Abell, Martini and George (2001)

This study was designed to assess the effectiveness of a project to investigate the phases of the Moon carried out as part of a training programme for elementary education majors. This project emphasized that scientific knowledge a) is empirically based, b) involves the invention of explanations and c) is socially embedded. The research was carried out by university-based lecturers and researchers in the USA.

Learners’ ideas

  • A student thought that the Moon grew larger through the different phases because the Sun was hitting more of its surface.
  • Some students linked the phases of the Moon to the shadow of the Earth falling on it.

Evidence-based suggestions

  • Students will develop a better understanding when instruction is designed to actively engage students with opportunities to not only become aware of their own understanding but also to reflect and discuss their understanding in an environment where discussion about ideas is valued.
  • When designing instruction, curriculum developers and teachers should focus on supporting students in thinking about their ideas in relation to their existing understanding and the ideas that they are trying to learn.

Further suggestions

  • Prompt students to identify what they know about the moon and how they came to know it, distinguishing what one can come to know from a) observation alone, b) invention or c) sources such as teachers and texts.
  • Focus on the role of discrepant data by asking questions such as, ‘Are all data equally important?’ or ‘What do we do with data that do not fit our predictions or theories?’
  • Help students focus on how incoming ideas about the Moon influence observations by asking, ‘Why did you choose to observe the moon at night?’ or ‘Why were you surprised to see the moon in the morning?’
  • Periodically ask each group of students to ‘publish’ their theories, and then debate their merits and failings, emphasizing the role of the scientific community in constructing and evaluating knowledge.
  • Ask students to reflect on their evolving conceptions.

Study Structure


The purpose of this study was to examine the lecturers' own teaching practices for examples of explicit instruction about the nature of science and to examine student outcomes in terms of their understanding.

Evidence collection

An action research methodology was implemented, distinguished by an iterative cycle of planning, action, observation, and reflection. One member of the research team served as a participant-observer. The participant-observer attended all classes, took field notes, and tape-recorded small group discussions.

Eleven students volunteered to serve as key informants in the study. Each informant kept a journal of their moon observations, their developing explanations, and reflections on their learning. Each week course instructors prompted them to write about the investigation and about particular aspects of science teaching and learning. Instructors also asked students to write a final reflection in which they discussed their most current explanations about the moon, the questions they still had, and their ideas for teaching about the moon in elementary school. In addition, each informant participated in a structured, one-hour post-unit interview.

The interviews and field notes served as the primary data sources for this study, supplemented by student journals. The one-hour post-unit interview was based on a structured interview protocol. To analyse these data, all three members of the research team independently read and re-read the data to search for common patterns using analytic induction.

Details of the sample

Eleven university students volunteered to serve as key informants in the study.

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