Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 13, Issue 2, Article13 (Dec., 2012)
A Sociocultural Perspective of Parental Involvement in Childrenís Science Learning in Informal Contexts
Children are naturally curious about their surroundings and the things they encounter in their everyday lives (e.g., Rowe, 2004). Family members, especially parents, can play a vital role in providing science learning opportunities outside the school to help their children develop scientific thinking and interest in science (e.g., Hofstein & Rosenfeld, 1996; Ostlund et al., 1985). According to Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, it states that learning is strongly influenced by the social interactions which take place in meaningful contexts (Vygotsky, 1978). In this aspect, the family members and people in the child’s immediate environment thus constitute an important social environment for the child’s learning and development. It has been noted that learning in the family or with family members is probably one of the most crucial of all educational experiences for an individual (e.g., Ostlund et al., 1985). This is because parents and children share a common life, and the vast body of shared experience thus enables parents to facilitate their children’s sense-making which is essential for their intellectual growth (e.g., Tizard & Hughes, 2002).
The sociocultural theory also states that a child can develop his or her intellect through internalising concepts based on his or her own interpretation of an activity or in communication with more knowledgeable or capable others (Roschelle; 1995; Vygotsky, 1978). Likewise, many out-of-school learning, such as informal science learning, is strongly socioculturally mediated (e.g., Falk & Dierking, 1997; Roschelle; 1995). Falk and Dierking (1997) also asserted that learning is the process of applying prior knowledge and experience to new experiences, and this effort is normally played out within a physical context and is mediated in the actions of other individuals. Thus, meaning making is not an isolated mental activity but as a joint product of the person and the mediational means operating in a particular setting (e.g., Roschelle; 1995; Wertsch, 1991). In this aspect, parents can play a fundamental role in facilitating their children’s inquiry, knowledge and skills acquisition as well as arousing their curiosity and interest in science at home and other informal settings.
For optimal and meaningful learning to take place, the sociocultural theory also states that the ‘zone of proximal development’ needs to be taken into consideration in the child’s learning process. The ‘zone of proximal development’ in the Vygotskian theory is essentially the difference between what the child can do on his or her own and what he or she can do with the help from a more able adult or peer (Vygotsky, 1978). When children have the appropriate guidance of more able and knowledgeable adults in informal learning contexts to provide intellectual stimulation and guide them in conducting intellectual searches, it will encourage them to go further in their learning explorations about the world they live in (e.g., Callanan & Jipson, 2001; Gleason & Schauble, 2000). Parents, as the more knowledgeable others, can provide scaffolding instruction to facilitate the child’s process of knowledge construction (Jaramillo, 1996; Vygotsky, 1978). Scaffolding instruction, as defined by Vygotsky (1978), is the role of knowledgeable others in supporting the learner’s development and providing support structures to help the learner achieve the next stage or level of learning. In Vygotskian’s learning, scaffolding is temporary (Jaramillo, 1996; Vygotsky, 1978). As the child’s abilities increase, the scaffolding provided can be reduced or withdrawn so as to help the child become an independent, self-regulating learner and problem solver (Jaramillo, 1996).
As effective science learning is essentially a process of inquiry and discovery, it is important that parents create a conducive learning environment, as a scaffold which supports openness, questioning, reflecting, and experimenting, to help their children explore how things work in their everyday lives. For instance, parents can create opportunities for their children to engage in investigative, hands-on science activities at home or provide outdoor experiential opportunities for them to make connections between classroom content and real world experiences. In addition, with the advancement of information technology (IT) and the availability of internet and online resources, parents can leverage on IT to facilitate their children’s science learning process so that children not only can develop information-gathering skills but can also gain broader perspectives and deeper understanding into the scientific issues and topics explored. Some studies have found that everyday parent-child conversations can contribute to supporting children’s scientific understanding as meaningful parent-child interactions are a possible mechanism for cognitive change (e.g., Gauvain, 2001; Szechter & Carey, 2009). Hence, parents can also initiate discussions on science and technology in daily events whenever the opportunities arise to engage their children in scientific thinking.When playing the role of a facilitator of learning to their children, it is also important that parents adopt the mindset that effective science learning is not just providing their children with direct instructions or spoon-feeding of content knowledge, but more essentially, they should help their children acquire scientific inquiry skills and gain confidence in self-directed problem-solving so that their children can become independent learners in the long term (e.g., Jonessen, 1998). By seizing ‘teachable moments’ at home or in other informal settings to ‘talk’ and ‘do’ science together with their children, parents can make valuable contributions to their children’s science learning, especially in enhancing their children's scientific inquiry experiences. More importantly, family bond could also be strengthened when both parents and children spend quality time together.
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