The development of children’s ideas about the body: How these ideas change in a teaching environment

Univeristy of Iceland, Iceland

Supervisors: Professor Jón Torfi Jónasson and Professor Michael Reiss

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This study explores how and under what circumstances children’s ideas about the body change over the period of two school years, Primary 1 and 2 (6 and 7 years old), in a ‘normal’ classroom setting in an Icelandic primary school. The focus is on children’s ideas about the structure, location and function of bones and other organs and how changes in pupils’ ideas are affected by the curriculum, teaching methods, teaching materials and teacher-pupil and peer interactions. Special attention is given to the differences between quiet children and more open children in respect to these issues. The theoretical background of the study is the constructivist view of learning and teaching with an emphasis on varied interactions as a pre-condition for learning and the importance of gauging children’s initial knowledge on which to build their education. One class of 20 (19 in Primary 2) children took part in the research, along with its teacher and a sample of parents. A qualitative methodological approach is adopted although quantitative information is also obtained. Classroom observations and interviews were analysed by using elements from grounded theory and discourse analysis, and scales and pre-designed forms were used to analyse drawings, interviews and diagnostic tasks. At the end of the project the children were generally more aware of the structures, locations and functions of the various organs than they were of processes and how the organs were interrelated and they were also more aware of the digestive system than other organ systems. The various teaching methods have different effects for different children and thus a variety of teaching methods are important in order to maximise learning within a whole class. It is hard to conclude which teaching method is, overall, ‘the best one’ although a combination of group demonstration, hands-on activities, information/telling and discussion together were effective. Using drawings to get access to children’s ideas can be very effective although young children may have difficulties in making drawings that represent their ideas. Furthermore, the imitation effect has also to be taken into account as drawings can present imitation rather than understanding; so other methods, such as interviews, should ideally be used as well. This research demonstrates the importance of the active engagement of the children as a group, but at the same time shows how the visible activity of individuals may not correlate with learning in the manner often presumed. The quiet children did not learn less than the others; indeed they learnt more than the visibly active children. The dissertation makes a contribution to educational research in general as it is about teaching and learning, with an emphasis on the individual pupil within an educational setting and gives valuable insight into children’s ideas about the body and how and under what conditions they develop.

Thesis reference:

Óskarsdóttir, G. (2006). The development of children's ideas about the body: How these ideas change in a teaching environment. Unpublished PhD Thesis.Univeristy of Iceland, Faculty of Social Sciences.


School of Eduation, University of Iceland

v/Stakkahlíð105 Reykjavík, Iceland

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