Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
When considering how to improve the education system, the proposal of introducing children to STEM subjects and methods with greater frequency is popular; after all, a STEM degree in university is often considered an important step in starting a well-paid career, not to mention a badge of honor. It makes sense to want to familiarize children with the scientific method as early as possible, so that by the time adolescents are entering high school, they have the skills needed to take lab classes with ease and perhaps even look for summer internships. Whether it makes sense to introduce these kinds of skills to children in early childhood, however, is debatable; children are working to establish many different kinds of thought patterns in the early years, and plenty of brain power is being directed toward language acquisition, especially during the preschool years (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018a).
What is it about lab science that makes it inappropriate for young children? Traditionally, those following Piaget’s state theory would argue that hypothetico-deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning, which correspond to the stage of formal operations, would be necessary in order for someone to even formulate or test a hypothesis thoroughly (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c). This would encourage us not to familiarize children with the scientific method until age 11, which would correspond roughly to sixth grade, or the beginning of middle school in the United States. According to Piaget, children would probably ignore information presented in a formal lab setting, because this information would be too far removed from what children already know and understand about the world (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c). Similarly, Vygotsky proposed the idea of the zone of proximal development, which states that children learn best when information challenges their current knowledge moderately (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018b).
Today, we know that Piaget often underestimated the capabilities of young children while overestimating those of adolescents and adults. Despite this, there are new theories that still support the idea of younger children being unable to understand scientific lab data in a meaningful way. According to the fuzzy-trace theory, our memory exists on a continuum; on one end, there are verbatim traces, meaning exact information, while on the other end, there are fuzzy traces, or gist-like pieces of information (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c). As we age, we tend to most improve our ability to remember the gist of things, because this requires less cognitive energy and is less easily forgotten in the moment; still, our ability to remember things verbatim does improve as well. In order to do lab science, logical thought, rather than intuitive thought, is necessary. Considering that adults often find it difficult, even with this improved ability to engage in logical thought (using verbatim information), it is obvious to see that a child, even with a preference for logical thought, simply does not have the working memory capacity to utilize this preference effectively (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c).
Other studies demonstrate that young children require, at the very least, time in order to understand concepts that we, as adults, take for granted. For example, three-year-old children often express difficulty at remembering their past beliefs and will deny having ever thought anything else than what they believe in the moment (Bjorklund & Casey, 2018d). Five-year-old children, on the other hand, tend to be much better at articulating that their beliefs can and have changed depending on new information. Still, this rules out the possibility of ever introducing hypothesis testing into a preschool classroom, at least formally.
Furthermore, children up to the age of ten are not able to fully understand concepts of time (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018d). We would assume that temporal understanding would be necessary for much of the work done in science labs, in which specific intervals of time are often incredibly important. Even being able to discern animate from inanimate, living from non-living, is a difficult task for children, and many children will deny that plants are alive until the ages of seven to nine (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018d). While living around animals does seem to increase a child’s ability to discern human from non-human attributes (indicating that the environment does play a key role in how long it takes for children to acquire some knowledge and concepts), children struggle with biological concepts that are not intuitive. For example, distinguishing traits as hereditary rather than products of the environment, and vice versa, is difficult for children until about the age of seven (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018d).
In other studies, children in second, third, and fourth grade were introduced to a basic concept necessary for scientific reasoning: the control of variables strategy, which involves holding all variables constant except for one (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018e). Through explicit training, the children were able to conduct the experiments, but only the fourth graders were able to retain the information taught to them after seven months, while second graders did not even show significant improvement applying the skills to tasks given one and two days afterward. If components of the scientific method cannot be taught to long-term retention until the fourth grade, introducing them to preschoolers or kindergartners would be most certainly futile.
If a science lab isn’t the best place for young children, then where is? This question is more easily asked when we don’t look at the lab itself, but instead at how the lab is used. The lab setting itself is not inherently problematic as long as children aren’t asked to pick up the scientific method in first grade; in fact, nearly any setting could help children to foster important skills that might later help them to indeed become great scientists. Even infants seem to have some understanding of causal relationships, and the more exposure children have to observing different kinds of natural phenomena, the more knowledge they are able to accumulate (“as scientists”) about relationships between events (or lack of causation). Allowing children to play is also important, as symbolic play has been shown to promote things like language development, perspective taking, and executive-function abilities (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c), all of which are very important in a science lab. Play allows children to explore and test their ideas about the world, building ideas of causal relationships while doing so. Considering that symbolic play peaks between ages five and seven (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018c), it seems important not to miss out on the window of opportunity, as children will have a whole lifetime ahead of them to write lab reports, provided that they want to.
Surprisingly, children might be the best scientists when they are allowed to partake in naturalistic observation instead of given a crash course in quantitative methods. Children can be excellent scientists for themselves, provided that they are given some guidance and attention. Simply taking a preschool group on a trip to play in the outdoors is a great way for children to gain practice observing, interacting with, and acting upon the environment around them. Allowing children to increase their spatial cognitive skills, by perhaps giving them a map and asking them to navigate their surroundings, or to find something, is a simple task that has been shown to improve future ability to map the area around themselves cognitively (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018d). Similarly, the use of tools may improve a child’s ability to mentally manipulate objects in their mind. All of these go back to play.
While Piaget may have underestimated the abilities that young children have, it is important to respect the function of age-appropriate activities. There are many ways that learning can be fostered that do not involve using a methodology that was invented, and has taken hundreds of years to perfect, by some of the brightest adults in history. Certainly, children can understand some components of the scientific method relatively well by the time they are in fifth or sixth grade, but a preschooler is unlikely to benefit from a formal lab session.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018a). Biological Bases of Cognitive Development. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018b). Social Construction of Mind: Sociocultural Perspectives on Cognitive Development. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018c). Thinking in Symbols: Development of Representation. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018d). Development of Folk Knowledge. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bjorklund, D. F. & Causey, K. B. (2018e). Learning to Think on Their Own: Executive Function, Strategies and Problem Solving. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (Sixth Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.