Preschool Teachers: Scapegoats for Poor Academic Performance in Science

Preschool activity. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Meredith Rumore
BU News Service

In the worldwide academic rat race of science proficiency, American children are already behind by the time they reach elementary school. Many suggest this is because children aren’t interested in science. But a 2017 study by researchers at Michigan State University pinned the source of low science testing scores on a surprisingly early influence: preschool teachers.

Most preschool teachers don’t teach academic science in their classrooms. The preschool version of science education is the encouragement of exploration and curiosity. For example, teachers might ask questions about a student’s favorite animal in order to encourage critical thinking, such as, “Why does a giraffe have a long neck?” or “Where do bats go in the daytime?” Or they might plan activities such as building a birdhouse or baking a cake in order to teach measuring skills and problem-solving.

Professor Hope Gerde and her team of researchers at MSU Department of Human Development and Family Studies polled teachers from 67 preschool programs in the central Michigan suburbs west of Detroit, asking them to self-report on their academic capability and personal interest in science. The teachers reported little academic capability, meaning that they didn’t believe they’re scientifically literate or thought they would perform poorly in scientific subjects if tested. They also reported low personal interest in science and mathematics.

Not surprisingly then, only 42 percent of the teachers said they instructed students in science. In contrast, 99 percent of them instructed students in literacy and reading four to five times a week. Many said they were afraid of teaching science because of bad past experiences in their own education.

Gerde’s study is a step forward in looking at whether the educational tone set in preschool carries into elementary school. In a MSU press release, she suggested that preschool teachers who avoid teaching science may be planting seeds of disinterest in students that sprout in elementary school, leading to poor testing scores.

“Providing quality early-childhood science education is one way to improve the very low science achievement of U.S. elementary school children,” Gerde said in the release. “However, it seems the preschool teachers in our study were more confident of their ability in literacy than in science – likely creating a gap between children’s literacy development and science skills.”

Others say the explanation for low science achievement in elementary and high school is more complex, with several other factors in play. The educational strategies and financial decisions of policy-makers, school administrators and even parents also contribute to lack of interest and subsequent poor testing scores in science among American students. This, combined with the fact that very little research has been done on preschool science education, makes it hard to draw a conclusion from a single study’s results.

Karen Worth, an award-winning instructor of elementary education at Wheelock College, believes that researchers don’t study preschoolers because they’re too difficult to examine in controlled environments. Children at this age require a lot of supervision and aren’t cooperative, so they take a long time to assess. For that reason, preschoolers can be expensive study subjects.

Gerde and her team acknowledge that there’s more research on elementary education than preschool education. Their study specifically examines preschool teachers in order to explore the possibility that this problem begins before elementary school, but makes no comparison between preschool and elementary school teachers.

Worth doesn’t support the idea that preschool teachers are to blame for low science testing scores. While she thinks the results of the study are valid and important, she places most blame on elementary education, which other studies have shown to be inadequate.

According to Jane Lannak, director of Boston University’s Early Childhood Learning Lab, Gerde’s study overlooked the inherent scientific curiosity of preschool-aged children. Lannak has years of experience developing and implementing early childhood education training programs. She believes preschoolers are excellent scientists because they actively try to make sense of the world. They learn with a natural curiosity and love to explore. Lannak is a proponent of inquiry-based learning – a pedagogical method that encourages question-asking and problem-solving. Even when the rising number of pro-science preschool educators is ignored, the theory that preschool teachers are suppressing the natural instincts of children is far-fetched.

A possible caveat in Gerde’s data is that both researchers and preschool teachers may not recognize certain classroom activities as science-related. The majority of preschool programs are play-oriented and provide toy rooms, arts and crafts activities and outdoor recess. These exercises form the foundation of science learning and build a good environment for science education – they’re just not taken advantage of by preschool teachers who aren’t able to identify the value of play-oriented learning activities.

“Teachers have a wrong idea of what science is,” Worth said. “And that’s the kind of science they don’t want to teach in the classroom, not the practice of scientific inquiry and curiosity like in gardening, cooking, building or riding a bike.”

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