Schwarz et al., 2020; Zangori and Pinnow, 2019).

Equitable science and engineering preschool through elementary learning environments center and build on children’s observations and experiences. This is especially important for children from nondominant and minoritized communities, where equitable learning opportunities require teachers “seeing and hearing students’ ideas and reasoning as connected to science (as opposed to being off topic or, worse, disruptive)” (Bang et al., 2017, p. 36). Being able to notice children’s ideas and hear the science in their thinking is a crucial aspect of this (e.g., NASEM, 2018a; Robertson, Hammer, Scherr, 2016).

Formative Assessment to Understand Children’s Learning and Inform Instruction

Assessment is a systematic, multistep, and multifaceted process that involves collecting and interpreting data to make inferences about children’s learning (NRC, 2014a). A Framework for K-12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework; NRC, 2012) discusses three common purposes for science assessment: formative assessment to guide science instructional processes, summative assessment to determine science attainment levels, and assessment for program evaluation to examine comparisons across classrooms, schools, districts, or countries. Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards (NRC, 2014a) also distinguishes between classroom or internal assessments (selected or designed by teachers and conducted as part of instruction) and external assessments (selected by schools, districts, states, or countries to monitor learning). This section primarily describes assessment processes that are formative in nature and can be designed and used in preschool through elementary classrooms and taken up by educators to inform and guide their work with children.

Most science assessment design and research that is aligned to the Framework has been conducted with grades 6–12. Within this work, there is a consensus that assessment design address the following principles: (1)

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

assessment methods and tasks must elicit and attend to multiple dimensions of science and engineering learning (i.e., practices, disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts) simultaneously, (2) assessment systems must gather evidence of proficiency with science practices and ideas as they develop over time as the product of coherent systems of curriculum and instruction, and (3) assessment work must be underpinned by an understanding of the conceptual terrain, tasks, and supports that allow children to show their understanding, as well as by an understanding of how children’s ideas/practices develop (NRC, 2014a). There is not yet a robust research base in preschool to fifth grade that assesses science in ways consistent with the principles above (Greenfield, 2015). Therefore, the committee drew from the principles developed in the NRC report, research on assessment more broadly, and emerging research in preschool and elementary school to briefly describe the basis of a formative assessment system for preschool through elementary science and engineering.

Formative assessment can be woven into the ongoing work that children are engaged in, reflecting how formative assessment is used for multiple purposes. Classroom artifacts—including science notebooks, design drawings, and models—and children’s participation in classroom discussion can provide evidence for teachers to make inferences about children’s interests, proficiency, and need for further support (Brenneman and Louro, 2008; NRC, 2014a; Smith et al., 2016). Teachers and designers of curricula can gather such evidence for a variety of different purposes. For instance, prior to or early in curricular sequences, teachers may benefit from information on the resources and interests children bring to particular design problems, phenomena, and classroom activities. Such assessments might include pre-interviews with children, family sharing and documentation projects, and assessment tasks to elicit children’s initial explanations, models and/or drawings (McWayne et al., 2020; Russ and Sherin, 2013; Schwarz et al., 2009; Tzou and Bell, 2010). Subsequently, teachers can collect formative assessment evidence to determine the supports that will allow particular children to engage, contribute, and make progress by reflecting on discussions, examining artifacts, or using designed assessments tasks (NASEM, 2017; Shavelson et al., 2008). They may also aggregate data to determine the next instructional steps likely to benefit the classroom community in their design and investigation work (Atkin and Coffey, 2003; Sevian and Dini, 2019). Finally, a purpose that is less often highlighted is to monitor and adjust classroom’s community norms and structures (Penuel and Watkins, 2019; Reiser et al., 2021).

Verbal explanations and writing provide an important source of data for understanding children’s explanation and conceptual understanding, illustrating how formative assessments draw on multiple forms of evidence. McNeill (2011), for example, investigated fifth grade students’ views of

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

explanation, argument, and evidence across three contexts (what scientists do, what happens in science classrooms, and what happens in everyday life) and examined how children’s argumentation changed over the course of the year by gathering multiple sources of written and verbal formative data (pre- and post-interviews, classroom conversations, and children’s written explanations).

However, children, especially those in preschool and early elementary, are not always able to convey all their knowledge in writing, or even verbally. Young children are learning language and concepts of print as they develop understanding in science and engineering, and learning across these different domains is connected and mutually reinforcing (see Chapter 6). Young children’s science discourse is enhanced when they are allowed and encouraged to document their learning through drawings, photographs, and diagrams, and later use those as resources in their explanations (Siry and Gorges, 2020). Formative assessment approaches therefore attend to how young children’s engagement with materials and manipulatives and their use of gesture conveys their thinking and knowledge.

Although formative data appear to be easy to gather as part of children’s ongoing work, teachers need to give careful consideration to the design of formative assessment probes posed during science and engineering activities (Keeley, 2018). Formative assessment probes can be embedded into activities to elicit children’s thinking before and after they engage in investigations; when purposefully designed, such assessment probes become useful not only for gathering assessment data, but also for guiding elements of the learning activities themselves. Keeley (2018), for instance, described how P-E-O prompts (prediction, explanation [the justification for the prediction], and observation [testing the prediction]) can serve as formative assessment, while simultaneously providing a structure to guide children through science investigations. During the sensemaking conversations that follow the investigations, teachers can also invite children to revisit their answer to probes (for instance, their initial prediction) and revise their explanations, allowing teachers to better understand children’s developing understanding.

Attention to the forms of support provided during activities is critical (Fine and Furtak, 2020; Gotwals and Songer, 2013; NRC, 2014a). For example, Ashbacher and Alonzo (2006) found that the value of using journals as a formative assessment depends heavily on the amount of support children receive from teachers (e.g., guidance about what information to include). Support ranged from minimal to overly prescriptive. Neither extreme was found helpful; moderate amounts of support—for instance, providing guiding prompts but also allowing the children freedom to draw and write what they learned in their own words—allowed better formative assessment and child learning.

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

Finally, teachers’ effective use of formative assessment requires them to develop understanding of the interpretation and potential biases involved in formative assessment. Robust assessment is undergirded by a sense of the conceptual terrain of a unit of study or even year of instruction, including the goals for practice and understanding; the resources, interests, and experiences children might bring to instruction; and stepping stones toward reaching goals (Campbell, Schwarz, and Windschitl, 2016; Coffey et al., 2011; NRC, 2014a). NRC (2014a) concludes that assessment tasks for three-dimensional learning need to include interpretive systems and elaborates:

NGSS-aligned assessments will also need to identify likely misunderstandings, productive ideas of children that can be built upon, and interim goals for learning. . . To teach toward the NGSS performance expectations, teachers will need a sense of the likely progression at a more micro level, to answer such questions as:

  • For this unit, where are the children expected to start, and where should they arrive?
  • What typical intermediate understandings emerge along this learning path?
  • What common logical errors or alternative conceptions present barriers to the desired learning or resources for beginning instruction?
  • What new aspects of a practice need to be developed in the context of this unit? (p. 91)

Teachers engaging in assessment—whether listening to children during whole-group discussion or small-group collaboration, examining children’s artifacts such as models or design plans, or using planned assessment probes—will need to interpret children’s discourse and productions in relation to the disciplinary substance (Coffey et al., 2011) they care about. Work that started in mathematics education (e.g., Sherin, Jacob, and Phillip, 2011) on teacher noticing has recently been extended to science education to understand how teachers attend to and interpret children thinking in talk (Cowie et al., 2018; Luna, Selmer, and Rye, 2018; Rosebery, Warren, and Tucker-Raymond, 2016; Schwarz et al., 2020, Sevian and Dini, 2019) and artifacts (Luna, Selmer, and Rye, 2018). Other work in early mathematics education (Clements and Sarama, 2021a) supports the development of formative assessments aligned with learning trajectories or learning progressions, and provides a model for future work in science and engineering, noting that high-quality formative assessment building on learning trajectories must identify the goal, determine where the child’s thinking is presently, and what instruction will support movement along the progression.

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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 growing body of literature in elementary science and engineering education emphasizes the importance of teachers attending to the detail and substance of children’s work, the understanding needed to attend to and interpret children’s thinking, and the ways that teachers’ attention can be drawn to other aspects of children’s engagement (e.g., canonical correctness, fluency of talk, seriousness vs. silliness) (Lee and Stephens, 2020; Rosebery, Warren, and Tucker-Raymond, 2016; Russ et al., 2008; Sevian and Dini, 2019; Warren and Rosebery, 2011). There is emerging evidence that teachers’ attention to the disciplinary substance in children’s talk can be supported by (1) engaging with the science and engineering content (Manz and Suárez, 2018; Rosebery, Warren, and Tucker-Raymond, 2016; Watkins et al., 2018), (2) examining and discussing children’s work with colleagues (Rosebery, Warren, and Tucker-Raymond, 2016), and (3) rubrics and educative materials that provide support for attending to and interpreting children’s work (Arias et al., 2016).

Culturally and linguistically sensitive assessments are important and needed. Inferences from formative assessment are “subject to systematic, irrelevant influences that may be associated with gender, race, ethnicity, disability, English language proficiency, or other student characteristics” (Bennett, 2011; NASEM, 2018a). In other words, teachers may judge the skills of some children differently than others, which in turn may influence how children’s instruction is facilitated and modified (Bennett et al., 1993; NASEM, 2018a). Multilingual children’s learning during science investigations and engineering design activities is likely influenced both by children’s linguistic and conceptual understanding of the questions and challenges presented and discussed. An emergent body of research is examining how teachers can recognize and disrupt biases toward particular ways of talking or demonstrating knowledge (Fine and Furtak, 2020; Lee and Stephens, 2020; NASEM, 2018a; Ruiz-Primo, Solano-Flores, and Li, 2014; Solano-Flores, 2016; Warren and Rosebery, 2011).

In formative assessment, teachers can aim to reduce potential bias in terms of cultural background by considering data from multiple sources and from different contexts, soliciting input from families and other educators with expertise working with groups of children they are less knowledgeable about (Bennett, 2011; NASEM, 2018b), and can ensure that assessment opportunities are not biased against children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences by providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression (Basham and Marino, 2013), as reflected in earlier parts of this chapter. Science and engineering professional development programs that address formative assessment along with pedagogical content knowledge (McNeill and Knight, 2013) and justice-oriented approaches (Mensah, 2009) could help ensure formative assessment efforts are grounded on teachers’ understanding of disciplinary learning and less likely to be biased.

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

EQUITY AND THE DESIGN OF LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

A great deal of the text of this chapter is focused on the design of learning environments that provide all children with increased opportunities and access to high-quality science and engineering learning and instruction (Approach #1). Designing such environments provides children with access to science and engineering and also offer a way of supporting children’s increased achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering (Approach #2). The characteristics emphasized are supported by empirical evidence that suggests their utility for supporting children’s learning and have implications related to identity, as well. For example, developing a classroom culture oriented toward caring and collective well-being and knowledge building can shape how children engage in sensemaking together, how they take up the science and engineering practices, and their identities as people who do science and engineering (Carlone, Mercier, and Metzger, 2021; Kane, 2015, 2016; Varelas et al., 2008). At the same time, children—particularly children of color—are sensitive to the kinds of behaviors that are likely to get them labeled as troublemakers or earn them sanction in the classroom (Wright et al., 2018). Thus, the design of the learning environment and the teacher’s instructional practices and norms within that environment can play important roles in how children learn and engage in identity development. Finally, by fostering and valuing a range of linguistic resources, the learning environment can help a range of children—including emergent multilingual learners—see themselves represented in the classroom.

Extensive work in this chapter provides guidance about how learning environments can work toward expanding what counts as science and engineering (Approach #3). Examples include

  • Resetting norms so that hierarchies are minimized and a number of proficiencies (e.g., curiosity, risk taking) are valued, not only final-form science (Bang et al., 2017; Rosebery et al., 2010).
  • Building on a wide range of semiotic resources and allowing children multiple ways of expressing sensemaking (Rosebery et al., 2010; Suárez, 2020; Warren et al., 2001).
  • Instructional practice that requires and allows teachers to notice children’s thinking and see and hear children’s ideas as reasonable and fruitful, and not off topic or problematic (Bang et al., 2017)—thus building on children’s ways of talking and sensemaking.
  • Ensuring that assessments are culturally and linguistically sensitive, and working to disrupt biases based on race, gender, linguistic resources, learning disability/differences, or any of the myriad other ways teachers may inadvertently express preference for some children’s ways of knowing or expressing their ideas over others
Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

These approaches are important for all children, in all grade levels and content areas—but they are particularly important for minoritized children and others who are often marginalized in science and engineering.

The chapter highlights a few ways that learning environments can support children (and teachers) in seeing science and engineering as part of justice movements (Approach #4). Such connections provide ways of drawing on real-world contexts for authentic sensemaking. For example, Davis and Schaeffer (2019), drawing on regional issues of water justice that were prominent in the news, highlight numerous strengths of such a focus. Engineering design challenges present similarly relevant local problems or phenomena; these can be used to explore issues of justice and engage in decision making (Cody and Biggers, 2020; Dalvi, Wendell, and Johnson, 2016; Haas et al., 2021; Upadhyay, 2009). Davis and Schaeffer note, however, that children’s emotional responses to environmental issues are rarely elicited or studied, and that this is particularly true among minoritized youth who are often directly affected by the justice issues.

SUMMARY

This chapter has described the learning environment features that allow children to learn science and engineering in a caring community, orient to investigation and design in meaningful contexts, refine their explanations and solutions through sensemaking, learn with and from each other, and be assessed in ways that show their learning and inform instruction. Accomplishing these goals necessitates a learning environment that supports children’s meaningful learning. The teacher, with support from and in partnership with children, curriculum materials, school context, and other elements of the learning environment, works with children to set and revise norms to support a collective culture. As part of this work, the teacher invites the emotional dimensions of science and engineering while also building relationships with children, families, and communities. Teachers also ground children’s work in rich contexts and position them as sensemakers through eliciting, attending to, and valuing their initial ideas and experiences. Moreover, teachers help children to work with tools, resources, and data to refine their ideas and solutions and the artifacts that reflect their sensemaking while inviting a wide range of ways for children to show their thinking, using flexible structures to support collaboration as they engage children in discussing and making decisions. Lastly, teachers use formative assessments for multiple purposes, drawing on multiple forms of evidence

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
×

and providing different forms of support for children, all while working against potential biases.

Recognizing the complexity of this work, the chapter describes a number of ways to accomplish these goals. Instruction can be based in rich phenomena and design challenges that orient children’s investigation and design work. Whether these are emergent, planned, or adapted for local relevance, they can be meaningful contexts for children’s work. Learning experiences can support children as sensemakers by allowing them to make their ideas visible through developing and refining artifacts. Children can engage, with appropriate support, in making and discussing decisions about aspects of their investigation and design process. Furthermore, children’s collaboration and collective thinking can be strengthened by using different participation structures and explicitly inviting a wide set of resources into classroom work. Through these and other approaches, learning environments can support the kinds of meaningful opportunities to learn emphasized throughout this report.

Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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Suggested Citation:"5 Learning Environments and Instructional Practices That Center Children, Investigation, and Design." 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.
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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.

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