Academic journal article The Future of Children

Math, Science, and Technology in the Early Grades

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Math, Science, and Technology in the Early Grades

Article excerpt


Do young children naturally develop the foundations of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? And if so, should we build on these foundations by using STEM curricula in preschools? In this article, Douglas Clements and Julie Sarama argue that the answer to both these questions is yes.

First, the authors show that young children possess a sophisticated informal knowledge of math, and that they frequently ask scientific questions, such as why questions. Preschoolers' free play involves substantial amounts of foundational math as they explore patterns, shapes, and spatial relations; compare magnitudes; and count objects.

Moreover, preschool and kindergarten children's knowledge of and interest in math and science predicts later success in STEM. And not only in STEM: the authors show that early math knowledge also predicts later reading achievement--even better than early literacy skills do. Thus mathematical thinking, Clements and Sarama say, may be cognitively foundational. That is, the thinking and reasoning inherent in math may contribute broadly to cognitive development.

Is teaching STEM subjects to preschool children effective? The authors review several successful programs. They emphasize that STEM learning for young children must encompass more than facts or simple skills; rather, the classroom should be infused with interesting, appropriate opportunities to engage in math and science. And instruction should follow research-based learning trajectories that include three components: a goal, a developmental progression, and instructional activities.

Clements and Sarama also discuss barriers to STEM teaching in preschool, such as the cultural belief in the United States that math achievement largely depends on native aptitude or ability, and inadequate professional development for teachers.

Other articles in this issue make a strong case that early education is important. The issue we address here is whether early education should include substantial science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content--which some educators view, often from ideological perspectives, as appropriate only for older students. To examine this question, we review research on the appropriateness, benefits, and effectiveness of various programs. Our findings are often surprising.

Many adults, including some researchers, believe that "open-ended free play" is good for preschoolers and kindergartners, but "lessons" are not. They don't believe that the youngest children should be taught specific subjects, especially math, science, and technology. They may grudgingly accept math in the primary grades, but they believe that literacy is more important, more motivating, and more appropriate for children. In this article we show that research doesn't support such thinking.

We begin by asking whether young children naturally develop the foundations of STEM. If so, should adults build on these foundations intentionally, for example by using STEM curricula in preschools? Will children enjoy such interactions and learning? Do curricula and intentional teaching produce substantial gains in STEM competencies? What teaching approaches are most effective through the primary grades? Does teaching STEM have other positive effects, such as supporting high-quality play and building executive function and language? If so, what kind of professional development will help teachers engage children in STEM from preschool through third grade? (Note that because more research has focused on mathematics than on the other STEM subjects, our examples tend to favor math.)

Young Children's Surprising Competence in STEM

Especially when they're given opportunities to learn, young children possess a surprisingly broad, complex, and sophisticated informal knowledge of math. (1) For example, they can invent solutions to arithmetic problems by using a variety of strategies. …

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