A Cross-cultural Exploration of Children's Everyday Ideas: Implications for science teaching and learning

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of North Texas]On: 11 November 2014, At: 21:03Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    A Cross-cultural Exploration ofChildren's Everyday Ideas: Implicationsfor science teaching and learningBryan Wee aa Geography and Environmental Sciences , University of ColoradoDenver , Campus Box 172, PO Box 173364, Denver , CO ,80217-3364 , USAPublished online: 13 Jul 2011.

    To cite this article: Bryan Wee (2012) A Cross-cultural Exploration of Children's Everyday Ideas:Implications for science teaching and learning, International Journal of Science Education, 34:4,609-627, DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2011.579193

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2011.579193


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    A Cross-cultural Exploration of

    Childrens Everyday Ideas:

    Implications for science teaching

    and learning

    Bryan Wee

    Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Denver, Campus Box

    172, PO Box 173364, Denver, CO 80217-3364, USA

    Childrens everyday ideas form critical foundations for science learning yet little research has been

    conducted to understand and legitimize these ideas, particularly from an international perspective.

    This paper explores childrens everyday ideas about the environment across the US, Singapore and

    China to understand what they reveal about childrens relationship to the environment and discuss

    its implications for science teaching and learning. A social constructivist lens guides research, and a

    visual methodology is used to frame childrens realities. Participants ages range from elementary to

    middle school, and a total of 210 children comprized mainly of Asians and Asian Americans were

    sampled from urban settings. Drawings are used to elicit childrens everyday ideas and analyzed

    inductively using open coding and categorizing of data. Several categories support existing

    literature about how children view the environment; however, novel categories such as affect also

    emerged and lend new insight into the role that language, socio-cultural norms and perhaps

    ethnicity play in shaping childrens everyday ideas. The findings imply the need for (a) a change

    in the role of science teachers from knowledge providers to social developers, (b) a science

    curriculum that is specific to learners experiences in different socio-cultural settings, and (c) a

    shift away from inter-country comparisons using international science test scores.

    Keywords: Environmental education; Multicultural; Qualitative research

    An Introduction to Childrens Everyday Ideas

    Science education is currently at a point where buzzwords like constructivism and

    inquiry are constantly part of the discourse surrounding research, teaching and

    International Journal of Science Education

    Vol. 34, No. 4, March 2012, pp. 609627

    Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Denver, Campus Box 172,PO Box 173364, Denver, CO 80217-3364, USA. Email: Bryan.Wee@ucdenver.edu

    ISSN 0950-0693 (print)/ISSN 1464-5289 (online)/12/04060919# 2012 Taylor & Francishttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2011.579193




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  • learning. Theoretically, it makes sense (Dewey, 1964; Vygotsky, 1962). Children con-

    struct knowledge based on pre-existing ideas derived from personal/social inter-actions (henceforth termed everyday ideas), and when curricular connections to

    these everyday ideas are established, it creates an authentic and inclusive learning

    environment (Driver, 1989; National Research Council, 2000a). In a seminal publi-

    cation titled How people learn, the National Research Council (NRC) placed an

    emphasis on childrens everyday ideas as one of the primary characteristics of the

    new science of learning (National Research Council, 2000b, p. 10). Research in

    science education (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer, & Scott, 1994; Osborne & Frey-

    burg, 1985) further supports the view that:

    The process of making sense of the world begins at a very young age. [Children] develop

    sophisticated understandings of the phenomena around them. . .these understandings can

    have a powerful effect on the integration of new concepts and information. A critical

    feature of effective teaching is that it elicits from children their pre-existing understanding

    of the subject matter to be taught (National Academy Press, 2000b, p. 15)

    In reality, however, these everyday ideas that children rely on to make sense of science

    concepts often go unnoticed or are invalidated due to instructional constraints

    (e.g. time, teacher efficacy) in the classroom as well as increased accountability in the

    form of federal policies such as no child left behind (NCLB) that result in stricter cur-

    riculum and narrow assessments focusing on how much (content) children know rather

    than how they construct an understanding of science (Wee, 2010). From a research

    perspective, studies have investigated childrens science knowledge within a stan-

    dards-based framework using test scores whereas relatively few studies have explored

    childrens everyday ideas on the basis of their voices (Rickinson, 2001). For example,

    what does the term environment mean to children, what experiences in their lives sup-

    ports and reinforces this understanding? If indeed childrens everyday ideas help them

    make sense of the world and these cognitive models are used to organize, assimilate and

    accommodate information (Duit & Glynn, 1996; Piaget, 1969), then it is important to

    ask the following questions in science education research: what are childrens everyday

    ideas, how might these ideas inform science curriculum and instruction in an increas-

    ingly diverse world, what does this mean for the advancement of scientific literacy and

    how does it redefine science as a socio-cultural endeavor?

    Philosophically, it is one thing to ask teachers to elicit and work with everyday ideas

    that children bring to the science classroom so that these can be challenged and

    replaced where appropriate (National Research Council, 2000b, p. 19). It is quite

    another to legitimize everyday ideas as windows into childrens worlds, where their

    ways of thinking and understanding are neither nave nor inaccurate but a collection

    of meanings attributed to real events and phenomena encountered in their lives. The

    former reflects what adults think children should know, the latter asks (on equal

    terms) what children think and why. In a special issue of The State of the Worlds Chil-

    dren, the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) cites the Convention on the

    Rights of the Child to make known childrens views on matters that affect them

    (UNICEF, 2002). Additionally, UNICEF declares that (2002, p. 5, italics added),

    610 B. Wee




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  • Authentic child participation must start from children and young people themselves, on

    their own terms, within their own realities and in pursuit of their own visions, dreams, hopes

    and concerns. . .authentic and meaningful participation requires a radical shift in adult

    thinking and behavior from a world defined solely by adults to one in which children

    contribute to building the kind of world they want to live in.

    In addition to advocating for democratic involvement in science education research,

    an exploration of childrens everyday ideas in science lends itself to a deeper under-

    standing of the inherent connections between factors such as geographical location,

    socio-cultural norms, teaching and learning. For example, a child who has grown

    up in the city and considers the environment to be a highly urbanized place with con-

    crete playgrounds and asphalt roads is less likely to find a science lesson describing

    predatorprey relationships using arctic fox and hare populations either pertinent

    or motivating. From a curricular perspective, the same child is also more likely to

    encounter difficulty with science concepts such as deforestation if s/he viewshuman impacts on the environment in the form of litter and exhaust fumes from

    cars (Gough, 1999). Ultimately, childrens everyday ideas are specific to their experi-

    ences in places where culturally sanctioned norms shape their understandings and

    representations of the world (Golomb, 1994). Validating childrens everyday ideas

    can promote equity in the science classroom by being inclusive of different viewpoints

    (Harding, 1991). It can also enhance science literacy by encouraging learners to think

    about and make sense of many of the ideas, claims, and events that they encounter in

    everyday life (AAAS, 1993).

    Moving from science to environmental science in particular, there is a growing rec-

    ognition that solving complex environmental problems requires a collaborative spirit

    and a holistic (though no less rigorous) approach to science research and teaching

    (Gharajedaghi & Ackoff, 1985). One example is to seek a better understanding of chil-

    drens everyday ideas across cultures and countries in order to cultivate humanity in a

    global society and work toward a collective resolution of environmental challenges

    (Nussbaum, 1997; Wee, Harbor, & Shepardson, 2006). China, for example, is

    headed toward an era of globalization and increased environmental pollution that

    will almost certainly have direct and indirect effects on climate, resource allocation

    and other aspects of the environment across the world. Population and economic

    growth in Southeast Asian countries like Singapore also represent anthropogenic

    changes (e.g. urbanization) that will have wide-ranging social and environmental

    implications. As environmental landscapes continue to be transformed, it becomes

    ever more important to arrive at an understanding of how children themselves

    construe and negotiate their worlds (Greene & Hill, 2005, p. 13) because these

    everyday ideas also represent unspoken assumptions that legitimize behaviors and

    ultimately decisions about resource allocation (Alerby, 2000; Robertson, 1993).

    Consequently, this paper highlights the importance of exploring the nature of

    childrens everyday ideas about the environment across different countries and

    socio-cultural settings. It does not seek to address similarities and/or differences inchildrens everyday ideas using demographic variables. Instead, the paper attempts

    to answer the following questions:

    Cross-cultural Exploration 611




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  • (1) What are childrens everyday ideas about the environment in the US, Singapore

    and China?

    (2) What do these everyday ideas reveal about childrens relationship with the


    (3) What are the implications of these findings for teaching and learning in science


    Childrens Everyday Ideas about the Environment: What we know

    A body of literature currently exists on childrens ideas in science (National Research

    Council, 2000b) covering concepts ranging from tropical rainforests (Bowker, 2007)

    to gravity (Palmer, 2001) and respiration (Kao, 2007). However, these studies did not

    explore childrens ideas about the environment, which supports a more holistic under-

    standing of humanenvironment relationships (Shepardson, Wee, Priddy, & Harbor,


    Extant knowledge on childrens everyday ideas about the environment is some-

    what limited (Rickinson, 2001). Within this small subgroup of studies, researchers

    have largely employed the use of questionnaires, drawings and interviews to describe

    how children view the environment. Loughland, Reid, and Petocz (2002) adminis-

    tered a questionnaire to 2,249 students aged 9, 12, 14 and 17 from 70 different

    schools in Australia (no information was provided on gender and ethnicity). They

    identified six distinct, everyday ideas about the environment in childhood: (1) the

    environment as a place, (2) the environment as a place containing living things,

    (3) the environment as a place containing living things and people, 4) the environ-

    ment does something for people, (5) people are part of the environment and are

    responsible for it, and (6) people and the environment are in a mutually sustaining

    relationship. In terms of humanenvironment relationships, however, most children

    tend to view the environment and people as mutually exclusive. Using drawings and

    written descriptions, Alerby (2000) found that children in Sweden thought about the

    environment as a place devoid of human influence. In her study of 109 children (47

    females, 62 males) aged 7, 10, 13 and 16 years from 4 different classes, the few

    children that included humans in their drawings framed the environment as a

    resource to meet human needs. Childrens everyday ideas about land use reflected

    a similar utilitarian view of the environment; land is used wisely when it benefits

    human societies and the environment exists largely to improve quality of life for


    A study by Shepardson et al. (2007) found that childrens mental model of the

    environment was neither integrated nor comprehensive; in fact, humans were not

    viewed as living organisms interacting with natural systems within the environment

    (p. 343). Based on their sample of 1,182 students aged 916 from 25 classrooms

    across eight d...


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