A portrait of Magnus

Magnus was a Grade 5 boy who chose to investigate “Electromagnetic fields”. Table 4.10 contains the transcripts of Magnus’ three videos.


Table 4.10

Magnus’ video transcripts for “Electromagnetic fields”

Prior knowledge video

Umm, my topic is magnetic fields and, umm, all I know about magnetic fields is they are invisible but powerful and, yeah, that's pretty much all I know.

Completed explanatory animation

A magnetic field is an area where the forces of attraction from a magnet are working.

An electromagnetic field has the same effect as a magnetic field but it can be turned on and off by stopping the electricity which it requires. 

Electric motors are one of the main uses of electromagnetic fields. 

Electric motors convert electrical energy into mechanical energy. The mechanical energy is normally used to turn things like wheels. 

A generator is like an electric motor used the other way where mechanical energy is converted to electrical energy.

Additional uses of electromagnetic fields are LCD screens and electromagnetic cranes.

Director's commentary

I completely changed my topic, from…well not completely.  I changed my topic from "Magnetic field" to "Electromagnetic field" because I thought "Electromagnetic field" was more interesting.

I also liked it how, umm, Brendan, ah, added some pictures into my animation so it looked better. And with the switch and the fan and stuff, I reckon I did a pretty good job of that.

And I also like the LCD screen with the electromagnetic crane.  I thought that was a pretty good end.

Introducing Magnus and his topic

Magnus was one of the youngest participants in the Storyboard project but his advanced computer skills gave him confidence regarding his ability to create an explanatory animation. Magnus was also quite sensitive. I had seen him in various situations over the years, during our regular music classes and also in the schoolyard, where he required reassurance if he felt he was being misunderstood. In spite of his confidence on the computer, I knew from the beginning of the project that I would need to spend more than 1/8 of my time with Magnus.

During the initial selection process for this project, Magnus proposed that his topic would be “Magnetism”. When I gave Magnus the “Plain language statement” and “Consent form” to take home to his parents just prior to commencing the first Storyboard session, he said that “Magnetic fields” was a more accurate name for his topic. This subtle change alluded to the issue of whether his animation would be about what magnets are or what magnets do?

During the first session, Magnus stated that all he knew about magnetic fields was that they are “invisible but powerful” (Prior knowledge video, 21st July 2011). Magnus also knew that metal was important but he had yet to clearly articulate whether metal was a cause or effect of a magnetic field, “Magnetic fields are normally caused by metal, not always but normally” (Student reflection, 21st July 2011). My initial reflection after this session was that “I have no additional knowledge about magnetic fields myself other than what I learnt in school” (Researcher’s reflection, 21st July 2011). What I remember from high school about magnetic fields was:


Creating the ZPD with Magnus

Magnus’ need for assistance, and reluctance to work on his own, occasionally made it hard for me to share my time with the other participants. Hence I decided to offer Magnus his own space. The Music room where the study was conducted consisted of a large room and a much smaller room with a drum kit and a computer. By offering Magnus this space, he was able to avoid the temptation to ask the other children to look at his work. Although it is normal for children to want to share their work, Magnus’ frequency of wanting to share had become counterproductive for himself and the other students. As the door to Magnus’ room contained a large window, Magnus was still able to see and hear the other children but he wasn’t as likely to want to talk and he could then focus on his work. Having Magnus in a separate space also encouraged him to engage with the computer itself as a mediating tool, rather than relying on the social network as mediators. When I visited Magnus’ workspace it also felt a little more special for both of us as we would have something to share via updates around our discussions.

The computer in Magnus’ room was one of the two systems within the school that had professional video editing software installed. As such, Magnus became the first student within the study to open the video editing software. Although it would be a long time before we actually needed to render anything using this software, I felt that Magnus’ interest was waning and he needed to be reminded that his final animation would be a video file. His first use of Adobe Premiere Pro was little more than creating a file called “Magnetic fields” and designing a title of the same name. The significance of this event was that I told Magnus that “none of the other children had commenced the video editing stage”, a fact that clearly delighted him.


Magnus’ conceptual journey

Finding suitable visualisations was a key issue in the early stages of Magnus’ animation. I remember playing with magnets and iron filings when I was in high school so I asked Magnus if he had ever worked with iron filings to observe how they move when placed within a magnetic field. He replied that he had never tried this. Magnus incorporated this idea into his animation, commenting “I now know that iron filings can be pulled in by a magnet with an invisible field called, magnetic field” (Student reflection, 28th July 2011).

By the fourth session, it was becoming increasingly apparent that we had to introduce some new ideas, as Magnus would make superficial changes each week such as changing the background colour of the slides. Figure 4.12 is a screen shot from Session 4 with three iron filings depicted around a magnet.

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12. “Electromagnetic fields” screen shot 18th August 2011.

The iron filings imagery in Figure 4.12 was the first time Magnus had introduced lines to shows the direction of a magnetic field. The ubiquitous nature of lines to depict forces is such that “there is no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ convention to describe force” (Tytler, Hubber, Prain & Waldrip, 2013, p. 36). Figure 4.12 was not a stand-alone static diagram but, rather, an extract from a series of frames. Watching Magnus’ series of frames clearly showed the direction of the magnetic field as the iron filings moved progressively closer towards the magnet in the middle, thus making the lines redundant.

Magnus addressed this relationship between animation and still images during the final debriefing session described in the following exchange. During the group discussion the children had started thinking about a picture that Ingrid was drawing of Evel Knievel. Magnus’ enthusiasm for the animation medium actually kept the discussion on track and drew Molly and Maria (both a year older) into a discussion about older forms of animation (e.g., the flick book), and how much more interesting these are than static ‘bits of paper’:

Brendan: Do you have any comments about animation compared to doing a more traditional type of project?

Magnus: Animation was so much funner [sic].

Ingrid: Yeah.

Molly: Yeah.

Magnus: More fun.

Brendan: What? Just in general? You just think it was more fun because it was on a computer or because it was movement?

Magnus: Because it was movement.

Sunny: Because it was moving.

Molly: I like animation.

Sunny: Well I find bits of paper [referring to the blank pieces of paper that I had distributed to each child] just sitting there like...I couldn’t be bothered reading this.

Magnus: A bit more like...

Ingrid: I couldn’t be bothered looking at that.

Magnus: And also.

Ingrid: It’s Evel Knievel [that she had just drawn].

Molly: People are falling asleep [as doodling on their pages had a relaxing effect on the children].

Sunny: I was about to fall asleep.

Magnus: I like doing books where you draw things at the bottom.

Maria: It’s like fling books.

Magnus: Yeah whatever they’re called. And then, and then you go like this and then you see it moving.

Ingrid: This is my final product.

Molly: I like animations because they’re pretty cool to watch (Debriefing session 1C, 15th December 2011).

As Magnus’ learning path evolved, I felt that his animation would require some understanding of electricity if we were going to explain how magnets actually work. Beaty (1995) has noted that electricity can be a proverbial can of worms for a variety of reasons as electrical phenomena can vary dramatically depending on the materials involved. Beaty levels the blame for children’s misconceptions about electricity squarely at the simplistic explanations offered to children through many of the very textbooks that teachers rely upon in the early years (1). I had already decided prior to the current study that simplistic explanations were to be avoided in preference to refining a topic so that topics could become more specialised and, therefore, manageable.

It was at this point that we discussed changing the topic. The new topic of “Electromagnetic fields” could then focus on what an electromagnetic field is rather than how it works. Paradoxically, by adding the word electromagnetic we could avoid having to explain electricity. Magnus seemed to immediately grasp the key point that electromagnetic fields can be turned on and off. This new focus on how electromagnetic fields differ from magnetic fields made the explanation more manageable and became a turning point for Magnus’ as he could then relate this new concept to a pre-existing one (i.e., the functionality of switches). Paradoxically, we expanded the number of variables within the animation by refining the topic, as the variable of “on” and “off” didn’t apply to magnetic fields.

Defining the scope of Magnus’ animation was an issue up until the very end of the project. Throughout various discussions, we had agreed to avoid using cross-sectional imagery but in the end, I decided that this would have resulted in a superficial treatment of the topic. Figure 4.13 shows Magnus’ rotating fan without using cross- sectional imagery as this sequence offered no explanation as to the inner workings of the motor.

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13. Screen shot of fan imagery.

Magnus was very pleased with his animation of the fan sequence and concluded that his work was over, “Today I made a fan which is a really good visual effect as a electric motor and I have finished” (Student reflection, 7th December 2011). My reflection was that, “The fan is very effective at showing the rotation of an electric motor but I still think that we need to go inside the motor if we are to show the similarities between electric motors and generators” (Researcher’s reflection, 8th December 2011). Magnus’ animation was far from finished as the cross-sectional imagery still had to be designed. As this was the last animation session, I had to finish the cross-sectional imagery myself which took several hours as I had to research what were the minimal components to be included. Figure 4.14 shows an electric motor with a battery providing the power to turn a wheel.

Figure 4.14

Figure 4.14. Screen shot of electric motor imagery.

Figure 4.15 shows how generators convert mechanical energy into electrical energy.

Figure 4.15

Figure 4.15. Screen shot of electrical generator imagery.

Retaining the same screen position for the common components between motors and generators visually reinforced the point that electric motors and generators operate using the same principle (i.e., that mechanical energy can be used to create electrical energy and vice-versa).

There are two substitutions between Figures 4.14 and 4.15:

  1. The battery is replaced with a light globe. This is to show that a battery provides energy in contrast to a light globe, which requires energy.
  2. The wheel attached to the bottom of the axle that was turned by the electrical energy is now turned by the mechanical energy (i.e., wind or water).

Using on-screen text for “wind” and “water” avoided the need to animate flowing water or blowing wind as the movement of the wheel was sufficient to show that it was wind or water causing the rotation. I reflected at this time that it was the new terminology that enabled Magnus’ conceptual consolidation to continue, “now that mechanical energy and electrical energy (electricity) have become part of his explanation” (Researcher reflection, November 10th 2011).

The connection between electric motors and generators became explicit when Magnus stated in his final voice-over script that, “A generator is like an electric motor used the other way where mechanical energy is converted to electrical energy” (“Electromagnetic fields” animation). “Used the other way” (ibid) was the result of our discussion about the need to be very careful with the voice-over script. We avoided the phrase in reverse during the comparison between electric motors and generators as the commonality is about the order and organisation of the components and not the direction of the rotating shaft. Reverse has a spatial, literal meaning when talking about motors.

Discussions such as these helped Magnus to fine-tune his pedagogical awareness. This was also borne out by his concluding remark in the following discussion:

Brendan: How did you see the directors’ commentaries? What did, what you think they were?

Magnus: I thought they were just were...I thought they were just...what... Brendan: Like a recap?

Magnus: Yeah. Like that.

Ingrid: Just for an idea of what the director of the animation was thinking while he was making the animation.

Brendan: And why do you think, why do you think I might care about such things? Magnus: For umm, reference, for later on to see how kids learn (Debriefing session 1B, 15th December 2011).

My subsequent reflection during the compilation of Magnus’ portrait has caused me to reconsider what a metaphor is. In particular, both the electric motor and the generator were depicted as cross-sectional diagrams in the animation. If these representations were referring to the actual items under discussion, where was the metaphor? Metaphors are comparisons so the metaphorical use still applied, as one was a metaphor for the other, and vice-versa. This comparison helped concretise Magnus’ understanding of electromagnetic fields as he learnt to paraphrase electromagnetic functionality, independent of whether the electromagnetic field required electrical energy or generated it.

I extended the metaphor in the fourth session when “I used an electric guitar to demonstrate that an electromagnetic field can be created using magnets” (Researcher reflection, 18th August 2011). My reflection on this event in 2014 is that the hallmark of electromagnetic fields is not the ability to be switched on and off, but the ability to change one type of energy into another. A passive guitar pickup, much like a microphone, creates electricity but it doesn't require electricity. It is the mechanical energy involved in playing the guitar strings, or singing into a microphone, that creates the electrical current.

Table 4.11 is Magnus’ final conceptual consolidation rubric. During the debriefing session, Magnus helped evolve the “Self-assessment” scale within the conceptual consolidation rubric as he felt that the previous construct (which only had four categories of “No”, “Not really” “Basic understanding” and “Yes”) was too limiting. Magnus proposed a scale of 1-to-10 so I implemented Magnus’ suggestion by calibrating this new scale for all of the children’s final rubrics (the rubrics in the children’s weekly reviews were assessed prior to this so they have retained the original, 4-point scale).


Table 4.11

Magnus’ final conceptual consolidation rubric

Uses correct terminology With assistance Simplified terminology Some correct terminology Actual terminology

Identifies relevant variables

Not apparent With assistance Basic understanding

Deep understanding

Identifies relationships between variables Not apparent With assistance Basic understanding Deep understanding

Self-assessment scale (1-10). Does the student think that they understand their topic?


The reason Magnus’ conceptual consolidation rubric isn't marked higher is that his topic was quite difficult and there were many issues that we didn't cover such as phasing, polarity and AC/DC current. A summary of Magnus’ conceptual journey is presented in Table 4.12.


Table 4.12

Summary of Magnus’ conceptual journey

Table 4.12



(1) There are too many examples in Beaty’s critique to list here, which further justified my choice to avoid presenting Magnus with simplistic explanations about electricity. I was acutely aware of my own limitations in this area, even though I have repaired many electrical devices in my time using my trusty soldering iron.


Proceed to the next Portrait of Molly


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