Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Private Universe Project in Science

Workshop Four: "A House With No Foundation"

Section 1 - About Workshop Four:
"A House With No Foundation"


This video is currently not available.

What is the theme of this workshop?
The theme of Workshop Four is "choosing to teach fundamentals."

What do we see in the video?
Conversation at a round-table discussion with elementary, middle, and high school teachers focuses on when abstract scientific ideas are appropriate to teach. Some teachers believe that abstract scientific ideas should be taught in high school and that they are too difficult to teach the younger students. Audrey, an urban middle school teacher, discovers that the task of teaching abstract concepts may not be impossible after all.

What happens in the video?
Teachers of elementary, middle, and high school compare their students' ideas about the Particulate Nature of Matter. Older students seem more confused than younger ones: they do not believe that there is "nothing" between the particles.

What problem does this session address?
Teachers often state that their students are too young to think about abstract fundamental ideas. These subjects are often avoided. Older students, however, are required to build upon the very basic ideas avoided in the early years. If these ideas are not taught, when will students learn them?

What teaching strategy does this session offer?
Teachers learn to introduce students to modeling things they cannot see. Groups of students work at activities providing "data" about the phenomenon. The groups devise models to explain their data and defend these against the questions of others in the class.


Section 2 ­ "A House With No Foundation"

A. The Goals for Workshop Four

"A House With No Foundation" is for any teacher interested in discussing the ages at which children can and should learn some of the fundamental principles of science. The video will challenge traditional "common wisdom" about this topic and demonstrate how some basic ideas form the foundation necessary to understand many different sciences. This video focuses on teachers and students across the K-12 spectrum, providing insights into science learning in all classrooms.

The video material addresses those who are creating standards at the local, state, and national level on how we teach science. These standards will have an impact on what and when students should learn.

In this workshop we want to encourage a dialogue among teachers working at different grade levels.


Workshop Discussion

Does learning certain fundamental ideas early provide the foundation for science learning later in school?

What should be the ages of students when teachers first introduce them to fundamentals? Please explain your reasoning.


B. Diagnostic Questions Used in Workshop Four

Pre-Workshop Activity

Each student interviewed in the videos, regardless of grade level, was asked a series of questions related to the Particulate Nature of Matter. The questions were intended to elicit what the students did and did not understand about the Particulate Theory of Matter, an abstract and difficult concept for any age. The following represents the questions asked of each age group:

  1. Is air made of particles? Are particles evenly distributed in the atmosphere?
  3. If students could see the air in a flask magnified many times, what would the air look like? If we then were to remove half the air from the flask, what would the air look like?
  5. How does the smell of cologne travel from the bottle to the nose?


Pre-Workshop Activity

Ask your class, colleagues, neighbors, and/or friends the following question: What is air made of? What would it look like if we could see it? If they mention that air is made of "particles" or similar terms (such as pieces, atoms, molecules, etc.), ask them what is between the particles.


C. Challenges

Because of a limited amount of time, we were only able to present the ideas of a small number of students in each video. When seeing just a few students, some teachers might conclude that the situations we portray apply only to a minority of children. In reality, thousands of students' ideas have been researched and investigated for each of the questions used in our interviews. The research covers decades of work from all over the world. We trust that the ideas we present are typical, not rare. However, many schools and teachers underestimate what and when their students are able to learn fundamental concepts and may not realize how typical these ideas are.

Workshop Discussion

Does your school curriculum underestimate or overestimate the students' capabilities? Please explain your answer.



Section 3 - Exercises

A. Exercise: Responding to Workshop Four

We all agree that there is no point in covering material that students can't understand. Yet older students are required to build on such ideas. If the ideas are never taught, when will the students learn them?


Workshop Activity

What do you think is the earliest appropriate grade for teaching abstract concepts like the Particulate Nature of Matter? Why?
The sizes of particles seems to be a confusing concept for most students. How would you initiate a young student into the world of minute, "invisible" particles?
Devise an activity or an experiment (a "springboard" for student theory-making) to teach the Particulate Nature of Matter at a level appropriate for grades K-3.


B. Exercise: Preparing for Workshop Five

You will get the greatest benefit from Workshop Five if you complete the following exercise. After you've thought about it, ask other teachers, students, or family members for their responses.


Pre-Workshop Activity for Workshop Five

Without calculating or experimenting, estimate how big a mirror you will need and how far away the mirror must be in order for you to see your entire body in it. Use relative terms, such as "as big as my head" or "ten body lengths," rather than exact quantitative estimates.



Section 4 - Educational Strategy

A. Small Group Discussion Work: Use of Posters

Small group discussion offers an interesting teaching and learning strategy which can be developed by having students make posters. In this summary sheet, a number of points are made about small-group discussion work in general and about using posters in the context of small-group work.

Small-group work that involves four or five students discussing their ideas and understandings of particular issues or phenomena can be very effective in achieving a range of different aims.

  • Allows individual students to make their own ideas and thinking explicit.
  • Makes students aware of each other's ideas (which may differ).
  • Offers students the opportunity to talk through and develop their ideas.
  • Enables the teacher to become aware of student ideas and thinking.
  • Offers an informal working context that can motivate students, making them more willing to express their views.

As part of group discussions, students can be asked to prepare posters that summarize the consensus view of their group, which:

  • Helps to focus the group's attention on the task

The fact that a poster, summarizing ideas, is wanted as a product of the group work can help to concentrate student minds. Nevertheless, the production of the poster should not detract from the quality of the discussion; it may therefore be beneficial to provide paper and pens only towards the end of the discussion period.

  • Leads to a permanent record of students' thinking

The poster can be displayed in the classroom acting as a "paper memory" of students' thinking at that point in the lessons.

Displaying posters in this way is an explicit indication that the teacher is interested in and values what students have to say.

  • Provides a focus for reporting back to the rest of the class

Posters from each group can be presented to the rest of the class: given that the poster is likely to record a group consensus view, there is less pressure on individuals in reporting to the whole class.

  • Offers a new teaching strategy for teachers


Organizing small group/poster work

  • When organizing pupils for group work, consider the following:
  • If possible, allow students to select their own groups;
  • Keep groups small-four to five is an optimum size;
  • Make the purpose and goals of the activity clear to students;
  • Set a time limit for completion of the work;
  • If students are expected to report back, tell them ahead of time;
  • Move furniture into circles to help group interaction;
  • Have plenty of paper and large felt-tipped pens available;
  • Use discussions and poster work at any point in a teaching sequence--at the beginning, to collect students' existing ideas; or at the end, to check for understanding.


Section 5 - Resources for Workshop Four


Companies, publications, and organizations named in this guide represent a cross-section of such entities. We do not endorse any companies, publications, or organizations, nor should any endorsement be inferred from its presence in this guide. Descriptions of such entities are for reference purposes only. We have provided this information to help locate materials and information.

A. Materials for the Classroom

IT'S A GAS! Griffin, Margaret and Ruth Griffin. Kids Can Press Ltd. 1993.

Kids Can Press Ltd.
29 Birch Avenue
Toronto, Ontario Canada M4V 1E2
Fax: 416-960-5437

CLIS (Children Learning In Science) Publications

  1. Summary report: Aspects of secondary students' understanding of particles. Brook et al., 1983. The CLIS materials are the result of a United Kingdom survey of 15-year-old students' understanding of the Particle Theory of Matter.
  2. Teaching strategies for developing understanding of science. Needham et al. 1987. A review of interactive teaching approaches and things to try in the classroom.
  3. Making sense of secondary science. Driver et al. 1994. A comprehensive and authoritative review of middle and high school students' alternative conceptions in all areas of the science curriculum.
To order: CLIS (Children Learning In Science) Publications
Business Secretary
CSSME (Center for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education)
University of Leeds
Leeds, UK LS2 9JT

B. Further Reading

Ardley, N. 1991. The Science Book of Air. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Janovich.

Asimov, I. 1975. Asimov On Chemistry. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.

Branley, F. 1986. Air is All Around You. New York: Harper Row.

Challand, H.J. 1988. Experience with Chemistry. Chicago: Children's Press.

Driver, R. 1991. Culture clash: children and science. New Scientist (29 June).

Driver, R. & B. Bell. 1986. Students' thinking and the learning of science: a constructivist view. School Science Review 67: 240.

Driver, R., E. Guesne and A. Tiberghein eds. 1985. Children's Ideas in Science. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Duckworth, E. 1987. The Having of Wonderful Ideas. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Hawkins, D. 1978. Critical barriers to science learning. Outlook 29 (Autumn) 3-25.

Levenson E. 1994. Teaching Children About Physical Science. Tab Book.

Muthukrishna, N., D. Carmine, B. Grossen., and S. Miller. 1993. Children's alternative frameworks: should they be directly addressed in science instruction? Journal of Research in Science Teaching 30(3): 233-248.

Novick, S., and J. Nussbaum. 1978. Junior high school pupils' understanding of the Particulate Nature of Matter: an interview study. Science Education 62(3): 273-281.

Novick, S., and J. Nussbaum. 1981. Pupils' understanding of the Particulate Nature of Matter: a cross-age study. Science Education 65(2): 197-196.

Osborn, R.J., and M.M. Cosgrove. 1983. Children's conceptions of the changes of state of water. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 20(9): 825-838.

Smith, H. 1983. Amazing Air. New York: Science Club: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books.

Solomon, J. 1983. Thinking in two worlds of knowledge. An International Seminar of Misconceptions in Science and Mathematics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Solomon, J. 1987. Social influences on the construction of pupils' understanding of science. Studies in Science Education 14: 63-82.

Stavy, R. 1990. Children's conception of changes in the states of matter: from liquid (or solid) to gas. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 27(3): 247-266.


C. Bibliography on the Particulate Nature of Matter

Andersson, B. 1990. Pupil's conceptions of matter and its transformations. Studies in Science Education 18: 53-85.

Ault, C.R., J.D. Novak, and D.B. Gowin. 1984. Constructing Vee maps for clinical interviews on molecule concepts. Science Education 68: 441-462.

Ben-Zvi, R., B. Eylon, and J. Silberstein. 1986. Is an atom of copper malleable? Journal of Chemical Education 63: 64-66.

Brook, A., H. Briggs, and R. Driver. 1984. Aspects of secondary students' understanding of the Particulate Nature of Matter. Children's Learning in Science Project, Leeds: Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education, The University.

de Vos, W. and A.H. Verdonk. 1987. A new road to reaction, part 4: The substance and its molecules. Journal of Chemical Education 64(8): 692-694.

Gabel, D.L. 1990. Students' understanding of the Particle Nature of Matter and its relation to problem solving. Empirical research in mathematics and science education. Proceedings of the International Seminar, University of Dortmund, Germany.

Gabel, D.L., K.V. Samuel., and D. Hunn. 1987. Understanding the Particulate Nature of Matter. Journal of Chemical Education 64(8): 695-697.

Haidar, A.H. and M.R. Abraham. 1991. A comparison of applied and theoretical knowledge of concepts based on the Particulate Nature of Matter. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 28(10): 919-938.

Hesse, J.J., III and C.W. Anderson. 1992. Students' conceptions of chemical change. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29(3): 277-299.

Hibbard, K.M. and J.D. Novak. 1975. Audio-tutorial elementary school science instruction as a method for study of children's concept learning: Particulate Nature of Matter. Science Education 59: 559-570.

Mitchell, H. and S. Kellington. 1982. Learning difficulties associated with the Particulate Theory of Matter in the Scottish integrated science courses. European Journal of Science Education 4: 429-440.

Novak, J. and Musonda. 1991. A twelve-year longitudinal study of science concept learning. American Educational Research Journal 29(1): 117-153.

Novick, S. and J. Nussbaum. 1978. Junior high school pupils' understanding of the Particulate Nature of Matter: an interview study. Science Education 62(3): 273-281.

Novick, S. and J. Nussbaum. 1981. Pupils' understanding of the Particulate Nature of Matter: A cross-age study. Science Education 65(2): 187-196.

Nussbaum, J. 1985. The Particulate Nature of Matter in the gaseous phase. In Children's Ideas in Scienc, R. Driver, E. Guesne and A. Tiberghien eds. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Pereira, M.P. a nd M.E.M. Pestana. 1991. Pupils' representations of models of water. International Journal of Science Education 13(3): 313-319.

Scott, P. 1987. The process of conceptual change in science: A case study of the development of a secondary pupil's ideas relating to matter. In Proceedings of the Second International Seminar on Misconceptions and Educational Strategies in Science and Mathematics (Vol. II: 404-419), ed. J.D. Novak. Ithaca, NY: Department of Education, Cornell University.

Sheperd, D.L. and J.W. Renner. 1982. Student understandings and misunderstandings of states of matter and density changes. School Science and Mathematics 82(8): 650-665.

Stavridou, H. and C. Solomonidou. 1989. Physical phenomena-chemical phenomena: Do pupils make a distinction? International Journal of Science Education 11: 83-92.

Stavy, R. 1988. Children's conception of gas. International Journal of Science Education 10(5): 553-560.

Stavy, R. 1991. Children's ideas about matter. School Science and Mathematics 91(6): 240-244.

Westbrook, S.L. and E.A. Marek. 1991. A cross-age study of student understanding of the concept of diffusion. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 28(8): 649-660.


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