The day/night cycle and the alteration of seasons. Greek primary school children's conceptions

Master's Thesis, 2012
68 Pages, Grade: Distinction




Literature review






Appendix A (Acknowledgements)

Appendix B (The questionnaire)


In the last forty years, research in science education has focused on investigating students’ ingenuous and intuitive views across a wide range of scientific domains and ages. The majority of these studies have reported that children form ideas about several physical phenomena at a very early age, before receiving any formal education. These naive views and meanings are initially formed from events that children experience and observe every day in the natural world (Baxter, 1989). As Driver and others (2000) pointed out, these ideas usually go against the scientific views and are in conflict with them. Those kinds of students’ perspectives are known as alternative conceptions, preconceptions, alternative frameworks and misconceptions (Wandersee et al., 1994).

Research in this domain has, also, offered explanations about the origin of these naive ideas. These explanations could be broadly categorized into two theoretical groups. The first one refers to the Piagetian notion of learning while the other derives from a Vygotskian perspective. Several books have been written regarding differences between Piaget’s points of view about learning and Vygotsky’s ideas. However, as Sjoberg (2007) pointed out, they both can be seen as constructivists. In agreement with this statement, Pass (2004) noted that the two perspectives offer different paths on the way to constructivism. Vygotsky has placed greater emphasis in the social and cultural factors, whereas Piaget believed that knowledge is constructed from experiences as the individual gradually grows and develops. Thus, for the latter constructivist view of learning is the result of natural and spontaneous knowledge (personal constructivism, Piaget, 1960), while the former perceives it as a social interaction (Sjoberg, 2007). The majority of studies have been based on these two theories of learning. In the present study, these two viewpoints are adopted. According to these approaches, individuals construct their own ideas and understandings from inputs which have as a result the form of a wide range of conceptions. As Vosniadou and Brewer (1987) argued, knowledge is acquired and restructured when naive ideas encounter dissimilar and, in some cases, competing views. Students usually confront such conflict situations in their everyday life when observing nature and discussing with their peers or when asked to deal with different ideas in classroom settings.

The area of elementary cosmology seems to a fruitful and attractive domain in order to investigate how young students combine practical observation of their own world with views that they have been taught, cultural artifacts and information, developing this way their ideas.

Generally speaking, astronomical notions have a great cultural and educational importance. As the well known French physicist, Henri Poincar é, has stated, cosmology could offer a “cosmic perspective” and show us “how small our bodies, how large our minds” actually are. Along this line, Millar (1996) argued that simple cosmological concepts, like the alteration of day and night or seasons cycle, is a topic that everyone should be able to understand because it is valued as knowledge produced in our society. Even if models of the solar system and relative phenomena do not have practical function in everyday life, they should be conceptualized as part of social achievements.

Based upon the didactic reasons mentioned above, this topic has been in national curricula in many countries. In some countries there is a separate lesson in science that deals with astronomical phenomena, for instance in England, whereas in other countries (for example, in south Africa) cosmological notions are traditionally “geographic” topics. According to the national primary curriculum in Greece, children at the 1st, 2nd and 6th grade are taught topics related to astronomy (e.g. orbit and spinning of the earth round the sun and its axis, respectively), the natural surroundings and conditions where animal, plants (e.g. changes in plants according the season of the year) and people live in (e.g. how people’s routine change according to the different seasons during a year) in the lesson of geography.

In this area of natural sciences, students, based upon their daily experiences, develop their own models and understandings about season cycle and day/night alteration. The latter arise from physical senses, cultural background, discussions with their parents, peers interaction, language experiences, information from media and formal teaching (Duit and Treagust, 1995). Thus, the aim of the present study is to examine the ideas children hold about day/night and season cycles as well as the extent to which these two phenomena are understood in the last two stages of primary education. Also, the research examines the differences between fifth and sixth grade students’ conceptualization of the concepts about these two cycles. In the next section, previous researches about young children’s explanations about day and night cycle and seasons alteration are reviewed.

Literature review

Examining young students’ astronomical ideas holds a fascination for researchers in the domain of science education for various and several reasons. As cosmology being the first area for scientific theorising, it is also one of the earliest domains where children are asked to go beyond the logic of commonsense and abandon their everyday beliefs. In sharp contrast, they are asked to accept the less apparent logic and less reasonable perspective for them. For instance, when they are taught about diurnal cycle, they are asked to perceive that the earth spins on its axis with a speed in the equator of about 1.674 km/h and that people do not experience this motion. Therefore, the researches in this domain do not simply reveal children’s ideas, nor only their understanding, but how children adopt the scientific perspective and change, or maybe not, their primary beliefs. This might be one more arguments for researching the development in students’ thinking about concepts of day/night cycle and seasons.

The earliest research in this area was conducted by Piaget (1929). Using clinical interviews, he explored the development of young children’s epistemology. Concerning the understanding of the day and night cycle, he proposed a progressive sequence consisted of four levels through which children develop ideas of this phenomenon. At the first stage, a child considers that the need to go to bed and sleep is the forerunner of day and night cycle. This “explanation” was enough with children being reluctant to give reasons and justify their ideas. Piaget describes this first stage as precausality. Children are unconcerned with “how” and are interested only about “why” regarding causality as being the underlying purpose. In the following stage, children attempt to offer an explanation about day/night cycle stating that something like a big black cloud or “black air” cause night. In this stage, precausality continues to exist but the question “how” something happens becomes important. At the third stage, children believe that night is the result of sun rays’ obstruction by several factors (for example, mountains or clouds). At the final stage, young children attribute the alteration of day and night to the disappearance of sun connecting it with its motion on the horizon or the movement of other celestial objects.

Since the first attempt of Piaget, researchers have been attracted to this domain of young students’ ideas only during the last three decades. Nevertheless the number of surveys dealing with concepts of the earth and relative phenomena is not as many as in other domains, like physics, biology and chemistry (Broadstock, 1993). The majority of the studies dealing with children’s knowledge about elementary astronomy have focused on exploring the child’s ideas of the earth (for example, Nussbaum and Novak, 1976; Vosniadou and Brewer, 1992; Vosniadou, 1990) whereas some of them looked at children’s conceptions of night and day (for example, Vosniadou and Brewer, 1994; Valanides and others, 2000; Chiras and Valanides, 2008) and fewer have explored understandings about seasons (for example, Baxter, 1989; Sadler, 1987). Nearly most of the researchers have used a similar methodology with Piaget’s conduction of clinical interviews while some of them have used questionnaires. In many cases, the analysis of the answers has lead to the development of a schema describing the progress in children’s thinking.

After Piaget’s study, an early attempt concerning alteration of day and night was that conducted by Klein (1982). Investigating ideas that 24 American students of the second grade (ages 7-8) hold about several astronomical phenomena, she included the day and night cycle. The results showed that the majority of the participants did not conceptualise that day and night is caused by the earth’s spinning on its axis and used several ideas based mostly in a Sun’s motion to explain the phenomenon. The table below shows the types of explanations identified and the percentage of students placed in each one.

Table 1.1

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Percentages of children who gave each type of explanation. Source: Klein (1982), page 104.

*Klein did not provide the percentages presented in this table. These were calculated basing upon the data of his research.

Sadler (1987) constructing his research instrument, he interviewed 25 students in 9th grade about day/night cycle. In this case, five explanations about this phenomenon emerged from the analysis:

i) the earth spins, ii) the sun moves, iii) the moon blocks out the sun, iv) the sun goes out at night, v) the atmosphere blocks the sun at night.

Jones et al. (1987), using a Piagetian-type research instrument,

interviewed 32 Tasmanian pupils aged from 9 to 12 years about their views for the shape, size and motion of the sun, earth and moon. The researchers claimed that the five different models identified, could offer an explanation about day and night cycle.

The models identified are:

Model 1. Earth-centred “magic” model: Students using this model explained that during daylight hours the sun is near to the earth whereas at night sun goes to a distant area (unspecified where) giving to the moon its place.
Model 2. Spinning earth model: According to this model, Earth spins somehow with sun and moon being stationary.
Model 3. Earth-centred model with rotating sun and/or moon: In this case, Earth is stationary (or spinning) with sun and/or moon revolving around earth.
Model 4. Sun-centred model with earth and moon orbiting about it in the same or concentric orbits.
Model 5. Sun-centred model with earth orbiting sun and moon orbiting earth.

The latter model is in agreement with the scientific perspective. Figure 1 represents these models. According to the writers, the models are hierarchized in such a way that could represent the progress in each student’s development of understanding day and night cycle from 9 to 12 years old. Moreover, the researchers noted that the identified ideas/models closely correspond to the historical development of the scientific perspective.

Figure 1.1

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Models of children’s thinking about the relationship of the Sun, Moon and Earth. Source: B.L.Jones, P.P.Lynch and C.Reesink (1987), page 47.

Baxter (1989) using questionnaires as a research instrument, proposed a set of six steps of children’s understanding about day and night. The six identified ideas have many similarities with the previous work of Piaget and Jones and others. Chart 1 presents the results of Baxter’s research from which the actual percentages of the ideas that student hold at ages 9 to 12 (approximately the age group of the present study) could be calculated (Table 1). As it can be seen from the figures, the minority of children of this age group have assimilated the scientific explanation about day and night cycle. Moreover as the chart shows, older children use less frequently explanations related to observable features. As children get older, they tend to use in their ideas the motion of celestial objects. Another thing that is remarkable in the bar chart is that by the age of 15-16 less than half (47%) of the students were capable of providing the correct and scientific explanation.

Chart 1.1

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The prevalence of pupils’ notions about day and night. Source: J.Baxter, (1989), page 508.

Table 1.2

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Percentage of children age 9-12 expressing each kind of explanation about day/night cycle. Source of data: J.Baxter, (1989).

Vosniadou (1991) has identified 12 categories of children’s explanations. These were used in another research project by Vosniadou and Brewer (1994) in order to categorise 60 American students’ ideas about day and night cycle (age 7-11). The categories have many similarities with the models proposed by Jones et al. (1987) and the types of explanation proposed by Baxter (1989). It could be claimed that they constitute a refinement of the former. Through the data analysis the investigators found that the majority of the first-grade students have already constructed an initial and intuitive model (a mental model related to everyday thinking). Progressively, this model turn to synthetic models (explanations containing scientific information combined with everyday experiences and observations) and finally there is a possibility for some children to adopt the scientific and correct model.

Broadstock (1993) examined 12 Taiwanese students (a quite small study sample) aged 6 to 12 about their understanding of phenomena related with the earth. One of those was day and night cycle. The results of this study are presented in table 2. The total percentage in some cases exceeds 100%. This is because the percentages refer to the frequency of the used ideas and 2 of the students have used a combination picking up more than one idea. In accordance with Piaget’s results, artificialism, human-made and animism perspectives were held by the younger children as 3 out of 4 (75%) students who used a description of the third type aged between 6-8 years. In contrast, older children (ages 9-12) explained day/night cycle using ideas related with earth’s spinning on its axis (3 out 5 participants at ages 9-12 have expressed description 1).

Table 1.3

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Frequency of the ideas used by the students to offer an explanation about day/night cycle. Data source: Broadstock, M.J. (1993), page 9.

* Broadstock did not provide the percentages presented in this table. These were calculated basing upon the data of the table in page 9.

Siegal et al. (2004), using Vosniadou and Brewer’s questions, have examined 5,5 years-old Australian children’s knowledge of cosmology in relation to the diurnal cycle. As it can be calculated from the data in their report, 15 out of 45 (33%) claimed that the Sun goes behind clouds during daylight hours. Despite the fact that 78% of the participants believed that the earth moves somehow only 22% (4 out f 45) used this ideas to explain day and night cycle. These results are consistent with those of Baxter and Piaget.

More recent work by Chiras and Valanides (2008) categorized 40 fourth- grade and 40 sixth-grade children’s explanations into eighteen models. The categories identified are analogous to those revealed in Vosniadou and Brewer’s study. Children participated in this survey had many difficulties in conceptualising the day and night cycle, albeit there was a significant performance of students in sixth grade in comparison with those in grade 4.

From the aforementioned as well as from the results of several other cross-cultural studies (for example, Diakidou et al., 1997; Samarapungavan et al., 1996) it could be concluded that young children in different countries hold similar, and in some cases identical, models of explanation about day and night cycle. That made Vosniadou and others (2004) to claim that the developmental progression from intuitive ideas towards the scientific perspective is universal.

Osborne et al. (1994) offered a combination of the elements comprised in Vosniadou’s categories with models of explanations identified by Baxter and the categorization of children’s ideas proposed by Piaget and Jones et al. A more general representational was proposed by Finegold and Pundak (1991) with fewer details. The synthesis made for the needs of the present study, could present a summary of the majority of findings concerning young students’ ideas (aged from 6-12 years) about what cause day/night cycle. According to this summary there are 5 model connected with an explanatory schema, being similar with that proposed by Osborne et al. (1994).

Table 1.4

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Development in children’s understanding of the diurnal cycle.

Only very few researches have gone beyond the area of day and night phenomenon. Pilatou et al. (2009) noted that only a small number of studies have investigated students’ conceptions about seasonal change. As can be seen from what follows, children express a variety of alternative conceptions concerning the way that one season is followed by another. Even graduate students and junior school teachers have problems in conceptualising this particular phenomenon (Trumper, 2006).

Sadler (1987), as well as day and night cycle, investigated 25 9th grade students’ views about seasons. They were asked to offer an explanation about why it is hot in summer and cold in winter. The ideas expressed by the study sample are presented in table 4.1. Based upon these explanations, the researcher developed a questionnaire which was administered to 213 students in grades 9 through 12 (age 14-18) in nine different schools in Boston. According to the results, 91 out of 213 (43%) students used the correct scientific thinking (statement a in the following table) regarding the tilt of earth’s axis.

Table 1.5

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Student’s (age 14-15) ideas about seasons. Source: Sadler, P. M. (1987), page 422.

Baxter (1989) also explored young students’ understanding using the same instruments with those used in day/night cycle (a mixture of a questionnaire and interviews). Some of the notions that were used by the participants are similar with those identified by Sadler. Figure 2.1 presents these ideas in detail. It can be seen that the alternative conceptions have similarities with the ideas expressed about the diurnal cycle in terms of using near and familiar objects in the explanations (for example, clouds and the Sun). As in the case of day and night, his results are presented in a bar chart (chart 1.2). According to it, as children get older, they seem to abandon precausal thinking and intuitive ideas and start to involve in their thinking the motion of celestial objects. From the bar chart, the actual percentages are calculated with a variation of ±3% approximately and are presented in table 1.5. The most common idea in all ages is that the sun is closer to the earth during summer. Around 71% and 63% of students at ages 9-10 and 11-12 respectively used this idea but more surprisingly at ages 15-16 these ideas were expressed by more than half of the participants.

Figure 1.2

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Pupil’s notions about the reason for the seasons. Source: Baxter, J.H. (1989), page 510.

Chart 1.2

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The prevalence of pupils’ notions about the reason for the seasons. Source: Baxter, J.H. (1989), page 511.

Table 1.6

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Percentage of pupil’s ideas about the reason for the Seasons. Data source: Baxter, J.H. (1989).

Broadstock (1993) along with day and night cycle asked students about what causes seasons. The twelve participants, a pair of male and female students from grades one to six, expressed a wide range of alternative conceptions about this phenomenon. According to the results, the most common ideas have to do with the distance from the sun and the other with winds that according to children could cause the change of seasons. The former idea is identical with that in Baxter’s and Sadler’s study whereas, as the writer comments, the use of terms in books and in daily conversations, like winter wind which in Taiwan is very strong and cold or summer one which is in contrast softer, results in the expression of the latter idea. Another interesting thing to note is that some students hold precausal thinking even at late years (for instance, a student in grade 5 stated that seasons are controlled by ghosts or Gods ). The developmental sequence of ideas about seasons’ explanation is almost identical with that proposed about day and night cycle, from God-made and artificialism ideas towards the motion of celestial objects.

Another research dealing with this topic was undertaken by Tsai and Chang (2005). 25 ninth grade students (15-year-olds) participated in their survey from Taipei, Taiwan. The categories identified were mainly two: scientific descriptions and alternative conceptions. In the first category explanations including the scientific perspective were enlisted. Students, whose responses were classified in this category, stated the scientific fact attributing seasons’ change to the earth’s 23.5o tilt of axis. However, children might or might not be able to conceptualise this notion and provide any further explanations about it. Concerning the other category, it is constituted by four other subcategories. Three of them have many similarities with the ideas in Baxter’s study and refer to the varying distance between sun and earth, the revolution of earth and a combination of these two ideas. Children who based their explanation in the fact that season cycle is caused due to a changing tilt of earth’s axis were classified in the fourth subcategory (the idea was used erroneously). As table 1.7 shows, the participants in this survey achieved significantly better than the analogous age group in Baxter’s study. Nevertheless, the use of the scientific fact in this case does not imply that children have conceptualized this perspective. That is to say that the idea of the earth’s tilted axis as an explanation about seasonal cycle might be confusing if not being interpreted correctly. For instance, it is possible for some students (for adults as well) to interpret the fact that the Southern hemisphere is “tilted away” from the sun in winter as meaning that it is faraway and “tilted towards” as nearer in summer (Osborne et al., 1994). Technically such understanding and interpretation is accurate and indeed hemispheres are slightly closer or faraway because of the tilt. Nevertheless this is not the real reason about seasons. The tilt of the axis causes a change in the altitude of the sun resulting this way to different amounts of radiant energy being spread over a much larger area during winter in contrast to summer. In that sense, there is a need for further investigation of children’s responses where the idea of the tilted axis is expressed.

Table 1.7

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Students’ responses about the cause of seasons.

Source: Tsai, C. C., & Change, C. Y. (2005), page 1100.

More recent work by Pilatou and others (2008) detected primary school students’ (age11-12) ideas about seasons in Greece. The results of this study are presented in table 1.8. It is important to note that in this case students have been taught about seasons’ formation prior to completing the research questionnaire and the research aimed at developing an appropriate teaching intervention to deal with the misconceptions revealed in a pre-test. As it can be seen in the table, only 5 out of 83 participants have understood the way that this phenomenon occurs. As in the aforementioned studies, one of the most prevailed ideas is that seasons’ change is caused by the distance between the earth and the sun.

Table 1.8

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Student’s initial statements about the formation of seasons.

Source: Pilatou, V., Marinopoulos, D., Solomonidou, C. and Athanasiadis, K. (2008), page 7.

The following summary is offered as a synthesis which would comprise in broad terms all of the aforementioned results of students’ ideas about seasons, and as in the case of day and night, it could represent a developmental sequence. The progression of children’s ideas about seasons resembles very much the stage model of development in young students’ thinking about day and night.

Table 1.9

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Progression of children’s ideas about seasons.

The present study

As mentioned above, this research is based on the perspective that young students develop their ideas through the experiences they encounter individually or in social contexts. Bearing this view in mind, this study will try two answer two main questions:

1. What views students hold about day and night cycle and the alteration of seasons
2. What experiences might have influenced young children’s development of these ideas.

It might be added that very few studies have examined Greek young students’ ideas about day and night (for example, Vosniadou and Brewer, 1990) and even fewer concerning seasons’ changing (for example, Pilatou et al., 2008). Especially regarding the latter phenomenon an examination of science education literature could reveal that there is a small number of researches conducted at an international level.

The two phenomena of seasons’ cycle and the alteration of day and night are incontrovertible part of every young student’s experience.

Therefore, it is attractive to see to what extent children are able to consider and provide explanations about what causes seasons’ changing and the clearly visible disappearance of the sun at night (which, in contrast might be related to the appearance of the moon). Moreover, it is interesting to see if children’s ideas and attempts to offer an explanation are based upon physical phenomena.


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The day/night cycle and the alteration of seasons. Greek primary school children's conceptions
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Nikolaos Fotou (Author), 2012, The day/night cycle and the alteration of seasons. Greek primary school children's conceptions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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