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"Reading the Land": Ontologies of Ecological Reasoning in Family Forest Walks

Sat, April 9, 8:15 to 9:45am, Marriott Marquis, Floor: Level Four, Independence Salon G


Observations are used for a variety of activities in daily life, however scientific observation is a complex skill that requires coordinating domain knowledge and particular attentional habits in order to notice relevant information (Eberbach & Crowley, 2009). Developing this skill is of particular importance as science instruction shifts to a more authentic, practice-based model (NRC, 2012). With the expectation that all children should be able to utilize observations to gather evidence and develop theories, it is important to understand how this skill develops and is mobilized in informal and nonformal settings (Feder, Shouse, Lewenstein, Bell, 2009). Recent research acknowledges the essential role family settings play in early knowledge development, and examining parent-child interactions can illuminate the development of science-related epistemologies (Callanan, Rigney, Nolan-Reyes, & Solis, 2012).

Since outdoor settings are typical sites for field-based science, this study, as part of a larger study, will examine how families make sense of, and reason about, ecological phenomena during unstructured forest walks. There are sixty-one family dyads or triads, and in this case study I examine one in detail. I ask the following questions: How does the parent model, or articulate, meaning making about ecological phenomena that they encounter during an unstructured forest walk? More specifically, how are observations mobilized to make sense of complex, ecological phenomena? I use interaction and conversational analysis (Goodwin, 2000) of videos taken with point-of-view cameras that participants wore during their walks. Importantly, I consider the role of the physical, natural world as a key component of the dialogic environment (Leander, 2002; Leander, Phillips, Taylor, 2010).

The analysis takes place in two parts. Using both a priori and grounded coding, I examine when participants are engaging in ecological reasoning. First, I focus on instances where parent and child are drawing joint attention to, and making sense of, ecological phenomena (e.g. finding animal tracks and talking about them), and then code for when those observations refer to activities that happened in another time or space (e.g. what the animal was doing at the time). I argue that these instances are a form of spatial representation. Spatial representations have traditionally focused on mental models of objects or movement through space (Schwartz & Heiser, 2006). Findings from this study suggest that participants engaged in an expanded form of spatial representation by reading the land (Cajete, 2000). In other words, sense making that emerged from phenomena on the walk facilitated reasoning that occurred across multiple spatial and temporal frameworks (possible or settled past, present, and future) within a given observation. The ability to hold this multiplicity is indicative of a form of complex systems thinking, which requires an individual to attend to dynamic processes such as behavior and function of related components of a system (Hmelo-Silver & Pfeffer, 2004; Grotzer, Kamarainen, Tutwiler, Metcalf, & Dede, 2013). Understanding how these practices unfold in unstructured, family settings have implications for how we can design learning spaces and science instruction that facilitate complex systems reasoning.


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