Research Summary

A cross-cultural exploration of children's everyday ideas: implications for science teaching and learning

Culture Affects Children’s Views of Environment

International Journal of Science Education

How much of a role does culture play in children’s everyday ideas about science? The author of this paper explored this question through an analysis of what children in three countries see as “the environment.” Although it is largely recognized that the foundations of science learning are put into place by children’s everyday ideas, little previous research has sought to legitimize these ideas or consider differences in cultural perspectives. The author analyzed the everyday ideas that emerged from children regarding their relationship with the environment across the United States, China, and Singapore. The study revealed that culture plays a significant role in shaping children’s everyday ideas about the environment.

While the students came from three different countries, all shared Chinese as a common language spoken either at home, at school, or both. Because all students shared a common language, the author argued that differences in the three test groups could be attributed to cultural rather than language construction differences.

The research team was comprised of two individuals plus the author; as a group, they have knowledge of the different countries. One of the researchers is a native Chinese speaker from Taiwan, a second researcher is a native of Denver with no prior experience with Chinese culture, and the author is a native of Singapore.

Students completed a “draw-and-explain” task in which they drew a picture of the environment and then defined it in their own words. In analyzing the data that emerged, the researchers created categories including built environment, nature, stewardship, harmony, pollution/no pollution, utilitarian, and poetic. Although some of these categories overlapped with prior research, the categories of built environment, harmony, and poetic are not well documented and became the focus of a case study analyses.

Differences in culture underlie perceptions of children’s views concerning the environment. In the category of built environment, children from all three countries displayed a relationship between natural and manmade structures, but differences emerged in the types of dwellings they drew. Children in Singapore represented the places where people live expanding upward, while children in the United States drew buildings expanding outward, which the authors attributed to differences in culture and land resources in the different countries.

A representation of the environment using written poetry was seen only in the group from China. The author theorized that the inclusion of poetry in Chinese language classes may affect children’s everyday ideas about the environment. Likewise, the concept of harmony was only reflected in children’s drawings and descriptions from China and Singapore. The author stated that harmony is a concept that is “deeply embedded in Chinese culture,” as well as emphasized explicitly in Singaporean schools.

This study demonstrated that culture and everyday ideas about the environment and science are intricately connected. This suggests that it is important for teachers to serve as “social developers” rather than merely knowledge providers. Practically, this means guiding children in forming connections between their experiences and science content. In terms of cross-cultural implications, the author stressed that cultural differences greatly affect children’s everyday ideas in science. Therefore, techniques that are successful in one country may not directly correlate to another. Educators should be aware of cultural differences when applying successful techniques from other countries. Furthermore, the author argued that test score comparisons between countries do not lend any valuable information with regard to these inherent cultural differences affecting basic perceptions. The author called for further research into the nature of children’s everyday ideas from even more countries, as well as an analysis that includes the effects of demographic data.

The Bottom Line

Children’s everyday ideas are greatly influenced by the culture that they experience and in which they are acting and interacting. As environmental education is a collaborative and holistic endeavor—and as learning itself is a sociocultural enterprise—educators need to be aware of cultural impacts on children’s views of nature or the environment. Those who design curricula must be cognizant of culture, perceptions, and the prior knowledge of the children who are the intended learners.