Parts of a whole system

Child's drawings of a horse's nose, and its ears.Teaching that uses the Project Approach is one way for children to learn deeply about a topic or concept. Early Childhood Investigations Webinars hosted Dr. Sylvia C. Chard, Professor Emeritus of the University of Alberta, speaking and sharing photographs about this approach that involves an integrated curriculum. In Engaging Children’s Hearts and Minds: Teaching and Learning with the Project Approach, Dr. Chard shares children’s work documenting their observations and thinking, including photos and drawings. In addition to the webinar, a Project Approach Study Guide is available, and Dr. Chard invites us to “Enjoy the journey, and please get in touch with questions or comments along the way!” Fieldwork is central to a project. The fieldwork for this project included going to look at a horse and drawing it.

Learning about how a whole object is made of parts is part of learning about systems, one of the seven crosscutting scientific and engineering concepts in A Framework for k-12 education (NRC 2012). Parts of a whole are important in life science (sense organs, circulatory system, parts of a cell), physics (inclined plane and ball, mixing liquids and solids, matter is made of atoms), and earth science (soil is made of minerals and organic matter, rocks may be made of smaller pieces)

The Framework has an in-depth discussion about systems and how to model them. See if you think the excerpts that follow apply to the work of young children representing what they observe.

A good system model for use in developing scientific explanations or engineering designs must specify not only the parts, or subsystems, of the system but also how they interact with one another. Pg 93

In many early childhood programs children learn about their sense organs and those of other animals. Understanding the organs as parts of the whole organism is part of learning about systems. A progression leading to scientific understanding and use of modeling begins in early childhood.

Child looking in a mirror to draw her face--the sensory organs of eyes, nose, tongue and ears.Starting in the earliest grades, students should be asked to express their thinking with drawings or diagrams and with written or oral descriptions. They should describe objects or organisms in terms of their parts and the roles those parts play in the functioning of the object or organism, and they should note relationships between the parts. Students should also be asked to create plans— for example, to draw or write a set of instructions for building something—that another child can follow. Such experiences help them develop the concept of a model of a system and realize the importance of representing one’s ideas so that others can understand and use them. Pg 93

[National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.]

When we use language that describes the parts as parts of a larger system, we give children the vocabulary to build understanding of the system–bud, leaf, stem, twig, branch, bark and trunk, all parts of a living organism, a tree. What parts of a system have your students been interested in? How do you connect their interests to a larger system?

I’m updating this post to add a bit about two books by artist and writer Shelley Rotner that can support discussions about systems and their parts.

Parts is a book with seven short poems and many photographs exploring familiar objects in a child’s world and their parts…tail, tongue, eye, fur, tag around the neck, nose, paw…yes, a dog!

Body Actions is an NSTA Recommends reviewed book, an “an energetic introduction to body systems.”

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