Why is it important to focus on science learning skills?
The past few decades have seen the Department of Education focus on raising literacy and maths standards in primary schools across the UK. Consequently, we have developed a robust and evidence-based approach to teaching these skills to children. Science teaching, however, has not had that same level of focus and we see the effect of this by the drop in numbers of students choosing to study science-based subjects in higher education. If we are to keep pace with the changes in technology, we need to foster scientific understanding in children.
Children are intuitive scientists
Children are natural scientists, filled with curiosity about the world around them. As Alison Gopnik, Developmental Psychologist at Berkley, states “every day playing is a kind of experimentation – it’s a way of experimenting with the world, getting data the way that scientists do and then using that data to draw new conclusions”. According to Gopnik, we need to expose children to rich environments, and let their natural capacity for exploration rein free.
What makes a good scientist?
Decades of research has found that children are actually very good at inferring cause involving both visible and invisible mechanisms. Babies in their bassinettes can learn that kicking their legs will cause the mobile above them to move (Piaget, 1952). Walker and Gopnik (2014) using the technique of eye tracking suitable for pre-verbal children, found that even two-year-old children display a firm understanding of causality. But how good are children at inferring causality in continuous causal processes, such as what makes a stone sink when thrown in the pond? The link between good scientific ability and developing an understanding of causal reasoning in continuous processes is now being researched.
Cognitive abilities that foster scientific understanding
Understanding causal processes is key
A new approach was adopted by Tolmie et al. (2106) who argue that much of science involves understanding causal processes not simple mechanical cause and effect. They investigated a new measure of spatial-temporal ability and showed that children who had better spatial-temporal ability scored better on a test of continuous causal reasoning, i.e. understanding the relationship between cause and effect. This latter test employed a method which included asking the children to predict what they thought would happen in a given situation, observe the process occurring and then ask them to explain what they saw; the three core skills of scientific understanding as suggested by Tolmie et al (2016).
Children needs visuo-spatial and motor skills too
Other factors that have been found to correlate with continuous causal reasoning ability include working memory, verbal and nonverbal abilities such as visuo-spatial skills and motor control. The latter ability appears to have an indirect effect on continuous causal reasoning through a direct correlation with working memory. The data seem to imply that there may be a pathway leading from motor control to cognitive control (Gottwald et al. 2016), however the precise nature of this pathway is yet to be understood.
So, how we can foster scientific understanding in children? Help them develop their motor skills through play, encourage their curiosity, ask them to make predictions and then explain why they were right or wrong. Children are natural scientists; let them explore and learn by collecting their data and experimenting.
- Gottwald, J. M., Achermann, S., Marciszko, C., Lindskog, M., & Gredebäck, G. (2016). An Embodied Account of Early Executive-Function Development. Psychological Science, 27(12), 1600-1610.
- Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. (M. Cook, Trans.). W W Norton & Co.
- Tolmie, A., Ghazali, Z., & Morris, S. (2016). Children’s science learning: A core skills approach. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 86 (3) Pp. 481-497.
- Walker, C., & Gopnik, A. (2014). Toddlers Infer Higher-Order Relational Principles in Causal Learning. Psychological Science, 25(1), 161-169.
 Spatial-temporal reasoning is defined by the American Psychological Association as “the ability to conceptualise the three-dimensional relationships of objects in space and to mentally manipulate them as a succession of transformations over a period of time”.
 Visuo-spatial skills – the ability to perceive and process information about the spatial relationships between objects or space. People with strong skills in this area can picture concepts in their ‘mind’s eye’.