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Exploring Science as Open-Ended Transactional Inquiry:
A Working Group on Elementary Science Education

Meeting Notes
21 February 2007



Darla Attardi (BMC staff), Kim Cassidy (BMC faculty), Alison Cook-Sather (BMC faculty), Anne Dalke (BMC faculty), Wil Franklin (BMC faculty), Sarah Freilich (HC student), Jill Garland (HC alum, teacher), Jed Grobstein (NYC teacher), Paul Grobstein (BMC faculty), Glenn Heck (Delaware Valley Friends, teacher), Amy McCann (Friends Select, teacher), Chris Massey (UPenn, faculty, Lansdowne Friends school committee), Maggie Powers (BMC student), Mingh Whitfield (Lansdowne Friends, teacher)


Sarah Freilich

I thought that the meeting last Wednesday night was very interesting. One of the things that was very striking was the movement of the discussion towards implementing transactional inquiry within the classroom as a curricular focus. Some comments were made concerning trying to build a curriculum around student interest, making sure that process did not become the content which we are trying to teach, and all of the different forces molding teachers. I wonder if when we discuss building content around student interest (knowing that it is so diverse) we might actually want to change that focus towards allowing room within the classroom and learning for student interest. In this way I believe that we can build a framework for learning that will satisfy the community impacting the school and leave space for the students to learn through transactional inquiry. If within the framework there are specifics, the transition from learning as we know it towards learning through transactional learning will give parents, teachers, and administration a better understanding and they will be more likely to give it a try, while the students will have the chance to shape the learning into a more personal experience.

One of the biggest constraints that I felt was talked about implicitly and explicitly was time. Schools expect students to show learning in a timely manner and it is most quickly assessed by these rigid tests (although as we are arguing this does not actually show learning) and teachers do not have all the time in the world to assess their students. The pressure shaping the schools and teacher are therefore not conducive to this change and this extends even farther when we consider that we are talking about using this in a private school which depends on student enrollment. The change therefore needs to be understood and endorsed by parents. Yet the irony comes from the fact that a parent chooses to send their student to the best school in order that the student will perform well on an exam in order to go the best school at the next level. The preoccupation with testing that is driving our educational system is overriding a parent's simple concern for their student's growth and learning.

Lastly I just want to comment on the idea that with age comes a rigidity to change, especially in the sense of how we are taught and learn. I believe that it is hard for a student to realize their learning explicitly if they believe that there is only one way to learn (or have only experienced learning in one way). Therefore the fact that we are working on an elementary curriculum takes this into account and a student that is raised in a culture where learning is partly a self responsibility and the student learns how to learn from their questions and experiences, will give students the ability to flourish at the upper levels. This is because their understanding of learning is more flexible and they have the knowledge to learn without having an authoritative figure telling them exactly what to learn, how to learn it, and the one way they will have to give evidence of their learning.

Paul Grobstein

Among the things that I came away with from this conversation was a renewed sense of the problems of taking "open-ended transactional inquiry" seriously in the science education context. And hence a still greater sense of how rarely it is done ... and of both the magnitude of the task and the importance of trying to achieve it.

It was useful to be reminded that open-ended transactional inquiry is not what many students expect in a classroom nor what many parents, school officials, or politicians expect either. And that that means we need to be finding ways to both "sell" what we are trying to do to all relevant parties and to provide a basis by which our success (or lack thereof) can be measured.

With regard to students, I was encouraged to hear that others, like myself, find that students will respond positively despite earlier educational experiences if the open-ended transactional inquiry objective is made clear. And that students notice/recognize their own roles/obligations in such an environment. At the same time, there are issues yet to be further explored, including students' concern about the certification function of education, the role of educational experiences in development of social and personal identities (in both students and teachers), and "beliefs about the nature of knowledge" (levels(?) of "epistemological sophistication").

An interesting aspect of the latter has to do with the use of "categories", by not only young children but humans at all ages. While this may seem at first blush to be a stumbling block for "o-e.t.i" (to coin an acronym), it need be so only if categories are regarded (and treated) as sharp and fixed/permanent/invariant entities. An alternative is to treat them (as they actually are) as building blocks for further inquiry and hence subject to both ambiguities and change (cf. Pluto's standing and following).

The whole issue of whether there are developmental "levels" of "epistemological sophistication" that one needs to be aware of in curriculum development seems to me worth more attention. Is it necessarily the case that people proceed through a sequence from thinking of knowledge as "expert-based"/black and white to accepting the existence of disagreements/grey to always changing but still subject to justification? Or is this an artifact of how our culture presents knowledge and gives credit for mastery of it? My inclination, of course, is to suspect the latter but an existing literature on this subject needs to be accounted for/made sense of in these terms to validate this inclination. Is it possible that students at all ages have at least some comfort with all "levels" of epistemological sophistication and choose among them at any given time based on experiences (as per Siegler)?

I would like to know more as well about the degree of "certainty" needed for achievement of successful personal identities (in both students and teachers). Here too my suspicion is that it is less than we sometimes presume (and encourage, consciously or unconsciously). Many cultures actually presume a constantly changing "self" rather than a fixed stable one (cf. Buddhist Meditation and Personal Construct Psychology; also Looking for the Role of Individuals).

Assuming we can indeed "sell" o.-e.t.i. to students, there remains the problem of selling it to others, as well as issues of certification and of assessment that are relevant both for students and others. In general, it seems to me we need continuing public talking about the relative value of preparing people to be better inquirers in comparison to making them aware (at least temporarily) of "a sum of observations collected on the subject of biology [or any other science] and the most widely accepted stories explaining those observations". And we need to do more public talking about the necessity of developing new assessment mechanisms appropriate to such educational practices. There are some thoughts about the latter in the recently published Emergent Pedagogy.

It also seemed to me to be particularly useful to have also pointed out that one shouldn't be expecting teachers to develop open-ended transaction curricula on their own, give that it is not only not a teaching style they were trained in but one that requires significant background preparation that it is hard/impossible to acquire in the time left over (?) from normal teaching obligations. This is further reason to get on to the task of seeing whether we can indeed together develop some kind of model scope/sequence for K-6 science education in the open-ended transactional mode.

Along these lines, I was encouraged by some commonalities in feelings about the North Carolina standards documents that we started looking at. Yes, they talk about "inquiry", but also acquiring familiarity with "universal laws", fail to mention "imagination" or "creativity" as a significant element of science, and make no connection to student interests/background understandings (these, as pointed may differ among students, but, at the same time, the principle that any subject should connect to students rather than coming out of the blue seems to me important to hang onto, and something that some bmc students might help to further explore. It is also worth thinking more about whether one could have different students exploring different topics at different times, with "coverage" coming from student exchange).

The challenge, at this point, seems to me to see what a "standards" document might look like if it started from o.-e.t.i. objectives rather than a blend of content/process. A sketch of a starting point describing inquiry skills was discussed at an earlier meeting, and some additions were suggested at this one:

  • making things testable
  • "logic" of evidence
  • correlation vs causality
  • measurement/quantification
  • uses and limitations of generalization
  • passive vs manipulative observations

Perhaps we could better synthesize and begin building on this, adding "content" based on what best serves to develop particular skills and input about what engages students at different ages?

Alice Lesnick

As I reflect on our last session, I think about certain qualities or stances that emerged as necessary for open-ended transactional inquiry. Jill's formulation that it is imperative for students to "live in the questions" captures the sense I am working to articulate. As Jill said, in describing how she'd like her students to think about learning, "As soon as I find evidence that doesn't fit my theory, I am learning." What does this approach to learning demand of differently positioned people?

  1. Strength. Open-ended transactional inquiry calls for strength:
    • On the part of students (in recognizing and accomplishing the different responsibilities that fall to them within this paradigm)
    • On the part of teachers (in maintaining a vision of possibility despite a long history of naysaying and skepticism about the viability of true open-endedness in formal education)
    • On the part of curricular guides as a scaffold
    • On the part of a broader school community
    • And on the part of society itself, which must assure or at least tolerate sustained, searching "public talk" as Paul calls for it about these matters in order to sustain a context for the development of public understanding.
  2. Imagination. O-E.T.I. demands that its practitioners and supporters be willing to imagine that things (schools, curricula, tests, people, "selves," science) could really be different than they are now and to act on what is imagined. It is "possibilitarian" in this sense, and very challenging. It is based on a hopeful faith in ongoing transformation as both possible and desirable. It is fundamentally opposed to the conserving/preserving/memorializing functions of schooling (and of social life), which themselves are strong and upheld/endorsed by many people.
  3. Change-ability. An understanding that change is foundational to learning and to living -- as one of Paul's Biology students put it, an understanding that "facts" are to be distinguished from "life." This connects with Sarah's formulation that at the base of inquiry we find "self-directed action," not settled conviction or fixed knowledge. As Paul said, it is important that we not underestimate the adaptability of students and other people involved with their learning. We do not know enough about this given our current forms of social organization in this culture. I think of the cliché that people do not change because they see the light but because they feel the heat. This view of change links it to emergency, crisis, which is all right as far as it goes but tends to support the view that change is a last-ditch effort, not a way to orient daily life and learning.

I hope other group members will add to and revise this list if you find it helpful.

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