Childrens Understanding of Rivers: Is there need for more constructivist research in primary geography, M Mackintosh

Tags: erosion and deposition, understanding, London, Falmer Press, geography, geographical terms, Principal Lecturer Rolle School of Education, constructivist approach, semi-structured interview, final research, wet water running, Constructivist ideas, Margaret Mackintosh, water cycle, science education, local river estuary, constructivist approaches, stream river, Primary School, secondary school geography, Kegan Paul Bell, urban children, Kegan Paul Piaget, children experience, rivers, Two-dimensional representation, Open University Press Gunning, Geographical Association Driver, Environmental Education, QCA Central Advisory Council for Education, Open University Press, References Bale, a river flowing, Kegan Paul Platten
Content: Researching Primary Geography Eds S. Catling & F. Martin Special Publication No 1 p.55-63 ISBN 0-9538154-3-9 Children's Understanding of Rivers: Is there need for more constructivist research in primary geography? Margaret Mackintosh Lately Principal Lecturer Rolle School of Education, University of Plymouth Introduction Talking about a river Daisy, aged four, said that 'the wind' made it flow, but on a walk she observed a small stream. She pointed in the direction of flow, which happened to be downwind. Asked if the stream could flow the other way, she said 'no, because it would come back down again'. Ten year old Kathleen was standing on Keadby Bridge over the River Trent. She exclaimed, 'Eh, there's water on both sides!' Was it the concept of 'river' or 'bridge' or both that Kathleen had not grasped? In the classroom teachers use many geographical terms which are in common everyday use, such as river, bridge or town. They assume a shared meaning, but Kathleen's and Daisy's comments indicate that children can construct different meanings. The research reported here was initiated by May (1996). using a constructivist approach in geography to explore children's visualization, understanding or 'alternative conceptions' of 'river'. literature review Constructivist ideas have been traced back to the early 1770s when Vico (Hunter & Benson 1997) said that knowledge is not a representation of objective reality; it is a personalized sense-making construction of the experiential world . . . dependent on the situation and purpose, the person's unique experience, and the process involved in actively constructing meanings. It is, therefore, an active, cultural process, contextually bound and personally and historically informed. More recently these ideas have been developed, notably through the work of Piaget, who talked of 'cognitive adaptation', the learner assimilating and accommodating experiences into 'action schemes'. These ideas also underpinned the Plowden Report (CACE, 1967) and have been developed by several authors since, especially in the field of science education (for example Driver et al (1994), Nussbaum (1985), and the S.P.A.C.E. project (Russell et al 1993) http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
As well as being used extensively to elicit children's concepts in science, constructivist approaches have also been used as a model for teachers' development in science (Bell & Gilbert 1996) and mathematics (Jaworski 1984). But they have been little used in geography. However, in recent years Harwood & Jackson (1995) and Platten (1995a, 1995b) have adopted this approach, the latter usefully summarizing the work in science. Dove (1999) has also briefly discussed constructivism in a geographical context. Children's sense-making of rivers arises from their direct and indirect experiences of rivers, their indirect experiences through television and books and their conversations about them at home and in school. What do we know about children's ideas about rivers? Piaget (1929, 1930) reported that children's early ideas show a tendency to artificialism, that everything is artificially made, the river bed, even the water. Later they believe that the river is dug out by men but the water is natural, eventually moving to an acceptance that the river is entirely natural. In trying to explain the current in rivers children invoked animism (ascribing a living soul to natural phenomena), for example water (internal animist force) obeys man (an external artificialist force). They then believe that the current is due to stone, wind or spontaneous movement, eventually accepting that the weight of the water and the slope makes the water move along. Lunnon (1969) found that children could interpret photographs of rivers but had difficulty in explaining their understanding in words. As he asked children for a definition of 'river' this is not, perhaps, surprising considering the experience and skills of generalization and visualization that a definition requires. Platten (1995a,b) and Harwood and Jackson (1995) analysed children's responses to a selection of oral, picture recognition and drawing tasks about the physical and human landscape into four categories of understanding, but did not attempt to recognise 'stages' in children's conceptual understanding of 'river' in the way that Sharp (1999) did with children's ideas about the Earth. Wilson and Goodwin (1981) and Harwood and Jackson (1995) agreed that children's perceptions of rivers are guided by local experience. The latter concluded that 'children's experience and understanding of physical landscape features are likely to be very restricted, even by years 5 and 6 of primary school'. They expressed the fear that 'both teaching and assessment of physical landscape concepts will be superficial and inadequate'. What does this mean, particularly for the urban child? What ideas about rivers do children hold? Perhaps it is useful not only to try to identify progression in children's understanding of rivers, but also the hierarchy of concepts required to understand them. Gunning, Gunning and Wilson (1981) referred to a ' concept ladder', illustrating the idea with the concept of 'castle'. Wiegand (1993) suggested: rivers http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
are water; this water is of considerable size; the water moves; it moves along some course in its surroundings. Bale (1987) and Wiegand (1993) stress the importance of establishing and using as a starting point that water flows downhill. The national curriculum Key Stage Two (for 7-11 year olds) programme of study (DfEE/QCA 1999) identifies the processes of erosion and deposition as important, but what level are these on a 'river' concept ladder? What other concepts must be understood before these can be integrated into a child's conceptual framework? This will be returned to later. Research method Standard elicitation methodologies, based on the work in science mentioned above and described by White and Gunstone (1992), were used in this research. Children in a Year 5 class (9-10 years) in a town at the mouth of a major estuary were engaged in six activities. The first five involved the children in a variety of tasks, as follows: (i) List rivers. To list known rivers and state location, so as to encourage the children to start thinking about rivers, to remember those they 'knew' or had heard of and, perhaps, to recall visually rivers they had seen. (ii) River definitions. To defining 'river' and 'estuary', in order to see if children could generalize about rivers, and discover which aspects they selected as significant. (iii) Word association. To encourage the children to think about the features and processes associated with rivers. (iv) Drawing a river. To draw 'a picture of a river from its beginning to its end', in pencil on an A4 sheet of plain paper. This was photocopied for use in Activity (v). (v) Concept mapping. To use words highlighted from the word-association activity (Activity (ii)) or cards with the words 'Rain', 'Stream', 'Estuary', 'River', 'Sea', together with blank cards for their own words and arrow cards on which to explain their linkages. The children moved the cards around and labelled the arrows until they were happy with their concept map. The cards were stuck down as a final recording and the map explained to the researcher. Some children preferred not to use the cards but to write directly onto paper. Some chose to work individually, others in pairs or small groups, arriving at a consensus map. The final research activity was an interview with each child: (vi) Interview. To undertake a semi-structured interview. The children were interviewed individually about their drawing. It was known that each child had been on a field-visit to the local river estuary. The interview was semi-structured, children's responses being recorded on a photocopy of their drawing, so that the original was not defaced. Tell me about your picture / drawing. Then, depending on what was revealed: Is the water moving? http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
Can you tell me which direction? (If given, direction of movement was marked on the photocopy by an arrow.) Can you tell me what this movement is called? (If given, word label was written on the flow arrow.) What do you think causes this flow? Word 'flow' introduced if not used by the child. (Interviewer points upstream) Where do you think the river / water is coming from? (Indicating downstream) Where do you think the river / water is going to? (Pointing to the river banks) What do you think is on each side of the river, on the river banks? Could the river be flowing through a town or city / the countryside? What do you think is at the bottom of the river? What do you think is in the river? If the river's flowing to the sea, do you think it could run out of water . . . . . . . like when you empty a bath? Why / why not? Integral to the interviews were the following: Depending on the response to a question, the interviewer followed up, in a nonjudgemental way, with 'That's interesting. Why do you say that?, and avoided correcting or 'teaching' the child. The children were encouraged to use as much river-associated vocabulary as possible, linking this with aspects of their drawing. The children sorted some photographs into 'river' / 'not river' and were asked to explain their sorting. Finally they were asked 'Is there anything else you'd like to tell me about rivers or about your drawing?' The activities were completed before the class study of rivers, although all the children had been on a walk to the estuary and engaged in some fieldwork activities and didactic teaching. They had also been taught about the water cycle in the previous school year. Findings The findings are reported in the same sequence order as the elicitation tasks described above. (i) River lists. The 31 children made 63 references to rivers in Devon and Dorset, with the local rivers Exe and Dart being named by 28 and 19 children respectively. There were 29 references to rivers elsewhere in the UK, the Thames being named by 16 children and one child naming rivers in Scotland. There were 14 references to just five rivers worldwide, with the Rhine being located in Scotland. Ten children could only name two rivers, whereas one child named seven. (ii) River definitions. All definitions of 'river' (31) referred to water. Ideas frequently mentioned included movement (10), shape (9), contains things (9), and that a river runs through a course (9). http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
Definitions included: wet water running down a long blue thing that's wet a thing with water in a long ditch something that flows and has fish and water a lot of water in a line something that runs through a hole a long tube shape full of water which is not man-made water that runs around a bank a long stream of water which has a strong current which pulls everything along if you didn't have a river you probably wouldn't have any water between valley (May 1996) a ditch or hole that filled up with water, something in the river absorbs water This selection gives insight into the alternative frameworks into which children try to accommodate their new learning, perhaps about erosion and deposition. Definitions of 'estuary', by children who live very close to the mouth of a major undeveloped, nonindustrial estuary, included reference to where the river meets or joins the sea, the river's mouth or the sea's mouth. Mud, sand, pollution and sewage, birds and marine life were mentioned several times but only one child mentioned tides. (iii) Word association. Whereas all children (31) had mentioned water in their definition of river, only 22 gave it in word association. The other most commonly mentioned words were fish (14) cold (12) wet (12) boat (10) stone (9) stream (6) swim (6). Fifty-nine words were given by less than six children. (iv) Drawing a river. Most children drew just a section of river, a picture postcard view from the river bank. The children's drawings were predominantly of rivers flowing through rural settings with grass, hills, wildlife and recreational uses such as picnics and fishing. Stones, boats, fish and crabs were shown in the water. Clouds and rain were often included. The illustrations of those children who had attempted to draw the whole river from 'its beginning to its end' showed progression in the form of the river. This could be described as 'dumb-bell' to 'bow' to 'klaxon', 'funnel' and finally 'river' (see Figure 1) http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
Figure 1: Progression in children's pictures of a river from its beginning to its end http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
(v) Concept mapping. The concept maps frequently showed knowledge of the rain stream river estuary sea sequence and some knowledge of the relationships between flow, drainage, erosion, transportation and deposition, although not using all the terms. There was mismatch between the drawings and the concept maps - showing the importance of using a range of research strategies for triangulation - with the quoted sequence or relationship not being represented in the children's visualization of a river. It must be acknowledged that this could have been a function of graphicacy or representational skills, but this interpretation was not supported by the interviews. (vi) Interview. The interview, focused on each child's drawing, was the most illuminating activity. In most cases information given in the concept maps was not repeated, supported or demonstrated to be understood at interview. Children were shown to have strong alternative frameworks, particularly with regard to flow, channel, source, environment (urban/rural) and destination: a river flows into the sea (not vv) because the sea is bigger and needs more water at then end of a river there'd be a wall across, river gets deeper because there's a wall blocking it rivers might flow through towns in Italy or France, but not in England the wind or stones make the river flow 'I've never seen the end of a river' (child who lives adjacent to one) rivers are bigger than streams because people dug them bigger a stream is small because they only dug out what they wanted a stream is smaller than a river because some of the rain soaks into the mud on the hill but a river is faster so it hasn't got time to soak in river gets bigger and bigger because salt gets in it from the sea water in the river comes from the sea (tidal estuary?) water in the river comes from rain that falls on the river, not on the land the water in the sea comes from rain water and toilet water They also exhibited some confusion over erosion and deposition: 'mud comes from the river grass bank', 'the river gets bigger by wearing away the sides, mud and sand come from the cliffs, mud comes in from streams and rivers' 'when water goes out to another place (like Cornwall) it gets muddy and shallower; the sea brings the mud in and the river brings mud from a lake' Questioned closely, not all children showed a grasp of the fundamental concept that water flows downhill, which surely must be the bottom rung on a concept ladder leading to understanding rivers. http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
Using the photographs provided of water in the landscape, the criteria used to sort into 'river' included big; long; meanders; in a natural (rural) setting. 'Non-river' criteria included too small; has signs of human intervention (rubbish, walls). In their sorting some children contradicted the artificialist perspective they had previously expressed. In the interviews children showed that they had tended to learn the water cycle (taught in Year 4) by rote, with varying accuracy of recall, but without understanding. Only one pupil could relate the water cycle to his drawing with understanding. The children are not recalling direct experiences or visualizing the river and, apparently, not being encouraged to use these strategies in their sense-making of river features and processes. They seem to be trying to recall classroom teaching. Discussion and Conclusions Teachers who want their pupils to know about rivers have their own personal construct of rivers, they know about it and want their pupils to know it too. It is well defined, it exists, it can be conveyed to students so that they will know it too. If the pupils' it differs from their it in any substantial way then the teaching is regarded as less than successful. But can we agree on what it is anyway? What model; of 'river' do we start with? (Jaworski 1994) This describes a top-down, guess-what-teacher-knows, model possibly required by the national curriculum and assessment system. But a concept ladder (Gunning, Gunning and Wilson 1981) would give us a, to me preferable, bottom-up approach. 'Top-down' dictates to the teacher a progression in teaching, as when working to a prescribed examination syllabus, but 'bottom-up' is more allied to progression in learning which, with knowledge of children's ideas and alternative frameworks, can guide teaching. It lets the children have some control over their learning. How can pupils assimilate the concepts of erosion and deposition, mentioned in the national curriculum, into a framework not ready to receive them, if there is a conceptual gap, if rungs are missing from the concept ladder? Constructivist research helps to identify the rungs and the gaps. http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
Figure 2:
Two-dimensional representation of a river Can children see this as a river flowing towards them? Does the perspective suggest to them that it's flowing away from them?
Experience suggests that a result of a top-down approach leads primary teachers to rely on their recollections of Secondary school geography and the use of largely inappropriate 'so-what' activities with primary children. This includes relying on pictures and diagrams which children might not have sufficient graphicacy skills to interpret, such as in Figure 2. For example, are we sure they can see and interpret a two-dimensional representation a three-dimensional structure? The top-down approach also fails to consider the ideas children bring with them to their study of rivers. As this paper has shown, these can often be decidedly 'alternative' conceptual frameworks. We used to use the horrid expression 'start where the children are at', but we seem to have lost sight of this good advice in geography. And we failed to adopt Gunning, Gunning and Wilson idea of concept ladders. But we must not overlook or forget the importance of experience or, in geographical terms, of fieldwork. Constructivist research is time consuming but it provides valuable indications of 'where the children are at' and of 'starting points' for teaching and the gap between these and suggested national curriculum content. In the research reported here Piaget's findings and those of subsequent researchers were confirmed. The findings suggest implications for the classroom. Instead of concentrating on the terminology for features and processes, it seems that it is of paramount importance to give children experience of rivers, visiting sites from source to mouth in urban and rural environments. This is particularly true for http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
urban children for whom rivers are often in concrete channels or even underground. These experiences should enable them to make three-dimensional models of rivers and encourage them to visualize rivers, to make mental reconstructions. Without this children have no cognitive or environmental image on which to locate, or with which to associate, the terminology and processes they encounter, whether taught in the classroom or met with through fieldwork. Teachers have mentioned having difficulty providing appropriate activities during fieldwork. Do children need to play Pooh sticks or do other 'so-what' activities if they cannot fit their significance into their conceptual framework? Should their thinking be focused beyond the immediate context? The children's drawings suggest that, even when they have visited a river and stood on its banks, they register just the framed view of the section of river directly in front of them. They must be encouraged to notice flow, to consider why this is, where the water is coming from and where it is flowing to. They must consider what happens to rainfall over extended 'natural' and built landscapes and compare this with the analogy of rain falling on the school and its grounds - recognise downhill flow, roof ridges as 'watersheds', guttering as streams, drains as rivers. They should be encouraged to think of, to visualize, a river and its catchment area as a system through which water flows. Recent research in science has explored how children's alternative ideas develop towards the currently accepted scientific ones within conceptual themes. I would argue that there is a place for this model of research in primary geography, indeed that it is long over-due. References Bale, J. (1987), Geography in the Primary School, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Bell, B. & Gilbert, J. (1996), Teacher Development: a model from science education, London: Falmer Press DfEE/QCA (1999), The National Curriculum: Geography, London, QCA Central Advisory Council for Education (England) (1967), Children and their Primary Schools, London: HMSO Dove, J. (1999), Theory into Practice: Immaculate Misconceptions, Sheffield: Geographical Association Driver, R., Guesne, G. & Tiberghien, A. (eds.) (1985), Children's Ideas in Science, Milton Keynes, Open University Press Gunning, S., Gunning, D. & Wilson, J., (1981), Topic Teaching in the Primary School, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/
Harwood, D. & Jackson, P. (1995), Why did they build this hill so steep?: problems in assessing primary children's understanding of physical landscape features in the context of the UK National Curriculum, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 2(2), 64-79 Hunter, W.J. & Benson, G.D. (1997), Arrows in time: the misapplication of chaos theory to education, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 29(1), 87-100 Jaworski, B. (1994), Investigating mathematics teaching: a constructivist enquiry, London: Falmer Press Lunnon, A. J. (1969), A Further Case for the Visual, Geographical Education, 3, 331-339 May, T. (1996), Children's Ideas about Rivers, Primary Geographer, 25, 12-13 Nussbaum, J. (1985), The Earth as a Cosmic Body in Driver et al (1985) Children's Ideas in Science, Milton Keynes, Open University Press et al Piaget, J. (1929), The Child's Conception of the World, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Piaget, J. (1930), The Child's Conception of Physical Causality, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul Platten, L.B. (1995a), Talking geography an investigation into young children's understanding of geographical terms Part 1, International Journal of Early Years Education 3 (1), 74-92 Platten, L.B. (1995b), Talking geography an investigation into young children's understanding of geographical terms Part 2, International Journal of Early Years Education 3 (3), 69-84 Russell, T., Bell, D., Longden, K. & McGuigan, L. (1993), Science Processes and Concept Exploration Project Research reports: Rocks, Soils and Weather, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press Sharp, J. (1999), Young children's ideas about the Earth in Space, International Journal of Early Years Education, 7( 2) 159-172 White, R. & Gunstone, R. (1992), Probing Understanding, London: Falmer Press Wiegand, P. (1993), Children and Primary Geography, London: Cassell Wilson, P. & Goodwin, M. (1981), How do twelve and ten-year-old students perceive rivers? Geographical Education, 4, 5-16 http:/ /www.geo graph y.org.u k/ eyprimar y/ primaryr esearc h/re searchart icles/

M Mackintosh

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