Helping Preschool Teachers Cultivate Young Scientists

Cynthia Hoisington, a Senior Curriculum/Instructional Design Associate, has extensive experience developing innovative instructional resources and instructing and mentoring early childhood teachers in language, literacy, and science education. She has served as the science advisor for the Emmy-winning educational television series Curious George, for which she received recognition from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She has also developed online science materials for Peep and the Big Wide World and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That! In this post, she reflects on some interesting aspects of her work in the IES-funded Cultivating Young Scientists project.

Cultivating Young Scientists is a Development Project funded by the Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education Research. Over the next three years, working closely with our partner the Connecticut Science Center, we are developing two science professional development programs for early childhood teachers. Both are based on our original Foundations of Science Literacy professional development program that focuses on physical science and the topic of water. The two new topics include Building Structures and Discovering Nature. All programs draw upon EDC’s Young Scientist Series published by Redleaf Press. Young Scientist Series is integrated as a curriculum development resource, as well as a planning and implementation resource for teachers.

As a Development Project, we are lucky to work with a small number of teachers (11 to 15 in each professional development program) in a very intense way. We are doing lots of observations in classrooms, taking lots of photos and shooting lots of videos, and gathering other documentation—like teachers’ observation notes, children’s drawings, and other representations—that show how the young children involved are responding to the inquiry science explorations. We also get to pick participating teachers’ brains about the effectiveness of all aspects of the instructional sessions, assignments, and coaching.

As developers, we are really appreciating the differences between physical science and life science in terms of how teachers are able to identify and interpret children’s learning and inquiry, and how they interact with children as a result. For example, life science explorations are primarily observational and language-based compared to physical science. This means that teachers need to rely on language when they are supporting and assessing children’s investigations of living things. They can’t rely on observing children’s behavior with materials and objects or evaluating the products of children’s explorations—like their block structures, for example.

Related to this, the novel thing we are doing in this project is embedding formative assessments within each topic that will provide a structure for helping teachers interpret the documentation they collect during explorations and assess children's learningin relation to their planned science learning goals. For example, we want teachers to be able to observe children building and find evidence of learning in how children are using different blocks; how they are incorporating different design features; and how they are balancing and stabilizing their structures. We want teachers to listen to children's language and conversations about living things and be able to find evidence of what children are learning about the characteristics, behaviors, and needs of living things, and what inquiry skills they are using in the process.

The overarching goal is to embed the formative assessments within children’s explorations so teachers can assess children’s learning and their own teaching in an ongoing way. They can think about where it makes sense to go next in a science study based on children’s current understanding and interests, so that children remain engaged and cognitively challenged. We want all teachers to become adept at using strategies to uncover, address, and deepen children’s understanding of the big ideas in physical and life science, while supporting their  inquiry and engagement in science practices.