Is "instant snow" a good model for actual snow?

Child holds a bowl of sand with sticks stuck into it, representing a birthday cakeChildren often use ordinary objects to represent other objects—a block might become a phone, or a rock might become a cookie, during their play. This imaginative play means they understand that the “phone” and the “cookie” aren’t real but are chosen because they are very basic models of real objects, in that they have a certain shape and size that allows them to represent the real objects in play. The children are not trying to explain what a phone, or what a cookie is, but to use an object to represent another object as part of their play.

I’m wondering how accurate the models we adults use in teaching about a phenomenon have to be to avoid introducing or supporting misconceptions about that phenomenon. Is it important to accurately represent the body parts of a worm or is it okay to show them with eyes and smiling mouths? Is a blob of shaving cream floating on top of water a model that will help children understand the properties of a cloud of water vapor and how rain forms? 

Cover of A Framework for K-12 Science EducationConceptual models “allow scientists and engineers to better visualize and understand a phenomenon under investigation” (Framework page 56). How do you know if what you are presenting to children as an example, or conceptual model, of a natural phenomenon is scientifically accurate? And how do you know when a model has to be accurate to avoid introducing or supporting misconceptions about that phenomenon? In A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (National Research Council 2012) it is noted that, “Although they do not correspond exactly to the more complicated entity being modeled, they do bring certain features into focus while minimizing or obscuring others. Because all models contain approximations and assumptions that limit the range of validity of their application and the precision of their predictive power, it is important to recognize their limitations.”

The Important BookA flower bud peeking out from fallen snow crystals by Margaret Wise Brown is helpful at identifying what it is about an object that defines it (to the writer/speaker). Wise writes, “The important thing about snow is that it is white. It is cold, and light, it falls softly out of the sky, it is bright, and the shape of tiny stars, and crystals. It is always cold  And it melts. But the important thing about snow is that it is white.”

We might use “instant snow” to represent actual snow, precipitation in the form of ice crystals, in play. If children have experienced snow they will be able to describe what is important about it and how the instant snow product resembles it, beyond both being white in color. To recognize the limitations of this model of snow I might say, “The important thing about instant snow is that it is white. It is cool, and light, it falls softly from my hand, it is bright, and the shape of tiny pieces. It does not melt. And it dries up. But the important thing about instant snow is that it is not real snow.”

The way we phrase our ideas can help children understand when a model more accurately represents a phenomenon or is a very simple “looks-like” model. We can say, “The shape of my cookie is like the Moon,” or, more accurately, “The shape of my cookie looks like how the Moon looks sometimes” (because the Moon is a three dimensional body in space, not a flat circle). 

Read more about the use of models in A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (National Research Council 2012) pages 52-57. 

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10 Responses to Is "instant snow" a good model for actual snow?

  1. Anneke Nordmark says:

    What an awesome reminder to think carefully about the words I choose when discussing a model with my toddler. I do a lot of work with models with my sixth grade students and hadn’t fully thought about the way I introduce similar concepts to my own daughter.

  2. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Thanks for your response, Anneke. I used to make sandbox “volcanoes” with my young children and “erupt” them with the standard baking soda and vinegar reaction. Later I realized I may have introduced some misconceptions about how lava forms. My 3-year-old watched an earth science TV program about crustal subduction zones with me. A few days later at a pond he manipulated one piece of ice under another with a stick and called it a subduction zone (no input from me!). That taught me that he understood the model he had seen on TV although he probably didn’t connect it with the Earth. It taught me that young children shouldn’t be given misleading models. But I think it’s okay to make “pretend volcanoes” that “look sort of like” real volcanoes.

  3. Jamie Vought says:

    This is a great opportunity to have a discussion with students about the difference between models and representations. Models have explanatory and predictive power which are inherently absent in representations. This helps students see the benefits of moving beyond representations to models when attempting to explain phenomena.

    • Peggy Ashbrook says:

      Jamie, This is interesting. Help us see the difference between models and representations in early childhood years, birth-8 years old. Does this explain the difference: a representation might be a chair used to represent a car (child sits on it and makes engine sounds, holding a pretend steering wheel), and when a child tapes circle shapes to the legs of the chair, it becomes a model–the circles explain the phenomenon of a moving vehicle. Please elaborate.

  4. Jamie Vought says:

    Representations focus on the structure or physical attributes of an object/process while models seek to explain a phenomenon and predict future outcomes/events. Models are focusing on answering questions about the real world. Based on your car scenario, what question are students trying to answer? If they are imitating how to drive a car, that is a representation. They are not seeking to explain or predict future outcomes. If they are exploring why a car has wheels (particular number and shape of tires) for example or how the steering wheel and tires interact with one another to allow a driver to control the direction of the car, then they are modeling. During children’s early years, they begin with representations but through teacher questioning, we can guide students to use those representations to develop questions and explanations, generate data that can be used to make predictions and communicate ideas to others which transforms those representations in models.

  5. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Jamie, thank you for expanding the discussion and helping us think about how teacher questions support children’s developing understanding using models.

  6. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Chapter 6, Making Thinking Visible: Modeling and Representation, in “Ready, Set, SCIENCE! Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms” (2008) is a great resource on this topic.

  7. Carrie Cutler says:

    Peggy, thank you for bringing this issue into focus for me. I use The Important Book by M.W. Brown often but not in this particular way, and I look forward to adding it to my repertoire of books that engage preservice teachers in thinking about models. I wonder if you’ve seen the book Ish by Peter Reynolds. It may provide another ways of describing the imprecise but helpful applications for models in PreK science. Thank you for your wonderful blog. Keep writing, please!

  8. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Carrie, thank you for that resource and for your kind words. It’s helpful and inspiring to get feedback!
    I looked up the book you recommended, Ish by Peter Reynolds. Delightful! I agree that young children’s representations and models are “-ish” in that they do not very closely describe, or look like, objects or processes, or serve to explain a phenomenon very thoroughly.
    (My only reservation about “Ish” is the behavior of the big brother–a stereotype also seen in the brother in “The Carrot Seed”!)

  9. Carrie Cutler says:

    I’ll have to check out the big brother phenomenon. Thanks for pointing it out.

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