Elementary science students' conceptions in biology : their language, meanings, classifications, and interpretations of science concepts : an ethnographic study


An ethnographic study was conducted with the goal of examining the botanical knowledge of nine sixth grade students. The language, meanings, classifications, and interpretations of botanical concepts presented by the students were compared to those found in the elementary textbook series, Science, by Silver Burdett, 1985. Several aspects of children's botanical knowledge were examined: children's names for plants, the level of abstraction that was psychologically basic in naming plants, categories for plants, names and functions for plant parts, and children's explanations for abstract concepts, such as photosynthesis, reproduction, the importance of plants to humans, and differences between plant and animal, living and non-living. Many of the scientific terms found in the elementary textbooks were either not used or were poorly understood by the children. The children did use many of the folk botanical terms and categories that adult laymen would use. The children's knowledge in these areas was not naive or idiosyncratic, rather it was based on folk cultural knowledge. When children did not know names for plants they used a variety of strategies to avoid admitting ignorance or being wrong. The children selected members for plant categories based on similarity to a prototype. They gave rich descriptions of plants and showed abilities to recognize plants at the generic and family level. They showed a preference for naming plants at the generic level of abstraction (e.g., oak) rather than at more abstract levels (e.g., tree). The elementary textbooks introduced abstract levels of the scientific classification scheme (e.g., monocot, dicot) and did not discuss the concepts of family, genus, and species. The children's explanations for abstract botanical phenomena were poor and somewhat idiosyncratic, based partly on text-taught information and partly on folk cultural knowledge. The textbooks often did not provide enough information to bridge the gap between the child's knowledge and the scientist's knowledge. Many botanical terms were not adequately defined and some statements in the text were false or misleading. The textbooks did not promote the stated goals for science education put forward by various educational organizations