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Reasoning Tools for Understanding Water Systems

The University of Montana

Learning progressions describe how students’ ideas change over broad time spans (National Research Council, 2007). They are anchored on the lower end by ideas that students bring to school and on the upper end by the scientific knowledge and practices expected of students by the end of high school (Mohan et al., 2009). A central goal for learning progressions is that they will help educators use knowledge of students’ ideas to inform instructional planning and curricula.

The aim of our work since 2005 has been to develop a learning progression that describes levels of understanding of water systems for students in upper elementary through high school grades. Our subsequent aim is to use the learning progression as a basis for designing, testing, and refining water education instructional tools and approaches that are responsive to students’ ways of knowing and learning.

Below is an abbreviated description of our learning progression. Please see our “Publications and Reports” link for more detailed descriptions.

Level 1: Force-Dynamic Accounts
Level 1 accounts tend to focus on human uses and actions related to water. Some additional characteristics of Level 1 reasoning include a focus on immediate and visible world, describing that water can appear/disappear (e.g., evaporated means gone), and describing actors as changing water without mechanisms (e.g., using a cleaning machine).

Level 2: Force-Dynamic Accounts with Hidden Mechanisms
Level 2 accounts are more sophisticated force dynamic accounts. Level 2 reasoners understand that mechanisms are needed to move or change water, but they have little awareness of scientific systems and mechanisms, and tend to provide informal explanations. Some additional characteristics of Level 2 reasoning include recognizing that water can move or flow to connected places, and a tendency to invoke inanimate actors to move or change water (e.g., clouds filter salt out of water).

Level 3: School Science Accounts
Level 3 accounts are characterized by the telling of school science stories of water moving through multiple steps and along multiple pathways without accounting for driving forces and constraining factors underlying movement of water and substances in water. Level 3 reasoners are often aware of atomic-molecular and landscape scales, but tend to provide accounts at the macroscopic scale.

Level 4: Model-Based Scientific Accounts
Level 4 accounts traces water and substances in water through connected systems along multiple pathways at multiple scales. Level 4 reasoners are able to identify and describe driving forces and constraining factors related to movement of water and substances in water.

Drawing on our learning progression research, we are currently developing and testing learning progression-based instructional supports for teachers to use to help students move toward model-based reasoning about water systems. In this project, we have developed and are currently testing several water systems Reasoning Tools and Formative Assessments. Click on the “Teaching Materials” button to learn more about these instructional supports.

Reference: National Research Council. (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Committee on Science Learning Kindergarten through Eighth Grade, Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A. & Shouse, A. W. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Contact Us

Beth Covitt
Environmental Studies Program