Wolff-Michael Roth
Lansdowne Professor (applied cognitive science)



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.FQS: Forum Qualitative Social Research

2 book series: .SENSE: science & math
.SENSE: culture & history

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Wolff-Michael Roth
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University of Victoria
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Roth, W.-M. (1995). Authentic school science: Knowing and learning in open-inquiry science laboratories. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Overview   [Preface] [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV]



There are at least three purposes for this book. First, it intends to be a first-hand report of knowing and learning by individuals and groups in complex open-inquiry learning environments in science. As such, this book contributes to the emerging literature in this field. Second, it exemplifies research methods for studying such complex learning environments. Thus, the reader is encouraged not only to take the research findings as such, but to reflect on the process of arriving at these findings. Third, this book is also an example of knowledge constructed by a teacher-researcher, and thus a model for teacher-researcher activity.

Open-inquiry, the environment that we tried to create here, is not simply any complex learning situation. We expected it to provide for the authenticity which educational thinkers such as John Dewey, Seymour Papert, Donald Schön, and Allan Collins envision for classroom activities. School activities, to be authentic, need to share key features with those worlds about which they teach. More specifically, for school science to be authentic, students should experience scientific inquiry which bears at least five aspects in common with scientists' activities: (1) participants learn in contexts constituted in part by ill-defined problems; (2) participants experience uncertainties, ambiguities, and the social nature of scientific work and knowledge; (3) participants' learning (curriculum) is predicated on, and driven by, their current knowledge state (wherever that might be); (4) participants experience themselves as part of communities of inquiry in which knowledge, practices, resources, and discourses are shared; and (5) in these communities, members can draw on the expertise of more knowledgeable others whether they are peers, advisors, or teachers. Both "open-inquiry" and "authentic" imply these five aspects of our learning environment which it shares with the scientific community.

Specifically and more practically, open inquiry implies that students (a) identify problems and solutions, and test these solutions, (b) design their own procedures and data analyses, (c) formulate new questions based on their previous claims and solutions, (d) develop questions based on their prior knowledge, (e) link their experience to activities, science concepts, and science principles, and (f) share and discuss procedures, products, and solutions (Pizzini, Shepardson, & Abell, 1991). The studies reported in this book were all conducted in classrooms where students had the freedom and the associated responsibilities implied by the determining conditions a-f.

The book is divided into four parts, Background, Individual and Collaborative Learning, Framing and Solving Problems, and Interactions. Each of the four parts is further divided into sections which deal with issues such as theory, setting of a specific study, data analysis or development of a theoretical framework. In the following paragraphs I outline each of the five parts.

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Part I

Part I provides a background for the studies reported later. The Introduction provides a personal context which allows the reader to situate my approach to teaching and my work as a teacher-researcher. I outline Habermas' theory of cognitive interests which helped me understand classroom research from a teacher-researcher perspective and the research methodologies associated with each interest. I also outline the notion of teacher as a reflective practioner which was important in understanding my teaching and research practice.

I provide a general theoretical grounding in the context of which the present work developed in General Theoretical Grounding. It is only a general introduction to provide a context for much of what is coming. More specific details on research background and past research are provided in each chapter. Although it is often difficult to discern all the influences on one's work, certain ideas were more important than others. Important for the genesis of my research agenda were the movements of radical constructivism (von Glasersfeld and Goodman) and social constructivism which developed from the work of Vygotsky and was taken up by North American psychology, cognitive science, anthropology and linguistics. Besides this influence of psychological/epistemological origin, the present work was strongly influenced by research in ethnomethodology and sociology of scientific knowledge of scientists at work. Ethnomethodology, as its name implies, is mainly concerned with the methods people use to achieve coherence in everyday life and how they make sense of their world so that the stable and recurrent features of everyday life emerge. The sociology of scientific knowledge focuses on the social construction of science and scientific facts, concepts and theories. This construction operates not only at a societal level in that funding agencies determine what is to be researched and what counts as a finding, but also at the level of institutions, laboratories, and individuals. Although ethnomethodology and sociology of scientific knowledge may be considered as subdomains of sociology, some of their basic assumptions are in conflict with mainstream sociology which is still by and large driven by structuralist interests. A final major influence was research on human cognition in everyday contexts conducted from a cross-cultural perspective.

The Setting constitutes the opening to a series of studies on students interacting and knowing. It introduces readers to the setting in which the research was conducted. This setting had its own particular constraints which are important for understanding the kind of teaching investigated and the conditions under which students learned and teachers taught. While there were aspects of this learning environment which favored students' learning, there were other aspects which made innovation difficult and even dangerous for teachers for whom there was no job security at the school. Knowledge of the particular setting is also important to situate the research itself and the conditions under which research in this complex learning environment was possible at all.

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Part II

Part II deals with the individual and social construction of knowledge in my high school physics classrooms. I show how we can make sense of one student's efforts as he tried to come to grips with the motion of an oscillating cart. In this investigation, he moved between various mental representations of the phenomenon which took on symbolic mathematical, descriptive, experimental, phenomenal and conceptual forms. I develop and use an environmental metaphor for knowing and learning to help understand learning and making sense by an individual. This metaphor also helps us later to understand learning in social settings and problem solving in complex environments. The chapter closes with a look forward at the interface of this environmental metaphor with socio-cultural perspectives of learning.

The purpose of sections II.4 though II.6 is to illustrate what I mean by social constructions. The reader encounters the efforts of one group of students engaged in constructing the "Compton effect." My analysis shows that to know the Compton effect, it takes more than rote learning of a definition or just reading a story in a physics textbook. Rather, in a complex web of interactions, the three students involved developed their ideas about this phenomenon through a conversation in the context of building a concept map that included COMPTON EFFECT as one of the concept labels. We follow the same students in their attempt to build a new connection, that is, to make a connection between two concepts which had not been previously made by me or the textbook. Thus, the students were engaged in an activity that teachers often take for granted, i.e., linking previously disconnected pieces of information and formulating new connections. The analysis shows that such connections are far from obvious. Finally, I try to answer the question of how much students appropriate from collaborative achievements so that they can claim this knowledge as personally meaningful. The chapter provides a first answer for the group of students which was the focus of the previous analyses. I conclude the section with a discussion of the concept map's function in collaborative sense making, its nature as an inscription and conscription device, as well as its reflexive nature.

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Part III

Part III deals with problem framing and solving, and concrete modes of thinking in open-inquiry learning environments. Of central concern are (1) the differences between students' approaches to traditional word problems and (2) the processes they engage in when working on problems that they framed on their own, supported by their physical and social settings. I present past research and conceptualizations of problem solving which are distinguished according to the setting in which it was conducted: in psychological laboratories ("indoors"), in complex business environments ("garbage cans"), and in everyday settings of just plain folks (JPF's) and scientists (outdoors). Following the theoretical context, the reader finds analyses of the types of students' research questions, the processes by which these questions were framed, the processes by which questions developed into research programs and diffused throughout the classroom community, and the framing and resolution of blind alleys, that is, experiments with unexpected or null outcomes. I then turn to teacher-effects in problem setting and to students' efforts in recontextualizing problems to make them meaningful in their own terms. My description includes problem framing which continues even after students have started solving their research problems; during their resolution phase, new, situationally contingent troubles emerged which they needed to frame and solve as problems before they could continue with their overall task. The students' learning during problem solving, and cycles of error detection are other aspects of learning in the open-inquiry environment. The chapter concludes with a comparison of students and scientists.

Concrete Modes of Thinking is an attempt to recognize modes of thought other than those that were traditionally accorded to scientists. Narratives, concrete modeling and exploring, and concrete mediators of meaning play a central role in scientific thinking but have not received the recognition they deserve from cognitive scientists or science educators. I provide evidence for the existence of these modes of thought in the problem solving of my students. I conclude with a revaluation of the concrete in the discussion of thought processes. The central argument proposed here is that concrete thinking is not inferior to, but a valuable and often indispensable alternative to hypothetico-deductive/abstract reasoning.

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Part IV

Part IV deals with the dynamics of the interactions in a science classroom dominated by open-inquiry activities. Although it is impossible to completely separate student-student from teacher-student interactions, these two topics are dealt with in consecutive chapters. I begin with a macro description of student-student interaction followed by detailed analyses of student-student conversations. At issue are patterns of interactions, the processes by which students organize their group activities, and how they arrive at shared understandings either collaboratively or through negotiations and adversarial exchanges. Section IV.3 deals with the management of student-student conversations. Some of the central questions addressed here are (1) how do students negotiate turn-taking and contribute to joint products? and (2) how do students maintain the conversation itself and the topic of the conversation? In section IV.4, I present evidence that our classrooms were communities of knowing in which knowledge was socially constructed at the classroom level and in which information diffused through networks of communication.

The final two sections, IV.5 and IV.6, focus on the dynamics of teacher-student interactions. While there are similar concerns for the structuring and maintenance of conversations as in student-student interactions, this section primarily concerns the implications of the apprenticeship metaphor that we used to understand our teaching. Here the reader encounters various modes of teacher-student interactions that depended on their differences in the level of guidance; in some instances, when we teachers modeled new skills in context, the interactions were more asymmetrical than in other contexts when we collaboratively investigated phenomena with students, working on problems to which we did not already have answers.

In the Conclusion, I summarize the findings largely by tying all studies together with the environmental metaphor of knowing before providing two visions. The first vision reconceptualizes the teaching of science by focusing on and providing a rationale for authentic, that is open-inquiry learning. The second vision is one of the teacher as a reflective practitioner who engages in research with peers in a community of learners. In this vision, teachers are producers of knowledge rather than consumers and distributors of information.

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update: 09-AUG-17


new work (2012-15)

- "symmetrical ZPD"
- "Becoming and belonging"
- "Limits to generalizing"
- Limits to general expertise
- Experiencing (pereživanie) as developmental category
- On variability in data
- The Emerging Presence
- Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Vološinov
- Theory-practice at work
- Fuzzy Logic
- Theory of Experience
- Online media learning
- Birth of intentions
- Event-in-the-making*
- Post-constructivist ethics
- Pregnance of bodily movement
- Health—personalized science
- Sociocultural perspectives
- Lectures then and now
- Situated cognition
- "I am a Pibidiana"
- Translation—the possible impossible
- Societal mediation of mathematical cognition
- Origin of signs
- Development of concepts
- ZPD symmetrically

making trouble

- "Meaning means nothing"
- What more?
- More reflexivity
- «Mosh»
- Science hegemony
- On editing . . .
- Ethics as social practice
- Political ethics, unethical politics
- Vagaries and politics of funding 1
- Vagaries and politics of funding 2
- Editorial power/authorial suffering


- Radical passivity
- On responsibility . . .
- Identity & Community
- Mêlée & literacy
- Dynamic of life
- Solidarity
- Education and diversity of life
- Living/Lived Math
- Representing mathematical performance
- Indeterminate evolutionary change of language
- Psychology from 1st principles

Science studies
- Struggle over water 2
- Struggle over water 1
- Science and the good citizen
Scientific literacy
- Allgemeinbildung: Readiness for living in risk society
- Citizenship and science education
Gesture studies
- Gestures: The leading edge of literacy...
Workplace math
- The meaning of meaning...
- The emergence of graphing...