First Grade Scientists Are First Rate Scientists

Our youngsters are much more capable than the cognitive science community once purported.

It makes sense. Those of us with toddlers and preschoolers are endlessly mesmerized with our children’s reasoning and problem solving abilities. Whether it is figuring out a way to climb to the highest shelf in the kitchen or discovering behavioral patterns of insects with self-designed controlled experiments in a terrarium they built themselves, our kiddos are amazing little scientists and engineers.

On a sensorial level, preschoolers and elementary students possess heightened awareness, and are captivated by both subtle and dramatic environmental stimuli. This is why trips to the science museum are so enriching. It is why everyday experiences like the feel of rain or something soft, the detection of a new sound, or the sight of a new bright color are spellbinding. It is all new and interesting to our kiddos.

On a curiosity level, their wonder is boundless. Why does the moon follow me? Why do some balloons rise and others fall? Sinking or floating is fascinating. The movement and bouncing of balls can enthrall for hours.

The National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, created the framework for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and based their foundation on a thorough understanding of the most up-to-date research on the cognitive psychology and development of students entering grade school.

The findings are beyond fascinating, but quite aligned with our anecdotal impressions of our own youngsters.

  1. Concern with explanation and investigation are central to children’s learning and thinking at all ages. Even the youngest children are sensitive to highly abstract patterns and causal relations. They use this information to guide the ways in which they generalize, make inferences, and make sense of the world. There is increasing recognition of the richness and variability of children’s understandings that involve implicit and explicit, nonsymbolic and symbolic, associative and explanatory components.
  2. Children develop explanatory insights in specific domains. Some key domains of understanding may have a privileged status in helping with the emergence of science. These include mechanics, folk biology, some aspects of chemistry (e.g., an initial understanding of different substances), and folk psychology. They form an important cognitive common ground on which to build more sophisticated scientific understandings. Roots of these domains extend back to preverbal thought and are therefore a legacy of infancy.
  3. Not only does the growth of scientific understanding involve a sense of the patterns special to such domains as physics and biology, but it also requires much broader cognitive skills that cut across domains. These include an ability to stand back and look at one’s knowledge and learning, heuristics that enable one to efficiently process large amounts of information, and strategies for acquiring, maintaining, and transmitting information. This interplay between domain-specific forms of learning and domain general ones is central to any account of the emergence of scientific thought.

At QuantumCamp, our beliefs are consistent with the NRC!

We know that kids are natural scientists and pattern seekers. We see, first hand, that the major learning modes to come on line are tactile and kinesthetic. And actually, there is such an amazing closeness between all senses and the interpretation of the world. The one academic subject that is naturally this way, that harnesses this, is science! When you design a lab class and ask students to simply do what scientists do - play with stuff and draw conclusions about your world - you actually slide right into models championed by the greatest education thinkers, including Jerome Bruner, Maria Montessori, and John Holt.

The ideas on how to deliver great science are established. The mandate is clear:

  • Great teachers who are really good at science
  • Lots of lab equipment
  • Class time for experiment design, laboratory work, and theory building

Duschl, R.A., Schweingruber, H.A., and Shouse, A.W. (Editors). (2007). Taking Science To School, Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. National Research Council of the National Academies

--Michael Finnegan is the founder and executive director of QuantumCamp, a science and math school enterprise sparking the next scientific revolution by taking hands-on classes to kids in schools, kids at summer camps, and kids who homeschool and leading them to discover and own the most profound ideas of our time.