Afterword: Next Steps
Jean Moon and Heidi Schweingruber
Without a doubt there is a growing recognition of the importance of supporting the development of mathematical and scientific knowledge and skills in young children. As the workshop discussions and research show, a strong case can be made that young children are capable of surprisingly sophisticated thinking. Moreover, there is some evidence that gaps in capacities in mathematics and science can be linked to such environmental factors as economic disadvantage and may appear early in a child’s development (Coley, 2002; Lee and Burkham, 2002; Starkey and Klein, 1992; Starkey, Klein and Wakeley, 2004). This evidence argues for attention to the research about how development in these specific domains unfolds, how capacities in different domains may be related, and how development of mathematical and scientific capacities can best be supported.
The interest and enthusiasm expressed by workshop participants indicate that both researchers and practitioners see a need for greater attention to research on mathematics and science in early childhood. The nineteenth volume of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly devoted to research on mathematics and science, to which many workshop participants contributed, offers further evidence of a strong commitment in the early childhood research community to advance work in this area. Yet most of the attention at the policy level to date has focused on literacy—for example, in the administration’s policy initiative Good Start, Grow Smart, and in federally funded programs to support early childhood education, such as Early Reading First. Because the focus on literacy may lessen the amount of time educators have available for mathematics and science activities, it is particularly important to provide them with research-based information
and strategies that will help them to make the best use of the time they can spend on mathematics and science.
As Nora Newcombe and other presenters pointed out, the last several decades of developmental research have resulted in the recognition that young children and even infants are capable of more sophisticated thinking and learning than was once assumed. Modern research in developmental psychology describes unexpected competencies in young children and calls into question models of development based on Piaget, which suggested that children were unable to carry out sophisticated cognitive tasks, such as perspective taking or measuring (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004; Newcombe, 2002; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000). As noted in the National Research Council report Eager to Learn:
More recent research has led many to reinterpret the stage theorists’ views; there is strong evidence that children, when they have accumulated substantial knowledge, have the ability to abstract well beyond what is ordinarily observed. Indeed, the striking feature of modern research is that it describes unexpected competencies in young children, key features of which appear to be universal. These data focus attention on the child’s exposure to learning opportunities, calling into question simplistic conceptualizations of developmentally appropriate practice that do not recognize the newly understood competencies of very young children, and they highlight the importance of individual differences in children, their past experiences, and their present contexts (2001b, p. 5).
With recognition of these early competencies has come a reassessment of what children are capable of learning in the early years and how adults can best support this learning. For example, Rochel Gelman’s discussion of the Preschool Pathways in Science program suggests that specific instruction in biology supported the development of children’s ability to identify and sort animals and plants into appropriate categories and describe the features they used to carry out the sorting. As Gelman’s example illustrates, the implications of advances in developmental research for mathematics and science learning in early childhood settings are profound. Working within a Piagetian framework, many early childhood educators were led to conclude that pushing children to undertake complex tasks in mathematic and science was fruitless. Children simply were not ready to think in scientific and mathematical ways. Evidence of early competence, especially where the development of such competence can be enhanced through instructional interventions, turns this kind of assumption on its head.
Some researchers point out, however, that simply demonstrating early competence does not provide a picture of the developmental processes involved in attaining such competency, nor the ways in which early competency serves as a foundation for later developments (Haith and Benson, 1998; Keil, 1998 cited in Kuhn, 2000; Ginsburg and Golbeck, 2004). Newcombe’s presentation offered an example in the spatial and quantitative domains of how studies can be drawn
together to reveal how and when early competencies first emerge, the limits of competence, and how competence changes with development. This outline of a developmental trajectory is potentially of greater interest to practitioners than the simple knowledge that children show competency early in their development. Bringing together the existing work in developmental psychology with research focused more specifically in mathematics and science education may begin to elucidate these kinds of developmental trajectories and clarify the most fruitful directions for future research.
Another newly emerging perspective on cognitive development also has profound implications for mathematics and science in early childhood education. Domain-specific theories of cognitive development posit that there are innate, domain-specific mental structures that underpin and guide learning in particular knowledge areas, such as biology or physics. This perspective is in contrast to traditional developmental theories of learning, such as those proposed by Piaget or Vygotsky, which describe general cognitive processes that operate similarly regardless of the content of cognition (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004; Newcombe, 2002). Some researchers go further to suggest that children actually develop naïve theories in a particular domain—for example, an understanding of the psychology of other people—and that developmental changes in children’s knowledge rest in part on gathering evidence and revising these theories (Wellman and Gelman, 1998).
A domain-specific view raises critical questions, touched on by workshop presenters, about how learning unfolds in mathematics and science. For example: To what extent do learning in mathematics and learning in science unfold along separate and disconnected pathways? To what extent and how does learning in one domain inform the other? Are there some foundational competencies that underlie or support development in both mathematics and science?
One such foundational competency might be spatial reasoning. As noted by Newcombe (2002), even infants as young as 5 months show sensitivity to spatial cues when searching for hidden objects. These early spatial abilities might support such later mathematical concepts in geometry as transformations and symmetry, or locations, directions, and coordinates, both of which are suggested as among the key ideas for pre-K through grade 2 (Clements and Conference Working Group, 2004). Similarly, spatial reasoning might underlie the development of more formal concepts in physics (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004). Other cognitive abilities that might support both mathematics and science learning include categorization, symbolic reasoning, and causal reasoning.
Unfortunately, these advances in understanding of children’s thinking do not seem to be shaping practice and policy in early childhood. Indeed, the workshop presenters and participants bemoaned the tremendous gaps between what is known from developmental research and the usual content of curricula and the nature of practice in early childhood settings. Furthermore, when applied re-
search is carried out, it is often not guided by theoretical frameworks and does not draw on research on cognitive development, as Clements and Worth pointed out.
The lack of connection between current research and practice in this field is not unfamiliar to researchers and practitioners. The NRC reports Eager to Learn (National Research Council, 2001b) and From Neurons to Neighborhoods (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000) both emphasize the importance of better aligning research and work on translating that research into practice, taking into account the complexities of educational settings. From Neurons to Neighborhoods concludes that “as the rapidly evolving science of early child development continues to grow, its complexity will increase and the distance between the working knowledge of service providers and the cutting edge of the science will be staggering. The professional challenges that this raises for the early childhood field are formidable” (p. 42).
The key question then is how evidence from the most recent research in cognitive development can find its way into the worlds of policy and practice. The influence of research on the development of literacy skills demonstrates that a strong research base can influence policy and practice. The research base in mathematics and science is weaker than that in literacy, with less developed basic and applied research and fewer longitudinal studies (especially in science). In order to build from and strengthen this existing research base substantial work must be done to draw together the disparate strands into a coherent framework to identify both what is known and where the most promising future lines of research may lie.
The danger, of course, is to want to rush determinedly toward knitting together research and practice too early, before there is a deeper understanding of where the productive research intersections are and how those intersections may be useful to early childhood educators and curriculum developers. This rush to application with tentative findings was cautioned against by several workshop participants. The thrust of discussions suggested instead that the gap between research and practice cannot be closed until existing lines of research concerning children’s learning of mathematical and scientific ideas are evaluated systematically and integrated into a more coherent picture of development. Only then can the areas in which further research is needed and those where the research evidence is sufficiently robust to inform practice be identified. In sum, a synthesis study that pulls together the applicable lines of research from developmental psychology, cognitive science, and applied research in early childhood settings to clarify what is known about very young children’s ability to engage in mathematics and science is a logical next step in advancing both research and practice in these domains.