Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Finding Kernels of Scientific Sense

By Sean Cavanagh — March 21, 2008 3 min read
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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.

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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.”

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