Terms + Definitions

Activity Theory: A psychological theory, rooted in work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, that posits that human development occurs through the use, appropriation, and innovation of cultural tools in human activity. "Activity" can be defined at many scales, ranging from the activity of the educational enterprise to the activity of making a cake. Cultural tools, which vary, include language, material instruments, social schema, etc. Culture is not defined by geography or ethnicity but by communities, which may cross ethnic, geographic, or other types of boundaries. For informal science educators, activity theory suggests that we design and consider our programs in terms of how they introduce learners to the cultural tools of, say, science or of science learning; and how we induct learners into communities of science learners. Growing fluency with cultural tools of science, growing participation in communities of science learners, and growing repertoires of practice for engaging in science represent evidence of learning and development in science.

Agency: the ability of individuals to flexibly engage in a practice in a way they choose. For informal educators, this term generally refers to providing learners with opportunities to generate and pursue their own questions or to practice scientific skills authentically. Increased agency in learning environments typically results in more appropriation of skills.

Community of Practice: A construct first posited by Lave and Wenger (1991). A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Informal science educators may be concerned with supporting participation in communities of science learners.

Cognitivism: A conceptual research body committed to advancing understanding of how individuals learn. Historically, Jean Piaget and other psychologists in the 1920s are credited with pioneering these ideas. Cognitivism is often critiqued by constructivists (see below) for conceptualizing learning as occurring within individuals, without accounting for the roles of social, historical, or cultural contexts that influence learning.

Conceptual Change: A body of science education researchers focus on what is called "conceptual change" meaning how people develop new (and usually canonical) understandings of scientific phenomena. The basic premise is that children develop conceptions of how things work through their everyday experiences in the world (including time spent at school). Often these conceptions are not quite right (eg., seasons are caused by the distance of the sun from the earth following its elliptical orbit). Teaching for conceptual change primarily involves revealing current conceptions that students have about a given phenomenon and then working to shift this conception. In this framework it is understood that simply telling somebody what the correct conception is (e.g, that seasons result from the tilt of the earth) does not change deeply held conceptions of how the world works. Research investigates what sorts of strategies, contradictions, experiences, and conversations help students to ultimately reject or adapt preconceptions for new (more canonical) conceptions.

Constructivism: Emerging from Soviet views of social learning, constructivism is a field of research in how humans learn within social contexts as its core idea. Lev Vygotsky and Aleksei Leont’ev are some of this theory’s initial thinkers. Constructivist theories of learning believe that learning has social, historical, and cultural roots, and that learning is actively constructed in the mind of the learner, not simply transmitted from a teacher.

Constructionism: is a theory of learning that situates learning in response to the construction of artifacts. This construction activity helps learners develop new insights and understandings.

Cultural-Historical Theory: This is a term used to describe theories of development in which the role of culture and of the historical development of culture, including cultural tools such as social schema, language, art, etc., are the medium of development. Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Wertsch, and Cole are frequently-cited for their work in cultural-historical theory.

Ecological Views on Learning: Developed by Bronfenbrenner and others, ecological views consider the entire learning trajectory when understanding how children develop and learn. These views understand learning to occur across settings and over time. They suggest a need to understand how experiences in one environment create potential (interest, skills, questions, knowledge, identities) which can be further developed in other settings.

IRE (initiation-response-evaluation)or IRF (initiation-response-feedback): Describes a mode of instruction in which the teacher controls the flow of conversation by asking a question, receiving a response from a student, and then responding with a statement of either approval or correction. Many studies have shown that this is the mode of interaction that has dominated classrooms for over a century.

Institutional Review Board (IRB): a committee made up of researchers, administrators, and community members that has been formally designated to approve, monitor, and review research involving humans with the aim to protect the rights and welfare of the research subjects. In the US, this responsibility falls to universities and non-profit groups. Most informal education organizations do not have their own IRB (whereas most universities do), so need to acquire IRB approval from an independent (private) IRB before conducting learning research involving humans.

Learning Progressions: An approach to curriculum design that focuses on a big idea (such as evolution) and identifies the building blocks of knowledge and experience that underpin that idea (such as random variation and natural selection), leading to the design of age/developmentally-appropriate approaches to building understanding of these underpinnings over time so that a student graduates high school with a deep understanding of the big idea. For example, a learning progressions approach might suggest that kindergarteners conduct observations of Wisconsin Fast Plants and note the random variation that occurs. These ideas would then be revisited in increasingly complex and detailed activities over a period of years.

Mental Models: Mental models are representations of scientific concepts or ideas that are thought by some to reside in a person's memory, mind, or brain (through some interaction of experience, physiology, and neurology). For example, in this view, a model of how photosynthesis works has some material existence (chemical, neuronal) in a person's head. Science educators and researchers who subscribe to this view are interested in instructional strategies that support the development of such models, and also are interested in how visualizations as well as 3-D models can be used to develop such mental models.

Nature of Science (NOS): The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) describes the nature of science as particular ways of observing, thinking, experimenting, and validating which reflect how science differs from other modes of knowing. Much science teaching has been faulted for stressing conceptual facts and process skills over developing an understanding of the nature of science or scientific ways of knowing, or scientific epistemologies - how scientific knowledge is generated using particular approaches and rules of evidence.

Participation Structures: This refers to the ways in which different roles or actions are structured in a given activity. For example, some learning activities have participation structures such that a teacher is the giver of knowledge and students the receivers. Others are structured where all children are actively seeking to generate knowledge through investigations, for example. Others are structured so that different children have different roles, such as communicator, record keeper, calculator, etc.

Phenomenology: In educational research, phenomenological methods refer to approaches that seek to understand the lived experience that is the object of the research. Generally this means that researchers spend extensive amounts of time in a given setting, observing, recording, "living with and in" the system being studied, and constructing a narrative that focuses on the meaning of the experience for those involved. Phenomenology is an interpretive methods of research and stands in contrast to methods that are more focused on looking for "outcomes" as stand-alone "facts" about a system. Phenomenologists would hold that to really understand something you have to understand it from within. Van Manen's 1990 book, Researching Lived Experience, provides an overview of this approach.

Scaffolding: the mechanisms a teacher puts in place to help a student begin to engage and slowly take responsibility for his/her own learning activities. For example, it could consist of worksheets or other verbal tools that help to orient the learner's attention and to get them started on a productive path. The concept of scaffolding implies that the teacher's role gradually recedes, as the student's role increases. This idea was first introduced by Jerome Bruner. See zone of proximal development.

Scientific Practice(s): One of three strands for science education proposed by the NRC Science Standards Frameworks and Next Generation Science Standards. Scientific practices-based instruction includes deliberate teaching of questioning, modeling, designing investigations, analyzing data, math integration, engineering, communicating information, and argumentation.

Social Practice Theories of Learning: Pioneered by psychologist Sylvia Scribner in the 1980s, social practice theories of learning seek to understand the relationships among human thinking across a variety of activities.

Zone of Proximal Development: There is disagreement about exactly what this term means, but the most common understanding is that it describes a range of ability that encompasses what a child can do with assistance of another person (teacher or more capable peer) and what the child can accomplish without assistance. Some have pointed out that the term refers to development and not to learning knowledge or skills per se.