Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Finding Kernels of Scientific Sense

By Sean Cavanagh — March 21, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

What science teacher hasn’t known the frustration?

Suzanne M. Pothier was leading her elementary school students through a lesson on plant growth and reproduction, using pumpkins as an example. As she and her students discussed a pumpkin’s growth, from a tiny seed to a gourd fit for a Halloween lantern, and later, to a rotting shell, a boy piped up with a seemingly incongruous comparison:

“It’s like a spider,” the student told the class.

A pumpkin? A spider? Some clear misconceptions here, a teacher might think. Yet Pothier saw an opening.

Feature Stories
States Heeding Calls to Strengthen STEM
A School Where STEM Is King
Learning to Teach With Technology
Cultivating a Diversity of Talent

‘Kinetic City’ Web Site Finds Fun in Science

Finding Kernels of Scientific Sense

Preschool Play Imparts Math’s ‘Building Blocks’

Competing for Competence
State Data Analysis
Executive Summary
Table of Contents

The student was comparing a rotting pumpkin’s seeds to a spider’s eggs—and giving an example based on the science familiar to him, drawn from the movie “Charlotte’s Web.” So Pothier seized on his example.

How is the pumpkin’s growth like that of a spider? How, she asked the class, is it different? How is the pumpkin’s seed like a spider’s egg? Gradually, the teacher turned one pupil’s notion into a discussion of life cycles, a key concept in science.

The strategy used by Pothier, who teaches at the Martin Luther King Open School in Cambridge, Mass., was based on principles she learned through her participation in the Cheche Konnen Center. The center does research on improving science learning in urban communities, particularly among ethnically and linguistically diverse students.

A key principle of Cheche Konnen’s research is that all students, including those from disadvantaged groups, bring scientific knowledge to school. Many students, though, convey it in nonacademic and confusing language. As a result, educators often fail to recognize, and build on, students’ existing scientific understanding.

The center seeks to help teachers do that. “It’s using the intellectual strengths of all kids,” says Pothier, who has taught for 23 years.

Leveraging Knowledge

Cheche Konnen takes its name from the Creole phrase “search for knowledge,” a nod to the Haitian communities that the center has worked with since its 1987 founding.

Today, the center, in Cambridge, does research and stages workshops across the country, and gets funding from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education. Cheche Konnen’s work was highlighted last year in a study by the congressionally chartered National Research Council on how students in grades K-8 learn science. The program shows that “urban, language-minority students can engage in high-level scientific reasoning and problem-solving,” the study said, “if they are taught in ways that respect their interests and sense-making.”

The Massachusetts program makes videotapes and transcriptions of classes overseen by teachers who participate in the program. It shares its research through such resources as a book published this year by the 55,000-member National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va.

Students whose parents have more formal education are likely to be more familiar with the academic language understood by science teachers than students with more limited English skills and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, Cheche Konnen officials say. Still, they stress, all students’ everyday science knowledge can be a powerful resource.

“A lot of the time when kids say things that don’t make sense, the teacher dismisses it, or is confused by it,” says Ann S. Rosebery, the co-director of Cheche Konnen. “Their impulse is to say, ‘Well, thanks a lot,’ and turn to another child. We’re trying to get teachers to work against that impulse.”

Related Tags:

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Student Achievement Webinar Examining the Evidence: What We’re Learning From the Field About Implementing High-Dosage Tutoring Programs
Tutoring programs have become a leading strategy to address COVID-19 learning loss. What evidence-based principles can district and school leaders draw on to design, implement, measure, and improve high-quality tutoring programs? And what are districts

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity The Vast Majority of School Boards Lack Latino Voices. What Can Be Done About It?
Diverse school board members means more opportunities for equitable policies, Latino leaders say
5 min read
Stephanie Parra, Governing Board Member at Phoenix Union School District and Executive Director of ALL in Education Arizona, sits for a portrait at the nonprofit’s space at Galvanize Phoenix in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. on Nov. 15, 2021. Phoenix Union is majority BIPOC students, but school board and educator demographics in Arizona lag behind in representation and opportunity.
Stephanie Parra, Governing Board Member at Phoenix Union School District and Executive Director of ALL in Education Arizona, sits for a portrait at the nonprofit’s space at Galvanize Phoenix in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. on Nov. 15, 2021. Phoenix Union is majority BIPOC students, but school board and educator demographics in Arizona lag behind in representation and opportunity.
Caitlin O’Hara for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Infographic How Do Educators Feel About Staff Diversity? We Asked
Educators of color and white educators have different opinions on whether and how administrators should address the lack of staff diversity.
1 min read
Image of chairs lined up.
marchmeena29/iStock/Getty
Equity & Diversity Opinion 'What Are You Doing to Help Students Understand Systemic Racism and Combat It?'
Creating the conditions for effective dialogues and incorporating student voice are two ways to help students become anti-racist.
11 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Equity & Diversity Opinion Anti-Racist Teaching Strategies for Predominantly White Schools
Creating common vocabulary and safe places for students and strengthening their critical-analysis skills support anti-racist teaching.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty