Students come to the classroom with ideas about their world, shaped by everyday experience, language, and imaginations that fill in the gaps. Do your students believe that plants suck up food from the soil? Or that trees are not really plants?
Boston first-grade teacher Karen Gallas reports that one student brought in a toy motorcycle, expecting it to grow if planted. Meg Richardson, a teacher liaison for a plant-based curriculum in New York, shared that during a unit on plant parts, students unanimously stated that all roots are brown.
Rather than try to "correct" students' understanding, these teachers provided hands-on opportunities for students' ideas to be tried out, challenged, and perhaps, modified. Karen invited the student to plant, tend, and observe his motorcycle over time. The students in Meg's story pulled bean sprouts from the soil, cleaned, and observed the white roots. "And they still said that roots are always brown," said Meg. "It was real evidence as to how strong our own preconceptions can be." She contends that continued exposure and varied experiences over time are important for students to develop frameworks for understanding. As students have opportunities to explore, describe, draw, and taste different types of roots (carrots, beets, sweet potatoes), for instance, and discuss their beliefs and experiences, they should begin to modify their conceptions.
Not all concepts, of course, can be explored through hands-on "discovery." Students need added support for understanding some concepts (e.g., photosynthesis), through such activities as discussion of observations, others' ideas, and readings.