The Universe in the Classroom

The Story of Astronomy

How Do Children Learn?

To know a story is to have knowledge-or so the story goes. However, just how children learn and how instruction should be designed to help them develop the conceptual structures that will permit them to grasp complex ideas, have been standard problems in educational psychology and, more recently, in cognitive science. There have been many theoretical solutions to these problems. Consider a relatively outdated interpretation of student learning called the transmission model, which presumes that children's minds are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge that adults already possess.


Those who promote a constructivist approach to learning are heavily influenced by Piagetian accounts of intellectual development, and claim that children come to "know" by doing. That is, by engaging in specific activities, children build or construct the conceptual understandings that are relevant to their acquisition of knowledge.


Finally, the influence of Vygotsky has engendered the social constructivists' claim that children build their conceptual understandings and acquire knowledge by interacting with adults or more advanced peers.

social constructivist

Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool

Here we propose an innovative approach to children's learning, one that integrates the transmission, constructivism, and social constructivism models by having teachers present some of the fundamental concepts involved in astronomy education at the elementary level. On the surface the approach looks like this:

transmission - teacher...

  1. tells a story with astronomy content

constructivism - students...

  1. listen
  2. ask questions
  3. make meaning of the story
  4. conceptualize the astronomical content
  5. construct an understanding of the implications of the astronomy to the story
  6. learn the story

social constructivism - students...

  1. retell the story

Upon closer examination of this cyclical sequence, one can see that students become engaged in various cognitive processes. For a constructivist example, children integrate a story's plot with the implications of the astronomical events and with the presence of similar phenomena in their own world. They elaborate on the science in the story and on the story itself. And finally they differentiate the plot from the science.

When a student is ready to tell the story, she must have not only learned the story but also all of its component parts-the characters, setting, plot, and the principles of astronomy that are integral to it. In educational circles, it is widely believed that the best way to test if someone really knows something is to have her teach it. The retelling of a story and preserving its internal structures is such a test.

Impediments to Elementary Astronomy Programs

Before presenting sample stories and curricular ideas, we must discuss some of the impediments, pedagogical and professional, to teaching and learning astronomy at the elementary level. The first and most prevalent of these involves the level of content mastery among elementary-level teachers. Astronomy is complicated. It sometimes seemingly flies against intuition and common sense. It's clear the Sun goes around the Earth, everyone can see that! The numbers are so vast, who can really understand them? Does anyone really know how far a lightyear is? And astronomy, being science, has a quality of intimidation that subjects in the arts do not have. The following story from an elementary school principal exemplifies this:

I remember when there was an almost total eclipse of the Sun in Toronto, back in the late 70s or early 80s, and I wondered whether to ignore the whole thing so that no child would inadvertently get blinded by looking at the Sun, or to make a fuss about it.

Making a fuss about it won out. After all, it was a significant astronomical event, and one of the few that occur in daytime when the students are in school. I kicked it off with a noon-hour staff meeting where I taught the staff all about the Sun, the Moon, and eclipses using light, cameras, smoke and mirrors, the whole thing. I had charts and diagrams, flashlights shining on spheres in darkened rooms, and pin-hole cameras. We talked about waxing and waning, gibbous and whole, the light of the Moon and the dark of the Moon. We probably even included tides.

I thought I'd taught a fantastic lesson, and afterwards, one of my very best teachers came up to me and spoke so admiringly that my head started to swell: "That was wonderful!" she said. "I could have listened to you all day. I was hoping it would never end."

As I was fumbling for the appropriately modest and gracious reply, she continued, "But I didn't understand one word you were talking about!"

Pedagogically there are obstacles to teaching astronomy through storytelling. To begin with, storytelling is an art and requires specific skills. Also, one must accumulate a repertoire of stories that contain sufficient content for the learning of the fundamentals of astronomy. Finally, astronomy is a nighttime science, and school is held in the daytime. Networking, the internet, and education consultants are useful resources for finding activities that will enable a teacher to cross these hurdles.

Teachers also need to shift their thinking about how to use stories in the curriculum. We urge teachers to veer away from simply introducing a unit of study via literature. For example, it would be expected that a teacher would read a story such as Goodnight Moon (Moroney), and then begin a unit on the Moon. What we suggest is that the story itself become the pedagogical medium rather than an introductory vehicle for the forthcoming learning project.

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