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Helping young children shape casual explanations for movement

Focus key competencies: Thinking (cause and effect), using language, symbols, and texts

Learning area context: Science


The children in this new entrant class were beginning to inquire into how things move. The teacher began by asking them “How do things move?” This simple question created the opportunity for children to share their existing ideas while the teacher listened for any evidence of causal thinking on which she could build. At this early stage of their science learning the children were more likely to describe specific instances of movement than they were to offerexplanations:

  • I can move with my legs.
  • The scooter moves its wheels.

Some children simply shrugged their shoulders because they had nothing to add. A decorated wheels day at school provided the opportunity to build shared experiences for further classroom talk. On this day the children brought in bikes and scooters decorated according to a theme. The teacher drew the children’s attention to their actions as they practised moving on their own bikes and scooters and also watched each other moving. The children began to describe what they did to create movement:

  • I use my feet to make my scooter move.
  • I can use my feet to push the pedal.

These ideas were recorded alongside photos taken on the day and displayed on the classroom wall. Together the teacher and the children looked at the display to find explaining words. Push and pull were two words that the children had started to repeat. The teacher listed these ideas from the conversation on the whiteboard, ready for the next lesson.

Next the children brought toy cars from home and experimented with ways of making them move:

  • Look they go fast.
  • Look I can push them.
  • I can see it go.

The teacher prompted the children to think specifically about their intuitive knowledge of cause and effect by asking questions such as: “What do you think will happen to the car when we push it down the steep ramp? Why do you think that?” “What happens when we push the car across the floor? Let’s think about why this is different from pushing the car down the ramp.” A rich and animated conversation ensued and all the ideas offered were recorded.

Finally in this unit, the teacher encouraged the children to think about how they could measure whether specific cars really were going faster or further. The children began to make links between this challenge and their experiences of measuring length in maths. The teacher encouraged them to think about how we can be fair when we measure things to compare them. Once they had access to a fair measurement strategy, and had actually measured the distances that their vehicles travelled in different circumstances, the children could begin to justify their cause and effect ideas by linking these to the evidence of their hands on experiences.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

At NZC levels 1 and 2, the Investigating in Science sub-strand of the nature of science strand states that “students will extend their experiences and personal explanations of the natural world through exploration, play, asking questions, and discussing simple models”. In this story, the physical world strand of NZC provides an intriguing context for these playful, exploratory experiences and conversations. Movement (and by implication the mechanisms that cause movement) is named as one of the physical phenomena that might be explored at this level.

New entrants develop cause and effect thinking competencies as they develop their explanations for commonly experienced situations in which things move. (Cause and effect is one of seven concepts considered central to science by the National Research Council on K-12 science education in United States schools. Their full wording of this concept is as follows: “Cause and effect: mechanism and prediction: Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. Deciphering causal relationships, and the mechanisms by which they are mediated, is a major activity of science.” Taking Science to School (Duschl, Schweinbruber, & Shouse, 2007) reports on a major American project to investigate appropriate learning in science for very young children. The team found that some types of experiences are so pervasive in young children’s lives that they provide important “cognitive common ground” (p. 54) for science learning experiences. Mechanisms are one of the contexts that they recommend teachers to use because, all over the world and in all different cultural settings, young children experience various mechanisms at work and intuitively notice patterns.)

Supported by the teacher, science talk (using language, symbols, and texts) can be encouraged. Being an active shaper of explanations is one of the core activities of science. NZCER’s Kick Starting the Nature of Science booklet has practical examples of the sorts of student behaviours teachers might look for in these types of discussions (Bull, Joyce, Spiller, and Hipkins, 2010).

Reflections on effective pedagogy

Asking an open-ended question that did not have one “right answer” provided the space for the children to show initiative as they asked, and attempted to answer, their own questions about movement. The use of an activity in which all children could physically participate, and in which they already had a “library of experiences” to bring to their learning, ensured that every child had access to the learning opportunities on offer. (One of the recommendations of the Taking Science to School project was that it is really important to help children build a rich “library of experiences” in the early years.)

The focus on science talk similarly ensured that all children had the opportunity to contribute ideas, and at the very least, to hear a wide range of ideas from their peers, and to see that “idea making” was a type of learning activity that was valued by their teacher (for many rich examples of such conversations with young children, see Gallas, 1995).

The teacher ensured challenge and stretch by scaffolding the childrens’ explanatory conversations and prompting them to add more layers to their existing ideas. Encouraging them to think about their explanations provided opportunities for simple metacognitive conversations.

Discussion starters: Talking as “discourse”

In this example students’ ideas about movement are carefully shaped as evidence-based verbal explanations. In what ways are their competencies in using language, symbols, and texts supported by the teacher’s choices and actions?

Scientists strive to convincingly support their knowledge claims with evidence: this type of “discourse” is a characteristic of the “nature of science”. However experts in working with young children say that it does not matter at this stage if the ideas they talk about are scientifically correct or not: what matters is the powerful experience of being an explainer. Do you agree? Why or why not?

In what ways might rich experiences of science talk lay important foundations for building multiple dimensions of thinking competencies in science and in other learning areas?


Bull, A. (2011). Library of Experiences.

Bull, A., Joyce, C., Spiller, L., & Hipkins, R. (2010). Kickstarting the Nature of Science. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Duschl, R., Schweinbruber, H., & Shouse, A. (Eds.). (2007). Taking Science to School. Washington DC: Committee on Science Learning , Kindergarten through Eight Grade, National Research Council.

Gallas, K. (1995). Talking their Way into Science: Hearing Children's Questions and theories, Responding with Curricula. New York: Teachers College Press.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014