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Observation and Inference: Teaching Science Process Skills Through Flossie and the Fox

by Francis Broadway and Sean Mason

Broadway, Francis and Sean Mason. (2001). Observation and Inference: Teaching Science Process Skills Through Flossie and the Fox. Ohio Reading Teacher, Volume XXXV, Number 1, 51-59. Used with permission of Ohio Reading Teacher.


...how could students identify and acquire science process skills through reading children's picture books?

Although Francis teaches science methods courses, each of his university class sessions begins with the reading of a children's literature picture book. As a teacher educator, Francis believes the teaching of science and the teaching of reading belong together. On the day he serendipitously chose to read Flossie and the Fox (McKissack, 1986), Francis was teaching his university preservice teachers about the science process skills of observation and inference in a course on teaching science through investigative discovery processes and skills.

After class one of his students, Sean, offered Francis a challenge: Using Flossie and the Fox as a model, develop a science process skill lesson that might even be adapted for other children's literature picture books. Sean wanted to know if reading could be a way for students to learn scientific thinking skills rather than only a way to learn about science. In other words, how could students identify and acquire science process skills through reading children's picture books?

In light of the time demands placed upon classroom teachers, Francis accepted the challenge to explore the instructional potential of children's literature in the science classroom. Moreover, he invited Sean to be a co-researcher. Together, they used an analytical process of inquiry to explore whether teachers can combine meaningful science and reading instruction for fruitful learning in both content areas. During conversations planning the study, Francis and Sean were guided by Anderson, Hiebert, Scott and Wilkinson's (1985) conviction that the "most logical place for instruction in most reading and thinking strategies is in social studies and science rather than in separate lessons about reading" (p.73). Similarly, they were also guided by the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1997) belief that "coordination [between the science program and other programs such as social studies, language arts, and technology] can make maximal use of time in a crowded school schedule" (p. 214). For this reason, they agreed that the science lessons they planned must include meaningful reading and critical thinking and must embrace rich narrative reading instruction and reading for content (Irvin, 1998). The lessons must also facilitate synthesis and evaluation for students and lead them to new declarative knowledge.

This study, then, demonstrates how science and reading instruction can combine for meaningful and significant science and language arts learning. Therefore, this study is significant for content area teachers because they need to include the use of reading skills in their content instruction and for literacy teachers because they need to include content learning in the development of reading skills.

Theoretical Framework

...children must create and use spontaneous concepts before they can use scientific concepts. Consequently, teachers must provide opportunities for children to develop spontaneous concepts first.

Epistemologically, students naturally construct meaning (Von Glasersfeld, 1995) or are sense-makers. Lee (1991) defined "sense-making" as the process by which an individual attaches meaning or interpretation, examines that meaning or interpretation and considers the many influences upon it. Cognitively, "sense-making" is synonymous with Vygotsky's theory of spontaneous or everyday concepts (1986). According to Vygotsky (1986), spontaneous concepts develop out of children's concrete experiences. For true learning to occur, "it is absolutely necessary that learners have at their disposal concrete material experiences, and [that] they form their own active manipulations" (Piaget, in Schwebel & Raph, 1973, pp. ix-x). Howe (1996) explains that spontaneous concepts develop from the concrete to the abstract.

Whitin and Whitin (1997) believe that children must create and use spontaneous concepts before they can use scientific concepts. Consequently, teachers must provide opportunities for children to develop spontaneous concepts first. As constructivists, Bentley, Ebert and Ebert, (1999), Duit, Teagust, and Mansfield (1996), Osborne and Freyberg (1985), and Stepans, Saigo, and Ebert (1996) suggest examining students' sense-making through spontaneous concepts because they provide insight into learner constructs, the constructs upon which students will build future knowledge (Ausubel, Novak, and Hanesian, 1978).

Osborne and Freyberg (1985) make a distinction between the sense-making or spontaneous concepts children construct, which they call "children's science" and the science students are required to learn, which they call "scientist's science." This study explores "children's science" or the sense-making students construct during the activity. It does not explore "scientist's science," or students' ability to know and to apply the "scientist" definition of observation and inference. Often students are able to articulate and apply definitions from instruction, but their private understanding, sometimes quite different from "taught" material, remains hidden (Osborne & Freyberg,1985; Private Universe, 1996).

This study, then, explores the private sense-making or spontaneous concepts students construct during an activity using children's literature. Its overall purpose is to examine how students make sense of the science process skills of observation and inference through the critical reading of one children's picture book, Flossie and the Fox (McKissack, 1986).

We were guided by two research questions: 1) Can fifth/sixth grade students use a specific piece of children's literature to learn the scientific concepts of observation and inference? 2) If so, how do these students make sense of a piece of children's literature that is used to teach the scientific concepts of observation and inference?

To answer these questions, we adapted a three-step phenomenological paradigm in which students were first asked to describe their sense-making in an "open-ended" manner (Kvale, 1983). From these descriptions we identified the "essence" of their sense-making, and then reduced the emerging students' understanding of "observation" and "inference" into a narrative (Kvale, 1983).

Participants and Setting

Francis taught the "Flossie" lesson to 17 fifth/sixth grade students who attended a school in a city district that was located within a rural county in the north central region of a midwestern state. Fifty four percent of the students were female and 46% were male. The vast majority of the students were White (86%). The students ranged in academic abilities. One student was identified as gifted. Although 40% of the students had an Individual Education Plan (IEP), the majority of the students were average to above average. Thirty six percent of them were assigned tutors as outlined by their IEPs.

The classroom was one of three sections of a long room, which housed "The Learning Village." The Learning Village was the name given to three classrooms that formed a larger community of learners: a grade one-two class, a grade three-four class, and a grade five-six class. During the activity, and most of the time, the room is open so those students can move between the other classrooms in the village. The students often interact with the other multiage classes as well as work separately as they did during this lesson.

The study was conducted during the second year that Francis had been working with the classroom teacher. The focus of the relationship between Francis and the teacher was inquiry teaching and learning; the study's objectives were consistent with the beliefs and needs of the classroom teacher. The teacher's strength was in reading. Francis' focus was science education and Sean was a preservice teacher studying the connection between teaching reading and science.

The Lesson

Flossie and the Fox (McKissack, 1986) is a story about an African-American girl who takes some eggs through the woods to the McCutchin Place, whose henhouse was constantly being raided by a fox. She is cautioned to beware of the fox on her journey. Flossie declares that she has never seen a fox, so when a fox approaches her, he must prove to Flossie that he is indeed a fox:

Fox pulled himself tall. He cleared his throat. "Are you saying I must offer proof that I am a fox before you will be frightened of me?"
"That's just what I'm saying" (McKissack, 1986, p. 11).

Over and over again Fox offers proof to Flossie and Flossie responds to Fox's words. In one instance another character, Miz Cat, speaks for Fox.

Figure 1 illustrates how Flossie and the Fox yields data for readers to discriminate as to which remarks are observations and which are inferences. On the one hand, Fox statements are observations i.e., properties of an object perceived through the use of the senses (Rezba, Sprague, Fiel, Funk, Okey, & Jaus, 1995). Notice how McKissack's (1986) rich storytelling language denotes the use of senses: "I have the proof," he said, "See, I have thick, luxurious fur. Feel for yourself" (p. 14). On the other hand, Flossie statements are inferences i.e., explanations or interpretations of an observation (Rezba, et al, 1995).

The activity was completed in a single 75-minute period on one day. The lesson itself began with a read-aloud of Flossie and the Fox. After the reading, Francis led a discussion concerning the plot and its focus on Fox proving he was a fox. Francis then randomly divided the class into seven small groups of two or three students. The students were asked to construct a chart similar to that in Figure 1. Each group of students had a copy of Flossie and the Fox from which to work. After working cooperatively and listing each "proof" Fox offered Flossie and Flossie's response, each group classified the set of statements by summarizing the type of information in the statements as a critical thinking task.

The objective for constructing a chart similar to Figure 1 was for students to recognize that Fox made observations and Flossie made inferences. In science, "observing involves identifying and describing an object's properties" (Rezba, et. al., 1995, p.4). Inferring is using logic to explain what was observed (Rezba, et al., 1995). Because of this, Fox stated properties of a fox while Flossie logically connected properties of a fox to other animals (Figure 1). Each group shared its chart with the whole class. Afterwards, charts were posted in the classroom. As a whole class, students discussed similarities and differences between the two types of statements.

In order to evaluate the students' sense-making and to determine what students were able to do with their synthesis of Fox and Flossie statements, Francis closed the lesson by asking students to write three "Fox-type" (observation) statements and three "Flossie-type" (inference) statements by describing a capped glass container with a colorless liquid, placed in front of the class.

Data Analysis

The data for this study included the facsimiles of Figure 1 from the seven groups, their inductive summary of Fox and Flossie statements, and the Fox and Flossie statements concerning the jar of water written by each student. Field notes from a debriefing session between the authors and the classroom teacher were also used. During the debriefing session, we discussed comments made by students, the clarity of our instruction, the kind of questioning and our general impressions of the learning that had occurred. The data elicited the students' sense-making and spontaneous concepts in an "open-ended" manner by confirming or enhancing our analysis.

Kvale (1983) provided the analytical procedure for the data. The inductive summaries of Fox and Flossie statements and the student-generated Fox- and Flossie-type statements concerning the jar of water were read, reread, and coded to uncover the "essence" of the sense-making and spontaneous concepts (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The themes and concepts that addressed the research question were reduced phenomenologically into a narrative concerning the students' emerging sense-making and their spontaneous concepts of "observation" and "inference" (Kvale, 1983).

Findings

After generating Figure 1, students were instructed to summarize the meaning of the Fox and Flossie statements. One group synthesized that Fox statements contained "characteristics of a fox," or as another group commented, "what foxes have...trying to show his features." Still another group said Fox presented "details about himself." For the students, Fox statements were "properties of an object" (Rezba, et al, 1995).

The students defined inference conceptually through identification of properties.

Many students saw Flossie statements as a connection to, a comparison with, or a relationship to other animals. Although not explicitly stated within the text, Flossie seemed to understand Fox in terms of other animals. For the students, Flossie was making sense of a fox by connecting characteristics of a fox to her prior knowledge of animals. One student, Evelyn, stated that "the characteristics of the fox has [sic] the same [characteristics] as other animals." Her comment indicates she understood that Flossie was using other animals in order to develop an understanding of a fox. In fact, most of the students described Flossie as connecting prior-to-the experience knowledge (i.e., other animals) to the new experience (i.e., what is a fox). The students defined inference conceptually through indentification of properties.

Responses to the classification task (Figure 1) and the evaluative (question-generating) task (Figures 2-5) were of a storytelling nature. When asked to generate statements about the water jar, for example, students used storytelling skills to communicate critical thinking. While the responses use Fox and Flossie to show meaning, the students maintained the context of the story in their descriptions. Moreover, while they did engage in critical thinking processes such as classification, inference, and synthesis, students used the textual structure of storytelling, dialogue, and characterization in order to communicate their understanding of observation statements and inference statements. Their sense-making was concrete as they inductively constructed spontaneous concepts of observation and inference (Panofsky, John-Stiener, & Blackwell, 1990).

Interestingly, while the evaluation task examples show an understanding of the literary and storytelling devices, students often used the same descriptive words in Fox-type and Flossie-type statements. In the second response in Figure 3, for example, the word "water" is used in both columns. Moreover, in many other examples, water appears instead of liquid in many Fox statements.

At the end lesson, students were asked, "Who do you think was the scientist, Fox or Flossie?" All quickly signaled that Flossie was the scientist. When the instructor repeated the question, the students responded: "Flossie is the scientist." All students confirmed the truth of the original response.

From the analysis of the data, then, we drew four broad conclusions:

  • Students' sense-making was concrete.
  • Students make scientific observations by listing properties of objects.
  • Students define inferences conceptually through use of those properties.
  • Students used the literary and storytelling devices of Flossie and the Fox to communicate their sense-making of observations and inferences.

For these fifth/sixth grade students, both observing and inferring were giving information 1) collected through the five sensesand 2) evaluated and judged based on past experience.

For these middle school students, Fox statements were observations or descriptions or characteristics of an object. Flossie statements were descriptions or characteristics of an object but expressed as similes and metaphors. In their summations of Flossie statements, these students connected properties of a fox to other animals. Similarly, in the text itself, Fox presented characteristics of himself whereas Flossie presented characteristics of other animals: "'Cause there's one of Mr. J. W. McCutchin's hounds behind you. He's got sharp teeth and can run fast too. And, by the way that hound's lookin', it's all over for you!'" (p. 25). These middle school students stated that both Fox and Flossie gave descriptions or characteristics of an object.

Similarly, when these students were asked to give observations through Fox-type statements, and inferences through Flossie-type statements about a container of liquid, they gave characteristics or descriptions of the object. There were no fundamental differences between the statements. Ostlund (1992) defines scientific observing as "using one or more of the five senses to gather information" (p. iv). Scientific inferring is linking "what is observed directly and what is already known from past experience" (Rezba, et al., 1995, p.70). For these fifth/sixth grade students, both observing and inferring were giving information 1) collected through the five senses and 2) evaluated and judged based on past experience.

Both Fox statements and Flossie statements were descriptors, providing detailed characteristics, examples and features of an object. The students used words, such as "water," "glass," and "jar," to describe the object. For Flossie statements, they used the same descriptors, but also similes and metaphors such as "like the ocean, vinegar, pop." Flossie statements were more complex because students created a descriptive context, but both Fox statements and Flossie statements were the same kind of statements: inferences. During the evaluation task, these students made only scientific inferences, not observations.

Therefore, it appears from this study that observation and inference are not a difference in kind, but rather a difference in degree. Observation, for these students, is a different degree of inference. Observations are one type or a subset of inferences. Conceptually, students will include in their explorations of objects and substances those properties which they perceive with their senses, and more importantly, those properties which they perceive based upon their past experience. The students did, however, create children's science concepts of observation and inference, although they did not use the terms observation or inference. They were able to recognize different descriptive language.

It appears from this study that observation and inference are not a difference in kind, but rather a difference in degree.

Students were not able, however, to decontextualize or abstract the concept from a concrete context (Wertsch, 1985). Irvin (1998) has noted that middle school students are caught in transition from narrative-based text and skill-oriented teaching to reading for content. These middle school students focus on Flossie taking the eggs safely to "Miz Viola" and on Flossie as the "trickster." Their focus is on the narrative nature of the text. In order for the students to see Flossie and the Fox as science, they needed to go beyond a narrative reading of the text. The readers needed to apply critical reading skills. For the text to be science, the focus must be on how Flossie "tricked" the Fox, or the process or logic that Flossie employed. These students did not see this activity as a scientific activity.

Similarly, these students did not understand that Flossie and Fox were engaged in science processes. But they did see the task as a reading activity. Examples of students' responses show that the students did make reading inferences. The students inferred because they read between the lines (Anderson, Reynolds, Schallert, & Goetz, 1977) and read beyond the lines (Hensen, 1981). They "combine[d] information from two sources: explicit statements from the text being read and general knowledge already known to the reader" (McKeon & Ratcliff, 1992, p. 440). For this study, the students made inferences because, as readers, they naturally made sense of the text.

Therefore for teachers to use children's literature in the science classroom, science teachers need to develop reading content pedagogical knowledge as well as science content pedagogical knowledge.

For us, this exploratory study questions the use of children's literature to teach science process skills and more generally the role of children's literature in the science curriculum. Our bias is that science skills can and need to be developed at the same time as reading skills. However, the reader's critical thinking skills influence the reader's sense making (Wilson, 1988). More specifically, the ability of the reader to abstract while interacting with text influences the reader's ability to abstract the scientific concepts of observation and inference from reading text. Therefore for teachers to use children's literature in the science classroom, science teachers need to develop reading content pedagogical knowledge (Irvin, 1998) as well as science content pedagogical knowledge.

The science content task is an abstract sense-making task. Hence, more study needs to be done on the use of children's literature in the science curriculum as the synergy of reading and science in critical thinking. If middle school students can infer the scientific term of inference and observation from a text, then can the same students make observations in a science context? The response to the "water in the baby food jar" task suggests that these middle school students cannot. Hence the ability to abstract and generalize meaning may be a developmental factor to consider.

We believe that quality sense-making must be universal across content. Inference is both a reading skill and a science process skill. The meaning of inference is the same across content areas. We conclude, therefore, that conceptual learning of observation and inference in science can support the conceptualization of inference in reading. Through a critical sense-making process, middle school students create a concept of inference. The students in this study define inference as a description based on their experience in building a model of how the world works (Rezba, et al, 1995). Direct observations, which are inferences without adding prior-to-experience knowledge, did not exist.

Scientists as Observers or Inferrers or Sense-makers?

Scientists make observations. If Fox statements are observations, then Fox must be the scientist. However, the middle school students answered, "Flossie!" in response to the assessment question: "Who is the scientist, Fox or Flossie?" From the perspective of the middle school students, Flossie was the scientist because Flossie was the sense-maker. Scientists are sense-makers. Flossie, utilizing scientific inquiry, had to make sense of a fox. She had to collect data, organize the data, and make a conclusion. Like scientists employing critical thinking, Flossie based her conclusion upon the observations spoken by Fox. Thus, scientists are both like Flossie and Fox.

Practical Applications

Although the proposed learning did not take place, children's literature did have a rich place in the science lesson. Because we were made more aware of the private knowledge of fifth/sixth grade students, the discussion of the text served as a formative assessment tool. Children's picture books can be used as a summative assessment as well. After direct teaching of the concepts of observation and inference, for example, students may be asked to identify who in Flossie and the Fox was observing and who was inferring. Also, the Flossie and the Fox activity was an engagement activity. Children's picture books are a means to introduce a concept and to create questions to explore.

Moreover, we have discovered many chil dren's picture books that have science process skills embedded within them. Keene & Zimmermann (1997) use multiple texts in order to build a reading concept. To aid conceptual development of the science concept of observation and inference, Flossie and the Fox should be seen as one of many texts to explore within the science classroom. Seven Blind Mice (Young, 1993) and Yo! Yes! (Raschka, 1993), for example, could effectively be used with Flossie and the Fox.

Seven Blind Mice (Young, 1993) is a retelling of the classical Indian tale of blind men describing an elephant. The descriptions and sense-making of the mice was organized according to what was inferred and what part of the elephant inspired that inference. Students would be asked to label the different types of descriptions, much like in Flossie and the Fox activity.

Yo! Yes! (Raschka, 1993) is a conversation between a White boy and an African American boy. Raschka (1993) uses short sentence of no more than three words, but most often one word to tell a story. Students could rewrite the story using three or more words to represent the usual one word sentences in the original text. Therefore, the students would be actively engaging in inferring.

Conclusion

Learning should include less emphasis on learning about observation and inference as scientific facts and information to more emphasis on understanding scientific concepts of observation...

These middle school students actively engaged in sense-making when reading a text. Their sense-making focused on a conceptual understanding of descriptors rather than a mastery of myopic terms, in this study observation and inference. Using these rich and diverse text of Flossie and the Fox, these middle school students employed characterization, storytelling structure, and synthesis of literal statements to communicate properties of an object.

Since this is an exploratory study focused on uncovering sense-making and spontaneous concepts, we will now consider additional factors in the design of activities for future studies. We have learned that a simple singular activity does not give meaningful and purposeful context for learning. Learning should include less emphasis on learning about observation and inference as scientific facts and information to more emphasis on understanding scientific concepts of observation (NRC, 1997, 2000). But this study does demonstrate that students are naturally sense-makers with the skill to integrate information and develop new perspective across content—when given the chance!

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Citation

Broadway, Francis & Sean Mason. (2001). Observation and Inference: Teaching Science Process Skills Through Flossie and the Fox. Ohio Reading Teacher, Volume XXXV, Number 1, 51-59. Retrieved : http://www.ohiorc.org/articles/default.aspx?id=broadway_mason. Used with permission of Ohio Reading Teacher.

Francis S. Broadway teaches science and mathematics education at The University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. He researches the integration of science and children's literature.

Sean Mason teaches sixth grade in Cleveland Public Schools, Cleveland, Ohio.

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