Teaching Science to Young Learners

A scientist like me is often not found teaching in a classroom with young pupils. Scientists when they do teach are usually standing in front of either graduate students or science majors. But when a scientist spends time with kids, the overall impression is frequently positive. Richard Felder wrote in "There's Nothing Wrong With the Raw Material." Chem. Engr. Education, 26(2), 76-77 (Spring 1992):
It was a remarkable experience---I couldn't hold those kids back. Early in the class I divided them into groups of four and gave each group two small closed vials containing colorless liquids, one labeled "H" (which contained water) and one labeled "V" (for vinegar). Before I gave them the vials I told them we would do some experiments to figure out which one was acid and which was just water. As soon as they got the vials, they took off. They shook them, sniffed them, held them up to the light. One child saw that one of the liquids was somewhat thick and bubbly when she shook it and the other behaved more like water, and she guessed that the first one was the acid. Another student in the same group saw the H on the second vial and said "Yeah, that probably stands for H_2O. Someone in another group detected a faint aroma coming from one of the vials, saw the V on it, and said "This one's vinegar---hey, is vinegar an acid?" I hadn't opened my mouth yet! 
The whole class went like that. The children flailed their hands in the air after every question I asked, hoping I would call on them. They debated vigorously about the experiments they were performing and came up with possible interpretations that hadn't occurred to me. They asked questions about acids (including "If I poured some of that on his head, would it go all the way through to his feet?"), and acid rain, and what scientists do. They asked if they could do more experiments. When I finished they swarmed around me, showing me work they had done in class, asking more questions. They told me they wanted to be chemists, physicists, veterinarians. Not one mentioned anything about getting an engineering degree followed by an M.B.A. and starting off at $50,000 a year.
Even after decades of research debunking Piaget's 1965 Child's Conception of Numbers (For a review of research in this area, please read the report by the Committee on Early Childhood Mathematics; Center for Education; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council), education policy makers such as those in the Department of Education in the Philippines continue to subscribe to the flawed developmental stages introduced by Piaget.

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The challenge in teaching math and science to young children clearly lies on the instruction side. Addressing this, sadly, is not an easy task. For example, there is a paper recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology that describes an attempt to help preschool teachers in math and science instruction:

Professional development for early childhood educators: Efforts to improve math and science learning opportunities in early childhood classrooms:
Piasta, Shayne B.; Logan, Jessica A. R.; Pelatti, Christina Yeager; Capps, Janet L.; Petrill, Stephen A. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 107(2), May 2015, 407-422.

Because recent initiatives highlight the need to better support preschool-aged children’s math and science learning, the present study investigated the impact of professional development in these domains for early childhood educators. Sixty-five educators were randomly assigned to experience 10.5 days (64 hr) of training on math and science or on an alternative topic. Educators’ provision of math and science learning opportunities were documented, as were the fall-to-spring math and science learning gains of children (n = 385) enrolled in their classrooms. Professional development significantly impacted provision of science, but not math, learning opportunities. Professional development did not directly impact children’s math or science learning, although science learning was indirectly affected via the increase in science learning opportunities. Both math and science learning opportunities were positively associated with children’s learning. Results suggest that substantive efforts are necessary to ensure that children have opportunities to learn math and science from a young age. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved)

I should add that the teachers who participated in the professional development program even received approximately $500 worth of classroom materials to facilitate math and science instruction. More than ten days of training, sustained over a six-month period and, yet there was no significant impact on children's math or science learning. The authors tried to explain the frustrating results with the following:

  • "Provision of high-quality professional development does not ensure that content becomes integrated into classroom practices."
  • "Changes in early childhood educators’ math and science practices may be difficult to achieve."
The study obviously demonstrates that fixing basic education is not quick especially when the challenge resides mainly on the teacher's side. The curriculum must be explicit in including science activities and lessons in early childhood education. Changes are possibly required to happen during the pre-service training of teachers. Colleges that prepare individuals for preschool, kindergarten and elementary teaching should take extra effort and time in math and science instruction. 

Children in the Philippines do not perform well in international standardized math and science tests and DepEd's K to 12 does not address these problems with its lack of explicit science instruction in the early years and low quality training of teachers.