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Mathematical and Scientific Development in Early Childhood: A Workshop Summary 3 Going from Knowledge to Practice The second half of the workshop was designed to focus on the ways in which research is already influencing practice, as well as the ways in which it could be used to further improve the education of young children. The discussion quickly made clear that a model in which research is seen as the sole source of ideas that can be used to improve teaching does not capture the dynamic relationship between research and practice that already exists and that needs to be fostered. Most participants agreed that while research findings have much to offer practitioners, the reverse is also true and that the greatest wisdom is to be gotten from a situation in which research and practice can continually contribute to and gain from one another. The presenters and discussants were guided by two broad questions: How is the research base on early mathematical and scientific cognitive development currently reflected in early childhood curricula and settings in the United States? What might be some specific implications of this research base for the improvement of early childhood education in science and mathematics? Presenters Doug Clements, Lucia French, and Karen Worth drew on their experiences with early childhood programs in considering the role of research.
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Mathematical and Scientific Development in Early Childhood: A Workshop Summary A UNION OF RESEARCH AND PRACTICE Clements’ presentation focused primarily on the second of the questions. He presented a model of how he believes research on young children’s learning should proceed, without commenting directly on the ways in which research is currently influencing practice. He began by showing a set of slides of children of the same age demonstrating very different competencies, and asked: “What possible theory of curriculum in research is going to help us address [children at disparate levels] and help us figure out what best to do?” As he sees it, no theory, or even definition, of what a preschool curriculum should be is guiding current work or providing a framework for thinking and planning. What is needed is a true science of curriculum in mathematics, science, and other fields. By this he means a view of curriculum development that goes beyond the provision of practical feedback to those who develop curricula. He views the development of curricula as a form of inquiry that “provides reliable ways of dealing with experiences and achieving goals.” Clements presented examples of the kinds of questions about curriculum he thought such a science of curriculum could help to address, with particular attention to its relationship to practice, policy, and theory; see Table 3-1. Clements and his colleagues have developed an operating framework for thinking about curriculum research. Such research can begin with an a priori foundation, a broad philosophy of learning rooted in past research that yields a starting notion of the way children learn. Such research can also be organized around learning models, or, as he termed them, learning trajectories. These trajectories are pathways that children typically take through a series of levels or TABLE 3-1 Questions That Can Be Answered with a Theory of Curriculum Practice Policy Theory Effect Is the curriculum effective in achieving learning goals? Is it credible relative to alternatives? How much improvement or benefit does this curriculum offer? Are the goals set for this curriculum important? Why is it effective? Is it credible relative to alternative theoretical approaches? Conditions When and where has it been used? Under what conditions has it been successful? Can it be easily used and successful in other settings? What kinds of supports are needed for it to work in various contexts? Why do different conditions increase or decrease its effectiveness? How and why do these strategies produce results others could not produce? SOURCE: Douglas Clements
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Mathematical and Scientific Development in Early Childhood: A Workshop Summary phases of understanding, and Clements demonstrated what he meant with illustrations of children responding in different ways to the same task. A curriculum based on this understanding is then designed to move children through a developmental progression, which in turn helps them achieve specific curricular goals. Research designed to evaluate particular curricular approaches on the basis of this kind of theoretical underpinning, Clements argued, should then proceed through several steps. It should begin with small groups in which the phases of the learning trajectory can be closely evaluated to see whether the tasks and behaviors the curriculum elicits are as intended and whether the model needs to be modified for any reason. The next step would be to try out the model with whole classrooms, in which it is possible to evaluate teachers’ and students’ responses to it more thoroughly and identify both intended and unintended consequences. The final stage would be to try out the model in multiple classrooms with the aim of assessing how it works when it is implemented in diverse settings by diverse teachers. It is at this stage that formative research methods, designed to yield ways of improving the program, give way to summative research, first on a small scale (e.g., four to ten classrooms) and then on a larger scale. Once the program has been improved, using the feedback obtained in the earlier phases, it would be time to use random assignment and other experimental methods to find out how robust the program is. The key advantage of this approach, Clements explained, is that it “inoculates” researchers against “confirmation bias,” the tendency to look for results that confirm their expectations. In other words, the early stages of the research provide low-risk opportunities to identify weaknesses, such as conditions in which the program does not succeed, unintended consequences, and so forth, and to make changes in response. The research process benefits from the feedback obtained from progressive stages of classroom experience with the model. Clements contrasted his model with what he regards as the more common “research-to-practice” approach to curriculum research in which, he argued, the flow of information is one way. When the flow is one way, there is little opportunity for practical experience to influence revision of theoretical assumptions that may be flawed. At the same time, Clements noted, most of the curricula that are commercially available today are buttressed by market research rather than scholarship. Such curricula often include terminology from recent research in such a way as to seem to be in line with the most recent thinking without actually having incorporated substantive changes. He argued for the importance of a synthesis of curriculum development, practice, and research. Curriculum developers, he explained, can provide researchers with rich tasks, authentic settings, and theoretical problems that can inform their work. The experience of practitioners provides indispensable feedback about real-world effectiveness. Yet without research, develop-
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Mathematical and Scientific Development in Early Childhood: A Workshop Summary ers and teachers may miss critical aspects of students’ thinking and the particular features of a curriculum that engender learning. PRESCHOOL SCIENCE AS A PROCESS French approached the questions by describing the way science has been incorporated into the lives of preschoolers enrolled in a Head Start-based program called Science Start! This program, which is now operating in nearly 40 low- and middle-income schools in the Rochester, New York, area, uses science as the organizing core through which language and literacy and a variety of other preschool skills are taught (French, 2004). The curriculum French and her colleagues, a team of researchers and practitioners, have devised, while not based in a particular theoretical perspective regarding the way young children learn science, is organized around the scientific processes as defined in the national science standards (National Research Council, 1996) and by the American Association for the Advancement of Science Benchmarks (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993), which include observing, comparing, classifying, measuring, sequencing, quantifying, representing data, interpreting representations, predicting, replicating, and reporting. The goal is to use children’s innate curiosity about the natural world as the starting point for a range of activities that develop their language and other cognitive skills. The children enrolled in the program participate in a daily cycle in which they begin in the morning by asking questions and reflecting on the topics presented by the teachers. They then plan a course of action and predict the results they think are likely. They execute their plans and observe what happens. They end the cycle by reporting on what they have observed and reflecting on their plans and their results. For French, part of the evidence of the program’s success lies in the extent to which the children have been able, by the end of the school year, to take over responsibility for much of this scientific work. They have internalized the processes, she explained, and have learned ways of thinking scientifically. At the same time, each of the science units incorporates, and is supported by, other kinds of activities designed to foster other kinds of cognitive growth. Books on related themes are read aloud, mathematics and social studies skills and content are brought in, and art and outdoor play activities with a link to the science theme are developed. The broad goals for the program include not only development of scientific thinking, but also of the capacity to use language to convey complex information and to do planning and problem solving. Development of other important preschool skills—such as self-control, working cooperatively in peer groups, and focusing attention—are also part of the program.
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Mathematical and Scientific Development in Early Childhood: A Workshop Summary French showed participants a video of a group of children working through an activity that involved transforming carrots into baby food. They inspected some carrots, made predictions about ways of transforming them so a baby could eat them, and then ran them through a blender and ultimately fed them to a baby that was visiting the classroom. Some participants questioned French as to the nature of the science the children learned through this activity, and French’s response was that the children demonstrated several of the processes mentioned above in the course of the activity—e.g., predicting what might happen and reflecting on the result. French explained that in the course of the year a variety of material is presented; the original program began with 10-week units on measurement and mapping, color and light, matter, and the like. However, because the focus is on the scientific process, the program allows flexibility for the teachers to respond to the children’s interests or to unexpected events outside or in the classroom that present a learning opportunity. While the teachers provide guidance in many ways, supplying suitable materials, asking questions designed to elicit scientific thinking, and so forth, the children can instigate projects or topics. Despite this flexibility, however, the program is designed to be coherent, both by allowing time for teachers and children to investigate each topic thoroughly and follow through on multistep activities, and also by using the daily instructional cycle to provide structure and consistency. A key component of the Science Start! program has been professional development for the teachers. French’s initial goal was that the teachers be prepared to use what she calls information-bearing language (in contrast with behavior-management language) as much as possible with the children, not just in response to questions they ask, and to focus on engaging their interests. This approach, French explained—teachers who consistently use scientific language and try to weave information into classroom conversations within the structure of the daily cycle—has worked to help the children develop sophisticated discourse patterns that reflect scientific thinking and also to show steady increases in vocabulary. French and her colleagues have used several means of assessing the effectiveness of ScienceStart! They have distilled preschool-level benchmarks from those developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993) that they use as internal goals, such as “People can often learn about things around them just by observing those things carefully, but sometimes they can learn more by doing something to the things and noting what happens.” They have also used what they call narrative assessments, storybooks in which a character asks questions of other characters; children being assessed are asked to respond before the story continues and observers can assess their mastery of concepts that have been addressed. The children have also been assessed using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and have shown gains in vocabulary (French, 2004, pp. 7-10).
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Mathematical and Scientific Development in Early Childhood: A Workshop Summary MAKING USE OF WHAT IS ALREADY KNOWN Karen Worth began with a direct response to the first of the workshop questions, regarding the degree to which research is reflected in early childhood curricula and settings in the United States. Unfortunately, Worth has concluded, the answer is that the influence of research on science teaching and learning at the preschool level seems to have been minimal. Worth noted that there has been a tremendous amount of very exciting research in recent years, but that there is little parallel development in practice to point to, and called this disconnect “profound and disturbing.” She also noted that many individual programs across the country are of very high quality and may be incorporating research findings, but that they are generally not replicated or widespread. Far more common, Worth has observed, are settings in which little or nothing that is accomplished could truly be described as science. Centers might have a science table that is one among several activity centers children can choose, and it may have some science-related materials on it. Unfortunately, though, these centers are either seldom used, or used primarily for one-time activities that focus on arts-and-crafts projects that make use of materials or ideas with science content (e.g., leaves, birds nests, colored water, and absorbent paper) but yield a take-home product rather than mastery of a scientific concept or skill. Yet at the same time, Worth noted, other materials that are found in most preschool settings, such as blocks and building materials, cooking equipment, and sand and water tables and other outdoor equipment, could be used to help children develop science thinking but seldom are. Even where more conscious emphasis is placed on science, she argued, the result is often activities that might last a week or two, in which a theme such as dinosaurs is explored, but which provide no connection to broader themes or continuous work on developing particular modes of scientific thinking. This approach is reflected in many of the science resource materials that are available for early childhood teachers. Worth argued that most of them are essentially fun activity books rather than curricula that reflect a research based notion of how children learn or well thought-through goals for their science learning. In reference to the second workshop question, regarding ways in which research could more effectively be brought to bear on classroom practice in the future, Worth began by describing work that she has done through a National Science Foundation project developing materials for classrooms, teacher guides, and professional development guides. These materials have been constructed not only to incorporate sound research-based ideas about young children’s learning, but also to get to teachers quickly and be truly usable and helpful. The goal for this project was to take the significant body of sound research findings that are already available and find ways to bring it into the classroom without waiting for further refinements. In developing these curricula, Worth and her colleagues decided to begin with materials they could safely assume would be in most preschool classrooms.
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Mathematical and Scientific Development in Early Childhood: A Workshop Summary Thus, the first three teacher guides they developed focused on blocks and building, water, and the immediate outside environment. While the guides are not prescriptive, Worth explained, they provide a structure that leads from open experimentation to more focused exploration and guides teachers regarding the different kinds of roles they can play in the process to foster children’s learning. Worth closed her remarks by providing summaries of the characteristics of an effective science program and of the roles of an effective teacher (see Boxes 3-1 and 3-2). She used these to illustrate what is for her perhaps the most important dimension in the enterprise, the preparation of teachers. BOX 3-1 Characteristics of an Effective Science Program Builds on children’s prior experiences, backgrounds, and early theories Draws on children’s curiosity, while encouraging children to pursue their own questions and develop their own ideas. Engages children in in-depth exploration of a topic over time in a carefully prepared environment Encourages children to reflect on, represent, and document their experiences, and to share and discuss their ideas with others. Is embedded in children’s work and play Is integrated with other domains Provides access to science experiences for all children SOURCE: Karen Worth BOX 3-2 Roles of an Effective Teacher Creates a physical, social, and emotional environment that supports inquiry Observes children and acts on those observations Acknowledges children’s work Extends children’s experiences, which are based in their work Leads activities with children that extend their thinking Deepens children’s understanding through discussion, questions, representation, and documentation SOURCE: Karen Worth
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Mathematical and Scientific Development in Early Childhood: A Workshop Summary For Worth, the science content of preschool education is crucial. While she agreed that there is not a finite number of topics that must be covered, for her it is nevertheless very important that young children be working on topics and concepts that are fundamental to science, not just random topics that seem interesting. Thus, the questions of how much knowledge, what kind of knowledge, and what kind of preparation and support teachers need assume critical importance. Worth argued that teachers need to know far more science than they currently do; “They have to have inquired before they can help children inquire. They have to know where children’s inquiries might go conceptually in a science field in order to both understand and follow children.”
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