Here at Ars, we often discuss the problems with science education, many of which involve higher education. However, the earliest science education begins long before students reach college, or even high school. A review in the most recent issue of Science tackles some of the issues involved in teaching our littlest scientists about how the world works.

What influences how children learn about science?

Right off the bat, it’s clear that there just isn’t enough time spent on science during early education. In a study of Midwestern preschools, less than five percent of classroom time was devoted to any type of scientific activities. Preschool age may sound too early to start learning about science, but research has shown that preschoolers are intellectually and developmentally ready to understand basic scientific concepts. They are very good at interpreting patterns, and can even distinguish conclusive from inconclusive evidence.

In fact, very young children are advanced enough to already have some ideas about the way the world works. Some of these ideas are inevitably wrong, and part of teachers’ jobs must be to correct these misunderstandings. For instance, most children in elementary school have  incorrect beliefs about gravity and the movement of the solar system. Early education must ditch the classic concept of children as “blank slates,” and work to identify and correct areas of confusion.

Beyond what children already know (or think they know), researchers have identified a few other factors that affect the development of scientific thinking. First of all, the subject matter often dictates students’ success in the classroom. For example, fifth-graders are much better at understanding physical concepts than they are at grasping social reasoning. Additionally, the goal matters; students are more successful at completing tasks where they have to identify a cause, rather than produce a particular outcome.

There’s more than one way to teach science

Because the scientific process is so complicated, there are myriad approaches to teaching science. For instance, once the teacher raises a question (which item will hit the ground first if I drop them at the same time?), there are lots of ways to answer it. Do the students handle the materials and make their own predictions? Who develops the experiment, the teacher or the students? Does the teacher explain the outcome, or do the students try to figure out what happened? Is there any experiment at all, or is the concept simply explained to the students?

Three major types of instruction are most common: the “direct” method, the “Socratic” method, and the “discovery” method. The direct method is the most traditional—the teacher explains an experiment and its outcome, but the experiment is not actually conducted in the classroom. In Socratic instruction, the students devise and carry out an experiment with help and guidance from the teacher, and attempt to explain the outcome. Finally, discovery learning is the most independent; students devise, execute, and interpret their own experiments, often with no input from the teacher at all.

The curiosity conundrum

So, which method works the best for these young children? Some studies show that direct instruction—the most teacher-centric form—is the quickest and most effective way to help students learn. Moreover, students who received direct instruction were better at remembering and transferring what they’d learned than students taught by Socratic or discovery learning, even after several years.

While this may sound decisive, the best approach isn’t simple and clean-cut. When dealing with young, malleable minds, you’re not necessarily looking for perfect memorization of concepts or fastidious completion of experiments. Instead, the main goal is to instill a sense of curiosity into students. But, unlike more concrete goals, there is no good way to measure curiosity. In order to get a good handle on the overall effectiveness of various teaching methods, “curiosity” must be well-defined and quantifiable. As of now, there is little agreement on the matter.

It’s likely that the direct method of instruction is successful in teaching facts and concepts, thus it appears to be the most “effective” way to teach children science. However, once a consensus is reached on the best way to measure curiosity, researchers may recognize that the student-centered methods are better at nurturing young scientists’ curiosity about the world.

Working toward a better system

Clearly, there isn’t one right method to teaching science, and neither researchers nor educators have a handle right now on what works best. What is clear is that children’s cognitive development and their current understanding of the world around them must be taken into account. Additionally, we need better ways to measure how successful various methods are in cultivating their natural curiosity. If we want a forward-thinking, scientifically minded population in the future, preschool is the place to start.

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Source: Ars Technica –