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Fearless Science in the Early Years: Co-Construction in a Rural Childcare Centre. Dr. Barbara Jordan (with Sue Smorti) Massey University College of Education Palmerston North, New Zealand. Science is seldom directly addressed in the early childhood sector.

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Fearless Science in the Early Years:

Co-Construction in a Rural Childcare Centre

Dr. Barbara Jordan (with Sue Smorti)

Massey University College of Education

Palmerston North, New Zealand

science is seldom directly addressed in the early childhood sector
Science is seldom directly addressed in the early childhood sector
  • Activity theory provides the frame and support for this report.
  • Central to activity theory is Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of activity - a system whereby a human subject works on an object in order to obtain a desired outcome.
  • In doing so the subject employs the tools of his/her culture.
  • Tools may be internal, such as plans or frameworks, or they may be external, such as a computer or language.
  • Activities are motivated by the desire to transform the object into outcomes and tools mediate between the activity and the outcome.
mediating artefacts
Mediating Artefacts
  • Action research
  • Philosophy of fearlessness in science
  • Curriculum documents (ECE and science)
  • Portfolios of learning stories
  • Science domain understandings; planning for science activities

Teachers, children and their interactions

  • First Years Preschool Inc: licensed for 13 under two year olds and 30 over twos.
  • Two separate groups with their own specialist teaching team.
  • The over-twos team, won the 2009-2010 COI contract.
  • This is a well-qualified, stable teaching team.
  • The research team: 12 over-twos teachers, supervisor and manager + 2 research associates.
  • Teachers-as-researchers: drive the research, generate and analyse the data and disseminate new understandings.

To generate evidence of children and teachers being fearless and of their learning science understandings.

The central research questions are:

  • How does our fearless teaching and learning approach to science, in a rural early childhood setting, involve children and their families in investigating real life science experiences?
  • How does of the enhancement of teachers’ own understandings of science concepts and processes support children’s engagement in fearless science?
teacher domain understandings
Teacher Domain Understandings

Teacher access to scientific terms and explanations is easy:

  • More of a challenge for some teachers is understanding the implications of this knowledge for children’s learning
  • Concern also relates to the time it takes to undertake the research, alongside similar research for other children’s interests.
  • Also whether or not, and if so, how to share science knowledge with the children.
  • Children can learn new words, such as herbivores (that eat plants and have flat teeth) and regurgitate them on demand, may be evidence of every-day, though not yet formal understandings of scientific concepts or patterns.
  • A series of learning stories about the same topic over a period of time, provides a record of the development of the investigation.
  • Teachers use brainstorms, prior to and at the end of an investigation – a crude indication of learning
  • Activities included: cleaning and re-establishing the worm farm, adding moss, compost, newspaper, hosing with water and adding the worms; regularly feeding worms, using the “tea” to feed plants and sometimes putting worms onto the glass table lit from underneath, to examine their movements.
  • The challenge for teachers was to provide evidence of children’s transformation of participation, their creative application of understandings developed in one situation and applied in a novel situation.
  • First Years’ teachers learning stories provide examples of their scaffolding of children’s thinking.
  • The challenge now is for the child’s own science thinking to be documented in the learning stories, alongside that of the teacher’s voice.
  • Authentic engagement in children’s science explorations requires a high degree of co-constructed dialogue.
  • Whether the topic of investigation originates with the child or with the teacher is less important than that they become co-inquirers in making their meanings (Wells, 1995).
Figure 2: Structure of a human activity system as employed in First Years Preschool (adapted from Engestrom, 1987, .78)
  • Be fearless in science.
  • Be holistic.
  • Integrate.

‘Science and literacy are inextricably linked – without personal literacy individual children will find it more difficult to engage with science … the partnership between literacy and science is two way; science offers natural contexts for the use and development of literacy skills and understanding whilst literacy helps to offer the individual access to the exciting and challenging world of science’. Skamp (2008, p. 76)

  • Co-Construct science understandings.
looking after the worm farm
Looking After the Worm Farm
  • Max has been very interested in the worm farm. This is full of tiger worms, which are a different breed from our common garden worm. Tiger worms are special creatures that only live above the ground in mucky organic matter (not soil). They have lots of babies, and at a very early age, making tiger worms fascinating for children to be involved with. Max and his friends examined the vigorous, wriggly creatures. We put some worms in a jug so Max could examine the worms closely. Max was thrilled to be able to show his friends the creatures. This is a lovely way for Max to share with his friends, as each of them took turns to take a glove and hold the worms.
  • Max poured water into the worm juice (tea) that we harvested from the bottom of the worm farm. He was VERY careful – look at the concentration evident in Max’s body position. And here’s my friend Max ready to pour the worm juice onto our plants. This is very special as we had to go ‘outside’ the centre, which is considered a privilege by Max’s friends.

Thank you Max. You’ve been so helpful.

In this one-page learning story, the teacher demonstrates her attention to many aspects of both hard and soft learning, including:
  • Sharing some of her own understandings of science content knowledge, with respect to tiger worms (that tiger worms are a re different breed from earth worms; that they live in mucky organic matter, produce lots of babies and worm “juice”, which is useful to feed to plants)
  • Tuning in to Max’s ongoing interest and understandings in the worm farm; valuing this interest and providing opportunity for further investigation through a variety of related activities
  • Providing positive reinforcement for contribution and leadership, supporting Max’s competence and confidence in pouring and dispensing liquids, in being careful and in concentrating so well.
rural community of learners
Rural Community of Learners
  • First Years manager
  • teachers
  • families
  • children
  • Parents’ central roles are central in their children’s learning

Parents’ central roles in their children’s learning are demonstrated in the extension of understandings about worms and of wider concepts such as habitats, in which Minnie and her parents engaged at home.

  • Minnie was very proud to come home with a box of tiger worms for the weekend. She showed Dad the worms straight away and explained to him that they like wet newspaper and the sort of scraps they eat. Min was very specific and told Andrew that worms didn’t like oranges or yoghurt. We had a neat time looking at the worms, when we had done Minnie said we needed to “put them back in their habitat”.
story from home worms for the weekend september 2008 minnie was 2 9
Story from home. Worms for the weekend (September 2008). (Minnie was 2;9)

Over the weekend the worms came out frequently, we would tip them into a planter tray so we could spread them out and see them. We used a jug to wet the concrete so the worms could move easily; we noticed that the worms all followed the path where the water had run down towards the grass. Three of them escaped into our herb garden and we watched them burrow down. One worm was taking some time so Minnie wet the ground around the worm and covered it over with a shell; she said they liked the dark. The next day when we checked under the shell the worm wasn’t there so Minnie concluded that it must have burrowed all the way under the ground.

Unfortunately we left the worm habitat out in the sun when we went out on Sunday and when we opened it up there was a bad smell and lots of the worms were not moving. There were a few that wriggled when we cooled them with water so we encouraged them to burrow into the herb garden. We left the still worms on top of the soft soil; Minnie thought they might burrow down if they were still alive. When we returned to check they were still lying on the top and not moving. Minnie thought that maybe the worms could go to the doctor, she said “I think the worms might need anti-biotics, maybe they do mum” We decided that it was too late; the worms had died so we covered them over in the soil.

Thank you Julie for the opportunity to bring some worms home for the weekend. Lots of love from Bex.


Extended understandings in response to research questions

In response to Minnie’s parents’ learning story, the teachers posed some questions for their own research:

  • Where do the worms eggs come out (of the parent worm)? Do they come out of the saddle?
  • Considering that worms are hermaphrodites, when they mate which worm lays the eggs? Or do they both?
  • If a worm is left in a puddle will it drown?
excited feedback from minnie s mum minnie now 3 7
Excited Feedback from Minnie’s Mum (Minnie now 3;7),

“What luck! Last night while reading Jack and the beanstalk Minnie said that "the castle was the giant’s habitat, aye mum"”.

A “transformation of participation” (Rogoff, 1998)

  • Minnie’s experiences related to worms, frogs and snails led to her use of the generalised term “habitat”.
  • And in further creative thinking about the giant’s surroundings she was able to respond in a different manner than she would have been able to without those prior experiences. “I (her Mum) asked her what a habitat was "it's just a home" she said. I asked what her habitat was, she said” I don't have one, it's just for animals".
action research on contradictions
Action Research on Contradictions

Reification “congeals” a community’s practices, making them less available for critique.

Some of community’s practices are inherent in the “abstractions, tools, symbols, stories, terms and concepts” (Wenger, 1998, p.59)

Action research is an ideal tool for teachers use to identify and address the current relevance of abstractions that served earlier guiding paradigms.

Action research = change based on evidence

Generating evidence of practice is a challenge.

Teachers have yet to demonstrate courage in documenting children’s improved understandings.
  • Teachers did recognise a parent’s documentation of her child’s extended science.
  • Contradiction #1 (Figure 2) relates to the teachers being less than “fearless” in this component of activity.
  • It is expected that the teachers will identify further contradictions between many points on the model, as their research progresses.
  • A “fearless” mantra provides a sound foundation for science domain learning and the implementation of collaborative and holistic activity.
  • Collaboration with rural families ensures that investigations are based authentically on children’s interests.
  • Holistic science investigations are natural starting points for integrated and multi-literate learning.
  • Teachers require “hard” and “soft” science knowledge” to investigate science with children.
  • Community and families work with teachers to co-construct understandings across two or more generations of learners - a passion for science learned in early childhood is reinforced throughout life.
The “soft” elements allow science to become a “fearless” and leads to understanding of “hard” elements.
  • Children learning “respect, curiosity, trust, reflection and a sense of belonging, confidence, independence and responsibility” are key attributes of a life long respect for science and our environment.

With thanks for their data and for feedback, to the First Years Preschool leaders: Rebekah Cooper, Manager; Lisa Bond Head Teacher; Sarah Graham and Julie Sargent;

and to the remainder of the teacher-researcher team: Michelle Mullins; Casey Gilmore ;Leanne Rider; Sarah Newell; Jo Hansen; Kelsey Newell; and Kristi Withey.

Special thanks also to Sue Smorti, co-Research Associate in First Years Preschool’s Centre of Innovation research.

This project has been reviewed and approved by the Massey University Human Ethics Committee: Southern B, Application 09/08.  If you have any concerns about the conduct of this research, please contact Dr Karl Pajo, Chair, Massey University Human Ethics Committee: Southern B, telephone 04 801 5799, ext 6929, email


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