The growing emphasis on math and science instruction in elementary and secondary grades is almost nowhere to be found in many preschools and early childhood settings, an expert in the field told a Baton Rouge audience Wednesday.
Kimberly Brenneman, program officer for education at the Heising-Simons Foundation in Los Altos, California, laid out for an audience of more than 150 people gathered at the Crowne Plaza hotel what she described as a dismal state of affairs.
She summarized what researchers have found observing preschool classrooms. In one study, researchers found that during a six-hour day, just 58 seconds were devoted to math. Another, observing a prekindergarten for a day, found 3 percent of the time was occupied by teaching math, and only 1 percent on science. And yet another covering 49 hours in six classrooms found no math taught at all.
When surveyed, though, early childhood educators tell researchers that they are interested in incorporating more such instruction — STEM, as it’s called these days, short for science, technology, engineering and math — into their classrooms, but they have little training or experience in actually teaching it.
“They believe in the power of STEM,” said Brenneman, a developmental psychologist and an education researcher. “They just want help to do it well.”
Brenneman’s talk, titled “The Early Years Count: Why STEM Matters for Young Children,” is part of a recently revived speaker series focusing on early childhood education. The Academic Distinction Fund, which organized the original series, has brought in the Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System, which has made STEM a key focus area, to co-host. ExxonMobil and the Credit Bureau of Baton Rouge are the sponsors.
Before her current job, Brenneman spent 14 years at Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research. She served as its principal investigator on projects on ways to foster STEM learning for young children in the school and home.
Widespread fear and anxiety about math and science among educators is partly why such instruction is so rare in the early years, she said. In addition, she said, early literacy and social-and-emotional learning dominate the school day to the exclusion of other subjects.
And when math is taught, it often goes no further than learning numbers and shapes, she said.
“There’s a wider idea of what mathematics in preschool is than many of us realize,” she said. “Many of us think it’s counting, but it’s so much more.”
It’s long been known by researchers that reading levels of young children are a good predictor of how well they will read when they get older. More recent research has found that early math and science skills are good predictors not only of future math and science ability, but also children’s future reading achievement, Brenneman said.
“I’m really for literacy and language arts. I don’t want to suggest otherwise, but we need support in these other areas,” she said. “It’s not an either-or situation. These go together.”
She showed videos of 3-year-olds in Boston learning elements of geometry. One involved students identifying shapes and arranging them to fill out puzzle patterns drawn on pieces of paper. One girl, doing something similar on a computer, couldn’t help but be proud of herself as she moved a trapezoid into place.
“Most people don’t know what trapezoids are,” the girl said, looking at the camera with a sly smile.
“That little girl owns that word!” Brenneman interjected.
Brenneman highlighted several efforts to boost not only math and science, but also rudimentary engineering and technology instruction, in the early years.
One idea Brenneman came up with was to use Leo Lionni’s 1969 children’s story “Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse” to explain the difference between animate and inanimate objects. She shows young children pictures of a real mouse and a toy mouse and asks them to explain how the two are different.
“One needs someone to wind up the windy thingy, and one moves on his own legs,” one child explained.
Later, she has the children open up the wind-up toys and identify the parts.
Brenneman said the exercise shows that children can handle more complexity than commonly thought.
“They are sorting the world in very different ways. It’s science we’re talking about,” she said. “And since we’re talking about wind-up toys, we’re talking about engineering, too.”