Activity Theory — A psychological theory, rooted in work of Soviet psychologist Vygotsky, that posits that human development occurs through the use, appropriation, and innovation of cultural tools in human activity. "Activity" can be defined at many scales, ranging from the activity of the educational enterprise to the activity of making a cake. Cultural tools, which vary, include language, material instruments, social schema, etc. Culture is not defined by geography or ethnicity but by communities of practice, which may cross ethnic, geographic, or other types of boundaries. For informal science educators, activity theory suggests that we design and consider our programs in terms of how they introduce learners to the cultural tools of, say, science or of science learning; and how we induct learners into communities of science learners. Growing fluency with cultural tools of science, growing participation in communities of science learners, and growing repertoires of practice for engaging in science represent evidence of learning and development in science.
Agency — Wikipedia defines agency as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. For informal educators, this term generally refers to providing learners with opportunities to generate and pursue their own questions.
Community of Practice — A construct first posited by Lave and Wenger (1991). Wenger's website suggests that communities of practice can be defined as groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Informal science educators may be concerned with supporting participation in communities of science learners.
Conceptual Change — A body of science education researchers focus on what is called ”conceptual change” meaning how people develop new (and usually canonical) understandings of scientific phenomena. The basic premise is that children develop conceptions of how things work through their everyday experiences in the world (including time spent at school). Often these conceptions are not quite right (eg., seasons are caused by the distance of the sun from the earth following its elliptical orbit). Teaching for conceptual change primarily involves revealing current conceptions that students have about a given phenomenon and then working to shift this conception. In this framework it is understood that simply telling somebody what the correct conception is (e.g, that seasons result from the tilt of the earth) does not change deeply held conceptions of how the world works. Research investigates what sorts of strategies, contradictions, experiences, conversations help students to ultimately reject or adapt preconceptions for new (more canonical) conceptions.
Cultural-Historical Theory — This is a term used to describe theories of development proposed by Vygotsky in which the role of culture and of the historical development of culture, including cultural tools such as social schema, language, art, etc., are the medium of development.
Ecological Views on Learning — Developed by Bronfenbrenner and others, ecological views consider the entire learning ecology in understanding how children develop and learn. These views understand learning to occur across settings and over time. They suggest a need to understand how experiences in one environment create potential (interest, skills, questions, knowledge, identities) which can be further developed in other settings.
IRF (initiation-response-feedback) or IRE (initiation — response — evaluation) — Describes a mode of instruction in which the teacher controls the flow of conversation by asking a question, receiving a response from a student, and then responding with a statement of either approval or correction. Many studies have shown that this is the mode of interaction that has dominated classrooms for over a century.
IRB — Institutional Review Board is defined by Wikipedia as a committee that has been formally designated to approve, monitor, and review biomedical and behavioral research involving humans with the aim to protect the rights and welfare of the research subjects. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Health and Human Services regulations have empowered IRBs to approve, require modifications in planned research prior to approval, or disapprove research. An IRB performs critical oversight functions for research conducted on human subjects that are scientific, ethical, and regulatory. Most informal education organizations do not have their own IRB (whereas most universities do), so need to acquire IRB approval from an independent (private) IRB before conducting learning research involving humans.
Learning Progressions — An approach to curriculum design that focuses on a big idea (such as evolution) and identifies the building blocks of knowledge and experience that underpin that idea (such as random variation and natural selection) and design age/developmentally-appropriate approaches to building understanding of these underpinnings over time so that a student graduates high school with a deep understanding of the big idea. For example, a learning progressions approach might suggest that kindergarteners conduct observations of Wisconsin Fast Plants and note the random variation that occurs. These ideas will be revisited in increasingly complex and detailed activities over a period of years.
Mental Models — Mental models are representations of scientific concepts or ideas that are thought by some to reside in a person's memory, mind, or brain (through some interaction of experience, physiology, and neurology). For example, a model of how photosynthesis works has, in this view, some material existence (chemical, neuronal) in a person's head. Science educators and researchers who subscribe to this view are interested in instructional strategies that support the development of such models, and also are interested in how visualizations as well as 3-D models can be used to develop such mental models.
Nature of Science (NOS) — The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) describes the nature of science as particular ways of observing, thinking, experimenting, and validating which reflect how science differs from other modes of knowing. Much science teaching has been faulted for stressing conceptual facts and process skills over developing an understanding of the nature of science or scientific ways of knowing, or scientific epistemologies — how scientific knowledge is generated using particular approaches and rules of evidence.
Participation Structures — This refers to the ways in which different roles or actions are structured in a given activity. For example, some learning activities are structured so that a teacher is the giver of knowledge and students the receivers. Others are structured where all children are actively seeking to generate knowledge through investigations, for example. Others are structured so that different children have different roles, such as communicator, record keeper, calculator, etc. The participation structures vary in these three scenarios.
Phenomenology — In educational research, phenomenological methods refer to approaches that seek to understand the lived experience that is the object of the research. Generally this means that researchers spend extensive amounts of time in a given setting, observing, recording, "living with and in" the system being studied, and constructing a narrative that focuses on the meaning of the experience for those involved. Phenomenology is an interpretive methods of research and stands in contrast to methods that are more focused on looking for "outcomes" as stand-alone "facts" about a system. Phenomenologists would hold that to really understand something you have to understand it from within. Van Manen's 1990 book, Researching Lived Experience, provides an overview of this approach.
Scaffolding — The term was first proposed by Bruner. It refers to the mechanisms a teacher puts in place to help a student begin to engage and slowly take responsibility for his/her own learning activities. For example, it could consist of worksheets or other verbal tools that help to orient the learner's attention and to get them started on a productive path. The concept of scaffolding implies that the teacher's role gradually recedes, as the student's role increases. See zone of proximal development.
Scientific Practice(s) — A term proposed by the forthcoming NRC Science Standards Frameworks which includes practices such as observation, hypothesizing, and argumentation.
Zone of Proximal Development — There is disagreement about exactly what this term means, but the most common understanding is that it describes a range of ability that encompasses what a child can do with assistance of another person (teacher or more capable peer) and what the child can accomplish without assistance. Some have pointed out that the term refers to development and not to learning or skill per se.