Fostering Epistemological Junctures when Designing for Interdisciplinary Learning

Monday 18 March, 1.00 pm—3.00 pm
Deakin Downtown
Level 12, Tower 2 Collins Square,
727 Collins Street, Docklands

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is currently segregated by discipline. Recent efforts to improve instruction in disciplines emphasise a turn toward practice, positioning students to participate in approximations to some of the epistemological means by which STEM professionals generate and revise knowledge.

Professor Richard Lehrer (Vanderbilt University) suggests that to realise the virtues of thinking across disciplines, instruction must be designed with an eye toward fostering moments when the distinctiveness of disciplined ways of knowing is made visible and vital to inquiry. The anticipated effect is a form of resonance, here intended to convey a sense of greater amplitude of learning as a result of relating, but not merging, distinctive epistemologies.

The guiding assumption is to create opportunities for learners to participate in forms of activity where the “same” concept participates in related, albeit disciplinarily unique forms of practice. To explore the implications of this intention, Richard revisits a series of investigations conducted by third grade children during the course of a school year.

Children began by investigating the mathematics of what their eyes told them were the same (paper cut) rectangle, just “bigger” or “smaller.” They found that all members of the same group of “just bigger” rectangles followed the same “rule,” such as “the long side is twice as long as the short side.” They also inscribed the rectangles as Cartesian coordinates, determined that a line represented a ratio of side lengths, and developed an appreciation for the line as representing an infinite number of rectangles with side lengths in a particular ratio. They tested the feasibility of their mathematisation of similarity with cylinders, considering ratios of height and circumference. In these investigations of similar rectangles and cylinders, the line and Cartesian plane expressed necessity for children.

In a subsequent investigation in science, the same children explored material kind, examining how the weight and volume of a series of different objects (e.g. cubes, rectangular prisms, spheres) made of different kinds of “stuff” were related. As they did so, a conundrum arose—why did Cartesian points representing (weight, volume ) of the “same kind” of objects not fall precisely on a line, in the manner of cylinders and rectangles in the “same family”? And what was the meaning of lines that did not intersect the origin? Resolution incubated a new ontological category, that of model, and a new epistemological process: Lines now approximated material kind.

Still later, children explored plant growth, and to capture surprising qualities of this growth, children expanded the reach of the mathematical system by using lines to indicate rates. They also expanded the Cartesian plane to what conventionally would be described by multiple quadrants to capture and compare the growth of roots to those of shoots. Looking longitudinally, resonance between distinct epistemological practices elaborated children’s conceptions of Cartesian systems, the nature of material kind, and the nature of change in a biological system.


Richard Lehrer is Professor Emeritus and Research Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University.

A former science teacher, he received a Ph.D. in educational psychology and statistics from the State University of New York, Albany and a B.S. in Biology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, a member of the National Academy of Education, and the 2009 recipient of the American Psychological Association’s award for Distinguished Contributions in Applications of Psychology to Education.

Working in concert with teachers, he focuses on the design of classroom learning environments that support the growth and development of learning about foundational concepts and epistemic practices in science and in mathematics. In mathematics education, he investigates development of children’s (K-6) reasoning about space, measure, data, and chance when instruction is guided by teacher knowledge of student reasoning. Closely related research conducted with Leona Schauble investigates fruitful ways of inducting children into the signature practice of science—invention and revision of models of natural systems. Contemporary research efforts include partnership with K-5 teachers to create a tangible mathematics of space and measure, and in collaboration with Mark Wilson at UC Berkeley, investigation of ways to incorporate formative assessment into measures of learning.

He has served as co-editor of Cognition and Instruction and has contributed to several NRC committees, including one examining integrated STEM education and another examining science assessment in light of the NGSS and NRC frameworks for science education.

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Last updated: 
Monday, 4 March 2019