Observation and Inference: Teaching
Science Process Skills Through Flossie and the Fox
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
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.
...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.
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.
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).
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, &
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
- Students define inferences conceptually through use of those
- Students used the literary and storytelling devices of
Flossie and the Fox to communicate their sense-making of observations and
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
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
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
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.
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
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with permission of Ohio Reading Teacher.
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