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The Elementary Classroom: Grades 3-6
Science, Children, and Learning
by Donald Peck
Science education, indeed education in general, is deeply indebted to Jean Piaget, the renowned Swiss psychologist and learning theorist, for his research on how children learn, and to Mary Budd Rowe, an American researcher who discovered effective methods of classroom discourse.

Concrete Activities Before Reading

According to Piaget, intellectual development is the process of restructuring knowledge. He posits that new sensory data received by a person either support or conflict with that person's mental constructs. A conflict causes a disequilibrium that the person resolves by building the new data into his/her mental structure to produce a new equilibrium.

According to Piaget, the process of revising previously held mental structures involves assimilation of the new data and accommodation of one's mental constructs to the data. Assimilation is the acquisition and integration of perceptions into mental structures. Accommodation is the alteration of the mental constructs that occur in order to resolve conflicts between the new data and the preexisting mental structures. His term for assimilation and accommodation, taken together, is equilibration. Piaget maintains that equilibration is the basis for acquiring knowledge.

Piaget's research shows that children 7 to 11 years of age (usually in the third through the sixth grade) are in what he calls the Concrete Operational Stage of development. While children in any one grade or classroom will exhibit the characteristics of this stage to different degrees, most will have arrived in this stage by Grade 3 and a few will have acquired some characteristics of the next stage, the Formal Operational Stage, by Grade 6. Piaget's stages of intellectual development are progressive, and reaching them is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

When a child mentally manipulates things, he is thinking about operating on concrete objects, not abstract ideas. In Piaget's view, structure in a curriculum thus must be approached through concrete materials with which the child interacts. In order to build satisfactory mental constructs from his environment, the child must

  • work with real objects
  • have time to investigate and to test his ideas in his own way
  • discuss his ideas with others, including his/her peers
In “What Research Says to the Science Teacher,” Fletcher Watson supports Piaget's findings when he states, “Phenomena become the basis of all our mental operations of perceiving, observing, classifying, measuring, ordering, patterning, and forming hypotheses.” The National Research Council's

National Science Education Standards adds “Inquiry is a critical component of a science program at all grade levels and in every domain of science, and designers of curricula and programs must be sure that the approach to content and to the teaching and assessment strategies reflect the acquisition of scientific understanding through inquiry.”

Benchmarks for Science Literacy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science continues the thought with, “If students themselves participate in scientific investigations that progressively approximate good science, then the picture they come away with will likely be reasonably accurate.” It is for this reason that every Investigation in Science DiscoveryWorks Grades 3 through 6 starts with activities involving real objects that children manipulate. It is important that concrete experiences precede reading, which is an abstract experience.


Mary Budd Rowe discovered that children's understandings in science are greatly affected by the nature of the discourse following a hands-on activity. The type of discourse, she found, was determined by what she called wait-time.

Rowe discovered that there are two wait-time intervals. The first is the period after asking a question and not receiving a response and, before changing the question, asking a probing question, calling on another student, or answering the question him/herself. The second is the interval after receiving a response and before saying anything. For the first interval, the average teacher waits 0.9 seconds. The wait for the second interval is usually much shorter.

Dr. Rowe discovered that if wait-times are increased to from three to five seconds some good things happen:

  • Responses change from a single word to whole statements.
  • The inflection on the end of the response that says, “Am I right?” disappears. Self-confidence increases.
  • Speculative thinking increases.
  • Guessing, “I don't know,” and inappropriate responses decrease.
  • Students “piggyback” on each other's ideas.
  • The interaction becomes a student-student discussion, moderated by the teacher, instead of a teacher-student inquisition.
  • Students ask more questions.
  • Students propose more investigations.
  • Student achievement improves.
  • Classroom discipline improves.
  • Teachers ask fewer questions.
  • Teachers ask better questions, requiring higher-order thinking skills.

The first wait-time interval is important to allow a student to consider a question and formulate a response. The second wait-time interval is crucial to encouraging that student to continue his/her response or for another student to extend the idea.

Dr. Rowe did her research in hundreds of elementary school science classrooms. It has been replicated many times at all educational levels. The results have been extraordinarily and consistently the same.

In conclusion, Jean Piaget's work indicates that 7- to 11-year-old children are in the concrete stages of learning. Experience with concrete objects should precede reading about them. Since teaching is all about changing the concepts that students hold, the discussions that are held following a concrete experience are crucial if a child is to alter a firmly held idea. As Mary Budd Rowe has shown, a teacher's use of wait-time greatly influences the quality of the discussion and the real learning that takes place.

The productive science classroom in Grades 3 through 6 is alive with curious, noisy children and is mediated by a sensitive, inquiring, skilled, and knowledgeable teacher. It is a classroom rich in concrete materials and in diverse and suitable reading materials, as well. Especially, there is a lot of “What would happen if . . . ,” “Let's try . . . ,” and “I think. . . .” It is a classroom with a whole lot of learning that is real, rewarding, relevant, and fun.

Donald Peck was the Director of the Center for Elementary Science, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, NJ. He was a district science supervisor in New Jersey for 23 years and is a Houghton Mifflin Science DiscoveryWorks author.
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