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MSPnet Blog: “Good Stuff”

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posted February 28, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

What does “stuff” — physical objects — contribute to the science classroom?  I think a lot, but there’s certainly another point of view.  To be quite argumentative about it, my prejudice is that if your primary concern is that students get excited about the world and ways of learning  more about it, then you like having stuff around.  If you are primarily focused on outcome measures and “student achievement,” you worry about students being distracted from officially approved learning goals.

My dad was a junior high science teacher, and though I never had a class with him, I spent a lot of after-school time in his room, while he cleaned up, shuffled papers, and did the other things a teacher needs to do before heading home. There were terrariums, samples of rocks and  minerals (mostly gathered by us on weekend excursions), skulls, birds’ nests, beach-combing trophies, balance scales, geometric solids, field guides. maps, star charts —a microcosm world-jumble. Always something to see, handle, watch, tweak.

Maybe it’s because of this early exposure that I have always felt that a healthy science classroom needs to be full of stuff — some of it to some obvious curricular purpose for this week’s focus, some of it present as a result of past moments of curiosity or narrative.  In moments of distraction or rumination, natural objects, machinery, instruments can raise questions, invite an idle probe or an object lesson, which suddenly clicks into a real interest, or adds to the “mulch” of acquaintance with the world that nourishes the inquiring mind (“mulch” a favorite word of John King, experimental physicist and educational experimenter at MIT, and longtime TERC ally).  As James Lovelock said, of connecting with natural places and objects, “Well, I think if you can, you feel part of the world, you feel much more interested in it, and your sense of wonder is stimulated.”  (in Wolpert & Richards, Passionate minds.)

I have been influenced in my own work by  David Hawkins’s essay “I, Thou, and It”. In this piece, Hawkins proposes that in the science classroom, the learning situation includes teacher (he speaks from this point of view, as “I”), the student (“Thou”), and It = the subject matter, the phenomenon which serves also as a boundary object, upon which the I and Thou each have their own perspective — so they have something to talk about, look at, make sense of together,  which is not “mine,” or “thine,” but is a common puzzle — the world itself (in part).

My attitude is not related to any particular pedagogical technique, such as project-based learning.  Rather, I simply believe that there are many reasons, some of them intellectual, some affective, and some ethical/moral, to ensure that learners have a lot of experience with physical objects — actual physical objects, not 2-D or even 3-D representations— and that some of this experience should NOT be driven by curricular imperatives.  I could cite Dewey or other educators before and since, but the testimony of scientists about the origins of their engagement speaks very clearly on this point.  (A good place to start reading about this nexus might be Sherry Turkle’s book Falling for Science:Objects in mind.)

It’s been hard to find research on this general topic.  There are definitely good practical resources, many of them based in the “informal ed” or museum literature (not surprising!), such as Teaching with objects and photographs  by Ellen Sieber and Sarah Hatcher — which argues for the importance of realia in stimulating curiosity, in providing opportunties for small-group collaboration, improving conceptual learning and sensory literacy.   More theoretical in tone,  there’s lots of work on “embodied cognition,” which might feel relevant (see for example this useful if slightly grouchy review article by Margaret Wilson, who seems never to have done any hunting or gathering).   There is recent research that shows that sensori-motor systems of students with relevant practical experience are activated in new learning situations, to improve their learning about physical phenomena in physics lab.

None of these are about “stuff”, however.  With the continuing emphasis on achievement and competitive advantages, we may not see research about this topic for a while.  More likely, we will see more research based on the desire to enforce attention to tasks, which takes a dim view of distraction.

In commenting on a previous post (on Money), Talbot Bielefeld wrote:

Regarding the value of all the “stuff” in classrooms, there is research out of Carnegie Mellon suggesting that visually crowded classroom environments may actually interfere with learning. See Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014 (

While this study focuses on young kids, for whom acculturation to desk work and learning on schedule is a major challenge, I have seen it quoted in many other contexts.  A good enough result in itself, it is also serviceable to certain views and aims of education policy, so I expect it to serve as the vanguard of many similar studies, and quickly to be incorporated into policy guidelines about classroom environments.

For myself, I close with a comment from that old psychologist, Walt Whitman:

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of his for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years…

(The full poem is here among many other places).

What is your experience of stuff in the STEM classroom?

Note: The opinions in this blog are solely the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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