Kathleen Metz: The Interplay of Conceptual Understanding and Engagement in Disciplinary Practices
Kathleen E. Metz is Professor of Cognition and Development in the Graduate School of Education. She is interested in young children’s scientific cognition, from both developmental and instructional viewpoints. She was an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow in Cognitive Science at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of Barbel Inhelder’s research team at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She recently completed an NSF-sponsored project investigating the power and limitations of elementary school children’s scientific inquiry. Building on this work, she and her research team are now engaged in a new NSF-funded project, investigating the extent to which second and third graders can develop an understanding of the conceptual underpinnings of evolution.
Talk by Kathleen Metz for the How Students Learn Working Group on April 19, 2011.
Collaborative Engagement and Disciplinary Practices
Professor Metz framed her talk with two major ideas:
- the power of designing pedagogy to foster students’ collaborative engagement in the practices of the discipline
- the power of teaching content in the context of collaborative engagement in disciplinary practices
“Collaborative engagement” refers to students working together to learn actively. On a practical level, well-conducted group work would be a classic example of collaborative engagement in the classroom. On a more theoretical level, students perceiving their class as a united endeavor to discover or analyze new knowledge would be a form of collaborative engagement.
“Disciplinary practices” are the norms and everyday activities that form the backbone of an academic discipline. Such practices might include conducting laboratory experiments, holding theoretical discussions, reviewing previous research, and working through thought experiments.
Metz gave five reasons for thinking about teaching in ways that take advantage of the relationship between collaborative engagement and disciplinary practices.
- Designing our teaching with these principles in mind ensures that students will be active learners.
- It helps students to understand, not only denotative knowledge, but the process by which knowledge is constructed in the discipline.
- The “bootstrapping rationale”; it helps students improve themselves and move “up” toward the level of experts.
- Teaching in this way takes advantage of the relationship between knowing, using, and doing — the contextual aspect of content.
- It helps students become independent scholars.
The Social Constructivist Perspective on Learning
Metz explained that her research comes from a “social constructivist” or “social cognitive” perspective. Social constructivist theory holds that
- students actively construct their knowledge
- social interaction, collaboration, and participation in learning communities are key to students learning
- academic learning is part of a process of enculturation into a “community of practice”
- there is an integral connection between knowing and doing
The seminal article on these ideas is “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning,” by John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid (Educational Researcher 18.1, Jan.-Feb. 1989). Brown, Collins, and Duguid argue that “Knowledge is … in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used.”[Editor’s Note: Although Metz did not specifically mention it, similar ideas are expressed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge University Press, 1991), which discusses apprenticeship learning. Berkeley Professors Jean Lave and Rosemary Joyce spoke about their interpretations of Lave’s work in the context of the classroom in previous talks in the How Students Learn series.]
The Four-Strand Model of Scientific Literacy
Metz was part of a National Research Council group that developed a four-strand model of scientific literacy, published in 2007 in Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. According to this model, students who are “scientifically literate” in a given area are able to:
- know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world
- generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations
- understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge
- participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.
This model uses a social cognition approach to understand the practical ability to engage in scientific discovery. Professor Metz and her National Research Council colleagues work to revise teachers’ understandings of teaching science in the classroom to avoid simply reiterating denotative content. In this view, scientific study is not observation and memorization of facts, but a complete and comprehensive analysis of underlying theoretical structures — even for very young students.
Metz concluded her presentation by describing her current research project, in which she is teaching second — and third-grade students to understand natural selection in the context of microevolution. Thought experiments, based on actual studies carried out by researchers, are a large part of the project, as are laboratory experiments and field research. Students are also encouraged to compare instances of natural and artificial selection. One of Metz’s findings has been that students need to understand the variation in populations before they can understand natural selection; teaching students about variation has provided needed scaffolding for the lessons. Further detail on this research is available in the video of Professor Metz’s talk.