What Children Bring to Light: A Constructivist Perspective on Children's Learning in Science
reviewed by Senta Raizen - 1996
Title: What Children Bring to Light: A Constructivist Perspective on Children's Learning in Science
Author(s): Bonnie Shapiro
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080773375X, Pages: , Year: 1994
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This monograph in the Teachers College Press series Ways of Knowing in Science records the author’s investigation of children’s perceptions about light as they studied the topic. The children were members of one fifth-grade class; the author spent some six months in this classroom and studied six children’s perceptions and attitudes in depth. Her methods, in addition to observation, included intensive conversations with the children as well as videotaping classroom interactions, and then engaging the children in discussing and categorizing their comments and behaviors. The children also made drawings and answered brief questionnaires on their notions of light and seeing.
The author sets her work in the context of constructivist views of the learner current today. She stresses the importance of carefully listening to children’s discourse as they study science, eliciting not only their thoughts but also their feelings about what they are learning. Indeed, more than half the monograph is given over to the case reports on the six children on whom she focused, reproducing at some length conversations between her and each individual child, as well as the interpretations of these conversations and of the child’s drawings and questionnaire responses. These interpretations led the author to attach a classificatory label to each child: "The communicator," "the boy of ideas," "the tinkerer," "the social butterfly," "the student," and "the artist." Perhaps this was done for the reader’s benefit—as a mnemonic device to remember the key features of each case; nevertheless, it struck me as somewhat forced and possibly impoverishing rather than enriching the view of each child. That said, the obvious respect of the researcher for her subjects clearly shows through in the case reports; she relates that she has continued to follow the six children into their high school years and beyond.
The larger question is what we can learn from this type of in-depth exploration. The topic of children’s understanding of light has been fairly well researched, as the author herself makes clear in her literature review, in which she cites some two dozen relevant research papers. Thus, her rationale, provided in the preface, for studying the learning of that particular science topic rings a bit hollow. The several misconceptions (or naive conceptions) held by the children investigated by Shapiro have already been well documented, and the contribution of her research on that score is largely to provide further confirming evidence.
Perhaps a more important contribution is her depiction in great detail of how the context of a given classroom, the topic, and each child’s particular proclivities interact to make learning a unique experience for each individual, and that a teacher’s failure to recognize the nature of that experience is at the heart of a child’s failure to learn. Yet, what is a teacher to do? He (the teacher in the study is male) has some thirty children in front of him and a crowded curriculum to cover. Obviously, he cannot be expected to engage, as can the privileged researcher, in lengthy exploration of each child’s thoughts and feelings around each topic area for which he is responsible. In the penultimate chapter of the monograph, teachers do get three bits of advice: become familiar with research studies in the field; plan learning experiences to actively engage the learner; help learners take greater responsibility for their own learning. Supportive suggestions include having students do science projects (no doubt a good idea, but not one that emerges from the reported research) and encouraging children to experiment with real physical phenomena in school and at home—common recommendations in most of the current science education reform literature. Tied more closely to Shapiro’s case study research are the suggestions for constructing classroom profiles and discussions by the children around their small-group interactions, but these are possible only in classrooms that have been able to adopt and implement the maxim concerning content coverage that "less is better." In vain, one looks for the kind of practical guidance provided by researchers who have investigated the teacher’s as well as the learner’s tasks, for example, Sternberg and Horvath (1995), who provide helpful categories to describe expert teaching, including knowledge (of content, of pedagogy—both content-specific and nonspecific, and practical knowledge), efficiency, and insight. This last category comprises the kind of insight into students’ thinking that Shapiro urges but also includes specific remedies appropriate to their misconceptions or difficulties.
If the addition to the research base in science education and the help given to the classroom teacher are slender, then is the major contribution of the monograph to research on constructivist teaching and learning? Here, I must beg off making a judgment on grounds of the paradigm proliferation discussed so cogently by Donmoyer (1996). The type of qualitative research methodology employed by Shapiro leads to interesting individual case stories; she has carried out her research carefully and documented it well. Whether it is an overall contribution to the field must be judged by researchers who share this particular paradigm, researchers who are not concerned with formulation of theory or with searching for generalizations that can be used to inform and improve education policy.
Donmoyer, R. (1996). Educational research in an era of paradigm proliferation: What’s a journal editor to do? Educational Researcher, 25(2): 19–25.
Sternberg, R. J., and Horvath, J. A. (1995). A prototype view of expert teaching. Educational Researcher, 24(6): 9–17.