We’ve heard plenty about the lousy performance of U.S. students in math and science, with accompanying alarm bells about future economic implications. A recent Education Lab story provides a case in point.
Now comes a raft of research suggesting that better science education could reap rewards even greater than creating an army of chemists.
The Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan policy center, has years of data showing that early education in science and math may be even more important to — and predictive of — future academic success than reading skills.
Here’s why: Science, even at the most basic level, requires reflection and explanation (providing a boost to vocabulary). It also involves identifying patterns, combining measurements and problem-solving — all key for math.
Visit any preschool where children are exploring ingredients and combining them (often called the “sensory table”). You’ll see kids using math concepts (“more than,” “less than”), and trying out adjectives like sticky, oily, grainy and fluffy.
As well, most science lessons demand self-control, memory and cognitive flexibility — all “executive function” skills strongly correlated with later school achievement. “Science does not detract from literacy development; in fact, it contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3,” the Education Commission says.
But here’s the rub. Many preschool teachers have no background in science, and research suggests that those who work with low-income children tend to emphasize rote tasks and memorization over reasoning.
The message for policy-makers: Make professional development in science more than a quickie one-off. Show educators how to design lessons that teach multiple skills simultaneously. (The Center for Inquiry Science, in Seattle, has been doing this for years.)
The evidence is clear, concludes the Education Commission: “These kinds of professional development approaches are not inexpensive, but money spent on quick, but ineffective, approaches is simply wasted.”