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Young children’s performance in science and technology depends on the context

27 March 2014

Young children are fascinated by anything to do with science and technology. All adults are familiar with the ‘why?’ questions. Heidi Meindertsma studied the way that young children perform when asked to predict and explain particular aspects of a particular task. ‘The way young children perform depends largely on the context, such as the way the task is organized or the type of objects we use. The adult’s behaviour also has great impact on how a child will perform.’ Meindertsma will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 13 March.

What you expect from young children in terms of science and technology, and under which circumstances? This was the key question in the PhD research conducted by Heidi Meindertsma. Her research was part of the TalentenKracht research programme, which aims to sustain the natural interest shown by children between three and fourteen years old in science and technology. Meindertsma: ‘If you want to know why young children are so fascinated by science and technology, you must first find out exactly what they are capable of. Once you know that, you can look for ways of sustaining their interest as they grow older.’

Sink or float

Meindertsma asked pre-school children to perform various tasks. She then studied whether they could make predictions, such as whether a marble would sink or float, and whether they could explain their answer. Meindertsma: ‘Young children perform ad lib and their ideas change constantly. They are not aware that an object’s tendency to sink or float depends on its weight, so they come up with an explanation that seems logical at that particular moment. Knowledge only becomes automatic later on.’

Predicting and explaining are two separate processes

She was surprised to uncover very little common ground between being able to predict and being able to explain. ‘A child who can accurately predict that a pencil will float does not necessarily know why. Conversely, a child who makes an incorrect prediction may be able to give a complex, correct explanation. It would seem that young children learn to predict and to explain via two entirely separate learning processes, which have very little to do with each other.’

Fluctuating performance

Meindertsma also noticed significant fluctuations in the children’s performance: a child who could easily explain why a rubber floats and a marble sinks, was unable to explain why a pencil floats five minutes later. ‘This variation is striking. It seems to suggest that snapshot results (such as those from a test) are only indicative of what a child can do at that particular moment, but have little bearing on what he or she will be able to do the day after tomorrow.’

Adult influence

The context in which a task is carried out, and more importantly the adult supervising the task, have a huge impact on the way children perform. Meindertsma: ‘Children give the most complex explanations if the adult present encourages them by continually asking questions and repeating the tasks. Telling them the answer straight away is the easy way out. Young children will only come up with their own explanations if you keep asking. Their explanations can be highly resourceful. They might say that a pencil floats because it is blue, for example, or that a coin sinks because it’s money.’

Implications for education

Although this is fundamental research, Meindertsma is convinced that it has implications for education. ‘My research shows that young children benefit most from an optimum learning environment that allows them to discover things for themselves and come up with their own explanations. TalentenKracht thinks that what we are now seeing is the cumulative effect of not letting them do this at a young age. Children are losing their natural interest in science and technology and being deprived of a golden opportunity.’

Open conversation

Meindertsma would like to see teachers and parents spending more time talking to children about matters concerning science and technology. ‘If a child asks why the moon is so big tonight, try to have an open conversation about it instead of simply providing the answer. Let children think up their own explanations; this is how they learn.’ She adds that teachers must start these conversations with an open mind, and not think about the scores that this child usually achieves in his or her tests. ‘My personal opinion is that we put too much emphasis on tests, which do not reflect how a child has reached a particular level. The test says nothing about what a child might have learned if he or she had been taught differently, or what he or she may still learn in an optimum learning environment. My research shows that the performance of children (and young children in particular) varies greatly from day to day. One-off tests do not do them justice.’

Curriculum Vitae

Heidi Meindertsma (Groningen, 1980) studied Human Movement Sciences and Psychology at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences of the University of Groningen. Her thesis is entitled ‘Predictions and explanations: short-term processes of scientific understanding in young children’. Prof. P.L.C. van Geert is her supervisor and Dr M.W.G. van Dijk her co-supervisor. Meindertsma works in the Faculty as a lecturer/researcher.

Last modified:15 January 2018 11.00 a.m.
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