Wait, Wait—Don’t Tell Me!


Preschool-microscopeWe often hear how important STEM education is for America’s children. Yet as a science educator I must frequently confront the frustrating reality that science education for young children—specifically preschool through grade 2—is poorly understood by so many adults, including those who talk up the need for STEM. To support this claim I will refer to a NY Times blog post of June 9 that describes a study published in Psychological Science (Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad, conducted by Anna V. Fisher, Karrie E. Godwin and Howard Seltman) on whether colorful wall decorations in kindergarten classrooms “…encourage, or actually distract from, learning.” This study was conducted during science lessons taught to the 5 year olds.

Many people question the need for studies on such mundane topics. On the NPR news/humor game show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” host  Peter Sagal often asks panelists questions about the findings of  seemingly dubious studies, such as what influences whether a cow stands up at a particular moment, whether workers who watch kitten videos at work are more productive afterwards, or whether rats regret bad decisions. On these occasions if Paula Poundstone is one of the panelists, she will say something like, “Sure glad they answered that question.” Or, “I could have told them the answer just by my intuition!” Or, “There are so many things to control for!” She appears to be incredulous that people are funded for such studies. The audience members are invariably in stitches, as apparently many share in Ms. Poundstone’s amazement and seeming good sense.

Unlike Paula Poundstone’s impression of the studies she hears about on “Wait, Wait…,” I think the research referred to in the Times article begins by posing an important question, one in which many kindergarten teachers have a great deal of interest. The Times goes on to describe the study’s methodology:

“For the new study, 24 kindergartners were taught in two classroom settings: one unadorned, the other festooned with commercial materials like posters and maps, as well as the children’s artwork. The children sat on carpet squares in a semicircle facing the teacher, who read aloud from a picture book. They took six five- to seven-minute science lessons over two weeks on topics such as plate tectonics, the solar system and bugs. After each lesson, the children took multiple-choice picture tests. The lessons were videotaped, to monitor how often the children’s gazes wandered.”

Wait, wait… plate tectonics? In kindergarten? Let’s not even talk about the relative validity of multiple-choice tests at this age. I don’t know about you, but my introduction to plate tectonics came much later than kindergarten, and I still had (and have) a hard time understanding the factors at work. I would assert that plate tectonics is not an appropriate science topic for 5 year olds. Although the study claims topics were chosen from the Pennsylvania Science and Technology Education Standards, my reading of the standards indicates that in Kindergarten children should “Distinguish between three types of earth materials—rock, soil, and sand.” This sounds appropriate to me—these are materials young children can handle, observe closely and describe, unlike the forces and materials involved in plate tectonics.

I take issue not only with the use of plate tectonics as one of the topics for the study, but also with reading as the method of delivery of information. Young children must be actively engaged, investigating phenomena to begin to explore the content and processes of science. Reading does play an important role in science, but reading is used best when mapped on to children’s first-hand experiences.

My point is that reading a book about plate tectonics to determine science understanding of Kindergartners is dubious on many fronts. In fairness, the books used by the study (the Let’s Read and Find Out Series) are decent ones for this age. However, reading them to children is more an exercise in reading informational text than it is teaching science.

To repeat: I do think the question about whether or not kindergartners are distracted by wall decorations is a good one to pose, given the prevalence of such decorations in classrooms. I just wish the researchers had not considered their methods to represent appropriate science content or teaching strategies, and had engaged the children in something more appropriate for their age range in order to try to determine the answer to the question. That this was not questioned by the author of the NY Times article, the subsequent commenters to the story, many of whom did decry the use of testing, or by the personnel in the school in which the study took place has me concerned about how we all view science teaching and learning for young children. This at a time when—if one listens to all the buzz about STEM— our students really need it.



 Share your views
  1. Excellent column. Thanks for challenging conventional wisdom about science education.

  2. Great blog post, Jeff. As usual, you impart your excellent message with humor, insight, and evidence-based clear-headed reasoning. Based on how you get there, who couldn’t embrace your conclusions?

  3. Jeff-
    As a colleague of yours, I never tire of your comments pertaining to which science topics are relevant in the early childhood realm!! You bring up several good points in your blog. Please keep it up!!!

  4. I agree with you Jeff, that solely reading nonfiction about scientific topics is not age-appropriate science learning for kindergartners. And it should not be described as a science lesson. Although I think young children are capable of understanding the idea of a portion of a “crust” sliding under a larger piece, I think reflecting on their experiences with the earth outside their classroom door (or in a nearby unpaved area) will teach them more about the structure of the Earth and earth science processes. Interesting nonfiction can support this direct learning.

    And I am delighted that the question of how to use wall space to support children’s learning is being investigated. Bulletin boards are often assigned responsibilities for teachers to “fill.” I would like to know what content productively supports my students’ learning before I spend time and money on this task.