The objective of this project is to examine the role of culture in the development of children's knowledge of and reasoning about the natural world. This project builds on previous work that found cultural differences in science-related practices such as observation, hypothesis formation, and explanation. It also extends design research to preschool contexts with both Native and European-American children, with the goal of finding ways to design rigorous science learning environments for young children. The study populations include both urban and rural Native-American and (mainly) European-American children. The studies include adults and children of different ages, with tasks tailored to each sample. This will achieve a more comprehensive view of the development of understandings of nature. The project is a collaborative effort between TERC, the American Indian Center of Chicago, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, and Northwestern University. The overall goal is to improve science learning by bringing informal, out-of-school learning to bear on more formal, school-based science learning.

The project employs an integration of multiple methods and measures to conduct three sets of studies. 1. Studies of input conditions and learning in everyday contexts. 2. More formal cognitive science studies of children's learning and conceptual organization. 3. Community-based design experiments focused on science learning. In different ways, each of these methods allows the project to further develop, test, and examine the educational implications of proposed theories of how culture affects science learning. This research project offers extensive cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary research opportunities for pre- and post-doctoral research trainees. Members of Native American communities have increasingly become involved on related project as PIs, research assistants, and graduate fellows. An important aspect of this project is resource development and capacity building in Native-American institutions.

This research should have strong impacts on theories of cognitive and conceptual development, especially those pertaining to how children's and adults' existing knowledge is shaped by culture and experience. It should also promote an expansive view of cultural practices, including contact with the natural world, community forms of engagement, and parent-child interactions. The project develops classroom practices that, if successful, have excellent potential for scaling up and generality. Moreover, this project will provide a deeper understanding of the developmental processes underlying cross-cultural similarities and differences in science learning. This will serve as an essential resource in national and local efforts to advance the education of children enrolled in US schools, including the increasing number of children from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Project Report

The purpose of our project has been to examine how culture affects ways of looking at the natural world and how these ways, in turn, affect the development of knowledge and reasoning about nature. By "ways of looking at nature" we mean practices, or the kinds of routine activities that people participate in, which shape their ways of talking and their actions in the natural world. We are interested in how differences in these practices influence ideas about what is worthy of attention and observation as well as ideas, understandings, and questions that arise from these interactions. For example, one cultural group might relate what they see to previous experiences in other settings, but another group may focus more on relationships within the setting itself. Our research examines practices in a wide variety of situations and settings. For example, we have analyzed how 3- to 5-year-old urban Native Americans (Chicago), urban European Americans (Chicago and suburbs) and rural Native Americans (Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin) play with a forest diorama as well as parent-child interactions with this same diorama. In addition, we invited parents and children to go through a wordless 'picture book' together. The pictures show animals in various contexts and our aim is to see what parents (and children) call attention to and how they go about doing that. Yet another rich source of data comes from parents going on forest walks with their 4- to 6-year-old children. Our findings are quite striking. For example, the young children found the diorama to be very engaging and we were able to use both action and speech to assess biological knowledge and orientations. For example, if a child picks up a (toy) eagle and places it on top of a (toy) white pine tree, that child may be revealing knowledge about habitat. Although Native American children are sometimes described as lagging in language skills and "reluctant to talk," Native children in our samples talk at least as much as (higher socioeconomic status) non-Native children. We also find that rural Menominee children engage in more relational play and speech than our other two samples of children. Finally, the diorama provides insight into the rich knowledge that each of our three samples of children display. For example, we are learning about the variety of forms, both verbal (e.g., what, how, why, etc.) and non-verbal (e.g., pointing gestures), that parents and children use to pose questions and the functions they serve for guiding attention. The forest walk data are similarly intriguing. In one analysis we have focused on "evidential reasoning" or the ways in which parent-child pairs use their observations of kinds and events to arrive at conclusions and generate explanations. We find that even young children engage in scientific reasoning or ask meaningful questions about natural processes, develop predictions, and look for evidence. For example, children asked questions about decomposition and the life cycle, erosion, and eating relationships. Everyday activities such as forest walks appear to be an excellent context for studying informal science learning. An important facet of thinking about the biological world is the place of humans within it. We have found that some cultural groups (e.g., European American) tend to think of nature as separate from humans and as something that needs to be protected. Other cultural groups (e.g., Native Americans) see themselves as a part of nature. These differences are observed in surveys and a range of cognitive tasks. They are even reflected in artifacts such as children’s books authored by Native Americans versus those by non-Native authors, as well as science-related images that can be observed in science textbooks and in Google images. We have used findings from the studies discussed above to develop culturally appropriate programs for youth, families, and teachers. For example, we have designed: urban ecology programs for children and families at the American Indian Center of Chicago and teacher professional development modules for Head Start teachers on the Menominee Reservation and teaching tools such as interactive murals at the Center and in Head Start schools on the Menominee Reservation.

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Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin
United States
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