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  • Writer's pictureMorgan Vickery

Reconstructing Reality: How to Use Representations in Science Lessons

Concepts: Representations, Science Education

TLDR: Representations of different forms are going to have different strengths and weaknesses depending on how you use them. In science learning, representations can be used to make sense of, express ideas about, and explain scientific phenomena. When we design science lessons, we need to consider the objective of the activity, what representations are appropriate, what students will do with them, and how to use them.


What are representations and how do we use them?

A representation can be anything that stands for something else. They are often material (such as drawings, graphs, and sculptures) or embodied (such as gestures, skits, or dances). Each type of representation has different characteristics that make them more or less difficult for and helpful with learners.


Step 1: Identify the target phenomenon

What are the big idea(s) that you want students to learn? How are these ideas related?

Example: We are teaching a lesson on sound waves. Our target phenomenon is how sound is produced through vibrations.

Step 2: Choose your representations

What types of representations are suited to helping students learn about the phenomena?

There are 4 types of representations: examples, tools, re-representations, & abstractions


Examples are representations that have a ‘low level of abstraction,’ or are considered ‘close to reality.’ They are physical manifestations of the phenomenon in-action. Teachers may use examples to highlight particular aspects of a phenomenon, ‘get students on the same page,’ or define an inquiry/research question for the lesson.

  • Gesture / Body (i.e. acting as a rotating earth, acting as gaseous water particles)

  • Structural / Material (i.e. a model circuit, an erosion table)

  • Sample (a live plant, solid / liquid / gas)

  • Video

  • Photographs / Pictures


Tools themselves are not a representation, but can be used to represent information about the phenomenon.

  • Measurement Tools (rulers, scales, thermometers, rain gauges)

  • Vision Tools (microscopes, camera lenses)


Re-representations are used to depict interpretations or expressions of reality. They may highlight aspects of the phenomena that would not be obvious ‘in the real world.’ They are often used by students to illustrate/express their understanding of the phenomenon and by teachers to draw attention to relationships/patterns in data.

  • Diagrams

  • Tables & Graphs

  • Text & Lists

  • Virtual worlds (i.e. video games, museum exhibits)


Abstractions allow for exploration/evaluation of the general properties, and principles of a phenomena to provide nuanced understanding of the underlying mechanisms of a phenomena (or how aspects of the phenomena are related to each other). They are often interactive and are used as bridges between concepts and ideas.

  • Equations

  • Simulations

  • Programming / code

Example: The goal of this lesson is to introduce the concept of sound vibrations. To represent sound vibrations, we might use physical structures that make vibrations explicit and visible to students (i.e. guitar strings, a musical triangle, or tuning forks) to ‘get on the same page.’ While students are observing/experiencing the phenomena firsthand, we might use a table to document and organize their observations.

3) Design your activity

What kind of representational activity will help engage students in explaining the phenomena?

There are 4 types of representational activities: using, creating, giving & receiving feedback, revising, & explaining

Using Representations

Students use representations they are given to investigate phenomena and document their findings. This is useful for scaffolding students’ work in ways that highlight specific ideas. Questions to Consider:

  • What aspects of phenomena are important to investigate?

  • How will students document their investigation?

  • How will students analyzed any data collected?

Creating Representations

Students create NEW representation(s) of their thinking about a phenomena. This is a great way to begin constructing explanations and thus knowledge. Explanations and feedback can then support revision of students’ representations. Questions to Consider:

  • What aspects of the phenomena are important for students to represent?

  • What representational conventions (e.g., arrows, “zooms”) might help them represent?

  • Will students create individually or collaboratively

Giving & Receiving Feedback

Students give and receive feedback about representations in terms of their scientific validity, clarity, and other criteria that are important in your classroom. Giving feedback helps students engage more deeply with their peers’ ideas, and receiving feedback helps students revise their own. Questions to Consider:

  • How could students share their science ideas beyond the teacher?

  • What classroom norms need to be in place for feedback to be constructive?

  • What is important for students to share about the phenomena? About the representation?

Revising Representations

Students revise representations based on feedback and/or new evidence obtained. It is important to make time for this as refining representations often gives students an opportunity to revise and explore the underlying ideas. This is also more like the practice of professional scientists. Questions to Consider:

  • How can I provide opportunities for revision?

  • What is important for students to revise?

  • What should revisions be based on? (Feedback? Criteria? Etc.)

Explaining Representations

Students explain representations that are already made (theirs or someone else’s including one from the teacher). This helps make students’ thinking and understanding of the representation visible for them and their peers. Questions to Consider:

  • What aspects of a phenomena are important to notice and explain?

  • How will you support students in providing evidence to back up explanations?

  • What level should explanations occur on?

Example: We will use the above objects (guitar string, etc) to produce sound firsthand in small groups. While experimenting with the objects, students will create tables to document their observations addressing the following questions: (1) What did you do to the object to make sound? (2) What was the object doing when you were hearing the sound? (3) Draw a picture of what you see the object doing.

4) Identify the supports needed

How will you support your students’ engagement with the representational activity?

Students might use representations that help them construct knowledge, explain with evidence, share knowledge, revise explanations, and highlight important features.

Constructing Knowledge

Representations can be used to help students explore new ideas, developing new understandings as they work. This is in contrast with simply telling them, which is less effective. Creating new representations is often a powerful way to support this. Consider:

  • How can the representation be used to support student construction of new knowledge rather than being passive recipients?

  • What could students create to explore and express their own ideas?

Explaining with Evidence

Representations can be used to record (e.g., table), illustrate (e.g., diagram), or generate (e.g., model) evidence to explain natural phenomena. Evidence can be used to generate explanations and representations of explanations. Consider:

  • How can the representation be used by students to show “what,” “how,” or “why” the phenomena is happening?

  • How can the representation help students use or create evidence to explain the phenomenon?

Sharing Knowledge

Representations can support students in communicating and getting feedback on their developing ideas – as scientists do – and then refine them as they consider different audiences of their representation. Consider:

  • What content should be shared?

  • Why is sharing student ideas valuable for understanding this representation?

  • How does sharing help them reflect on their own learning?

  • How might students communicate their ideas to other audiences? (i.e. parents, peers, community members)

  • What should they consider?

Revising Explanations

Revising explanations is an authentic scientific practice. Scientists propose explanations, collect (more) evidence, and then revise their original explanations. Representations are a means for students to document their explanations, receive feedback or collect evidence, and integrate the new ideas into a revised explanation. Consider:

  • How can you help students understand the value of iterating on ideas?

  • How might students create, revise, and iterate on their explanations through representations?

Highlighting Features

Highlighting aspects of phenomena in representations helps students notice things that are not immediately obvious; this is often used in combination with other types of engagement that rely on students’ noticing of specific features. Consider:

  • What aspects of the phenomenon need to be highlighted for students?

  • How can I highlight these aspects in the representation?

  • What are the differences between the representation and the phenomena itself? How do I help students notice these differences?

Other considerations:

  1. Background knowledge: What knowledge of science phenomena and representations do students bring from experiences in school AND home? How can their prior knowledge connect to the current activity?

  2. Understandability: How might the representation be unclear to students? (i.e. too much text, too busy, missing pieces)

Example: In our sound vibrations activity, students’ experiments with producing sound and ‘observation tables’ might be used together to document pieces of evidence (i.e. observations such as “the guitar string stops moving when the sound stops”). These pieces of evidence can then be used to construct an explanation for “how” the sound is being produced. Tomorrow, students might share their drawn diagrams with their peers and revise their explanations based on peer feedback.

Sources & Additional Resources

The above framework is sourced professional development materials designed by the ‘RepTaL’ (Representations for Teachers as Learners) project team at Indiana University and Vanderbilt University (Funded by the James McDonnell Foundation).

Reviewed by: Megan Humburg


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