Dialogue on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education


The Forum on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education

Jacqueline R. Johnson

The forum on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education, convened by Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, created a learning community of early childhood practitioners and researchers, scholars, and technological experts from the sciences and mathematics. These individuals explored the status of mathematics, science, and technological education in the early childhood years. The forum was convened in February 1998 in an effort to:

johnson1.jpg (8278 bytes)This paper synthesizes the issues and findings from the forum. It provides an overview of what we know about mathematics, science, and technology education; identifies exemplars of good practice; and identifies obstacles to goal achievement. Specifically, this paper considers the issues and agenda that prompted the meeting. It also presents a preliminary agenda for future work and possible funding initiatives in this arena.

In “Science Assessment in Early Childhood Programs” (page 106), Edward Chittenden and Jacqueline Jones recount a kindergarten class’s observation of a dead fish. The narrative provides an example of the promise and potential of early childhood science education. In “Young Children and Technology,” Douglas Clements likens the power of effective scientific and mathematical thinking (which he describes as “integrated-concrete thinking,”) to the strength of sidewalk concrete (page 100). In each case, strength is provided by “the combination of many separate ideas (particles) in an interconnected structure of knowledge.” These two examples, which I have labeled “dead fish” and “sidewalk glue,” respectively, aptly characterize the ongoing work of practitioners and researchers in early childhood education.

Why Now?

Three main factors provided the impetus for the Forum on Early Childhood Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology: (1) increasing numbers of children are enrolled in some type of preschool program; (2) widespread agreement exists on the need for students to be science literate if they are to succeed in today’s rapidly changing world, yet few preschool programs address science, mathematics, and technology; and (3) the growing number of new technologies opens up myriad possibilities for preschool learning. These factors are discussed in the following sections.

Children Are Not at Home Anymore

As one presenter stated in her introductory remarks, “This forum is in large part a response to reality—children ages three to six aren’t at home anymore.” Indeed, the percentage of children three to five years of age enrolled in nursery school or preschool programs in each state ranges from 50 percent to 69 percent. Although the United States lags far behind other industrialized democratic countries in its provision of public pre-primary education for three- to five-year-olds, the actual number of children in preschool daycare or educational settings has grown dramatically in the past 10 years. Increased numbers of single parents and the workforce participation of both parents in two-parent households are among the factors contributing to this tremendous growth.

State spending for these programs varies from $0.24 per child in Idaho to more than $70 per child in Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. Predictably, the difference in the types of care experienced by preschool children is considerable. For some families, preschool care takes place in an educational setting with highly qualified professionals in charge. For many others, however, the pre-primary experience takes place in daycare centers or private homes—licensed or unlicensed—where workers are poorly paid and largely untrained and where worker turnover is high.

It is clear that the education of preschool-age children is no longer solely a family, private endeavor. With increasing numbers of preschool children in “public” settings for extended periods of time, there is a need to create some coherence in what children learn. Yet high-quality preschool education is far from commonplace—even less common are preschool programs that include science, mathematics, and technology. The welfare of our children is of concern to us all as they are the future of a democratic society. This concern was one of the principle reasons this forum was held.

The Literacy People Got There First

Conference participants carefully documented the long-term benefits—educational and social—of high-quality preschool education. In part, shifts in this country’s social, political, and economic systems have resulted in more children being “available” as potential beneficiaries of high-quality preschool programs. For a variety of reasons, however, even high-quality programs do not emphasize mathematical, scientific, and technological learning.

Education in mathematics and science has long been given minimal attention in early childhood education programs. There is a sense that the literacy people got there first. In other words, there is a common perception that the language arts play a predominant role in early childhood education, to the exclusion of mathematics and science. The forum was convened in part to address this issue. It focused on the need to place science and mathematics education in the preschool curriculum and on the need to consider the role that each subject plays in the cognitive and intellectual development of the child.

johnson2.jpg (9963 bytes)Recent findings regarding the relatively poor international performance of American students in mathematics and science have heightened concerns and raised anew questions about the “preparedness” and “readiness” of our young people as they enter school. Have educators, communities, and parents done all they can do to set the stage for success in mathematics, science, and technology at the earliest levels of formal education, that is, at preschool?

These concerns allowed participants in the forum to articulate a number of questions related to the topic of science, mathematics, and technology education in early childhood. What do we know about the predisposition of young people to learn science and mathematics concepts and theories between the ages of three and eight? What might we need to “unlearn”? How do we measure the “success” of our efforts? How do we import and export models of success to arenas other than those in which they are piloted? These questions, raised against the backdrop of our social and economic concerns with intellectual competitiveness in an international arena, were another motivating force behind the forum.

The Seductive Computer

A third factor that prompted this conference relates to the transformation of intellectual inquiry brought about by the ready availability of computer and other information technologies. In documenting the availability of computers in preschool settings, Douglas Clements states that the computer to student ratio changed from 1:125 in 1984 to 1:10 in 1997 (page 92). The question is no longer whether computers can assist in learning in general, and in mathematical and scientific learning in particular, but rather how computers can and should be used and to what end. The presence of new technologies—including child-friendly computer software in mathematics—and the ease with which young children use these technologies, prompted us all to consider the various ways that computers can foster the skills, the conceptual frameworks, and the social aspects of mathematics and science learning.

What Do We Know?

One important outcome of this forum is that it helped to identify and illuminate what the varied constituencies already know about several seemingly disparate areas, each of which significantly affects early childhood education.

Rethinking Children’s Conceptual and Theoretical Abilities

David Elkind points out in “Educating Young Children in Math, Science, and Technology” (page 62) that mathematics, science, and technology are adult abstractions. Nevertheless, the world of the child is, in fact, replete with opportunities to directly experience these abstractions. Moreover, children are always engaged in efforts to make sense of the world. Science is a way of thinking, a way of being in the world. The challenge is to find the means to encourage mathematical and scientific thinking in such a way that enhances children’s readiness to learn and expands children’s concepts and knowledge. As Susan Sperry Smith suggests in “Early Childhood Mathematics,” (page 87) the teacher’s task is to help children “re-invent” their knowledge of science and mathematics.

Although in the past educational research has cast doubt on the abilities of very young children to understand science and mathematics, more recent work grounded in developmental and cognitive psychology suggests that children are indeed capable of concept-based theoretical learning. In “Concept Development in Preschool Children,” (page 50) Susan Gelman carefully documents this new approach. She identifies four key themes from recent research:

In addition, Gelman calls our attention to the difference between what children actually do and what children can do, i.e., their capabilities. Similar to other contributors to this forum (especially New and Clements), Gelman cautions us to avoid underestimating the cognitive, conceptual, and theoretical abilities of the child. Indeed, she claims that the purpose of her paper is to shatter “several myths about children’s early concepts” (page 57). She provides evidence that shows “that even preschool children make use of concepts to expand knowledge via inductive inferences, that children’s concepts are heterogeneous and do not undergo qualitative shifts during development, and that children’s concepts incorporate non-perceptual elements from a young age.…Children’s concepts are in fact far more sophisticated than has been traditionally assumed…” (page 57).

Douglas Clements raises similar issues in relation to the potential of the computer—a tool that facilitates abstract and higher order reasoning—to enhance the cognitive and intellectual development of very young children. (See page 92.) This is particularly effective in relation to mathematics reasoning. Clements illuminates the manner in which children use the computer to engage in complex computational activities previously thought to be beyond their reach. Depending on the spatial arrangements in which computers are housed and the manner in which they are used in the classroom, computers can also facilitate the collaborative and cooperative process that is the foundation of successful scientific reasoning and inquiry. Clements, however, in spite of—or perhaps because of—his belief in the educational effectiveness of computer technology, cautions us that technology serves the science and art of teaching and learning, not the other way around.

Thus, the forum revealed in a public way the findings of contemporary researchers: We know that children are capable of more than we had previously thought. We know that, given the resources, we can provide very young children with inviting technological products that will further develop their abilities. Yet we also know that mathematics and science are too often absent in early childhood settings.

Rethinking Early Childhood Curriculum

Mathematics and science education are given short shrift in the preschool context. In addition, education in mathematics and science at this age level seems counterintuitive to many. Science and mathematics have been perceived and presented as too formal, too abstract, and too theoretical—in short, too hard for very young children and their teachers. Moreover, the “constructivist” approach in educational philosophy, which places the child at the center of the educational process and the teacher in the non-authoritarian role of observer, facilitator, even “outsider,” may fuel the misconception that science and mathematics education should not occur at the early childhood levels. Science instruction has long been teacher-centered, with the teacher as the authority figure. However, early childhood educators know that authority-based, teacher-centered instruction is inappropriate for preschool children. While research on effective teaching and learning refutes the notion of teacher-as-authority and new approaches to science education eschew it, the image persists. This perception has led many educators to abandon the concept of teaching science to young children. One of our challenges, then, is to rethink both science education and preschool curriculum.

Teaching the Teachers

Those least likely to be educated in mathematics and science are ironically the ones most likely to be in the classroom or in childcare settings. Not only is there an extraordinary range in educational background of early childcare workers, certified teachers often express an aversion to mathematics and science and are concerned about their abilities to instruct in these areas. The paper by Juanita Copley and Yolanda Padrón addresses this issue specifically, noting that “few professional development programs focus specifically on mathematics and science concepts in early childhood” (page 120).

Forum participants discussed this issue at length and concluded that—at least for certified teachers—general science courses in colleges and universities need to be redesigned with mathematics and science literacy in mind. At my own institution, a National Science Foundation project funded earlier in this decade led to the creation of general education classes with special hands-on lab components for prospective elementary teachers. These courses in biology, geology, physics, and chemistry epitomize the ideas expressed in the forum—that science is a way of being, thinking, and doing. Interestingly, these classes have become almost as attractive to non-education majors as they are to those seeking certification, and not because they are easy. Rather, they enliven science in a way that more traditionally designed science classes have been unable to do.

Good Practice

Several presenters from the forum remind us that there are many long-standing models of good practice in early childhood education, including Montessori, Highscope, Creative Curriculum, and Reggio Emilia. For the most part, these approaches emphasize the role of the teacher as facilitator, provider of appropriate context, provocateur. As one of the presenters said, these models encourage children to get “stuck,” then help them to discover ways to get “unstuck.” The models are grounded in the belief that children learn best by doing. Within this framework, “children are encouraged to handle objects, observe and predict results, hear and use language, and collaborate with adults and older children to develop ideas.” This approach seems especially conducive to learning scientific “habits of mind,” even as it calls into question more traditional conceptions about science education, which place the teacher in the role of authority.

Implicitly or explicitly, all the models emphasize the importance of observing and documenting children’s work—including documenting and recording children’s “talk”—as a way of discovering how children learn best. “Science Assessment in Early Childhood Programs” by Chittenden and Jones identifies a variety of measures that can assess the effectiveness of programs for mathematics and science education and advocates, as most assessment experts do, the use of multiple measures.

In “Early Childhood Mathematics,” Susan Sperry Smith provides further models of good practice in early childhood mathematics and science education. Smith takes us into the world of the classroom and provides us with tangible examples of how early mathematics education can “work” appropriately and effectively in the hands of knowledgeable and accomplished teachers.

Barriers and Obstacles

We have seen that there are examples of good practice. There are also emerging paradigms that call into question previously held beliefs about the limited abilities of very young children in terms of their conceptual and theoretical sophistication with respect to science and mathematics. New computer software further encourages scientific thinking and doing—reflection and synthesis, collaboration and cooperation. Nevertheless, the excitement generated by the promise of this research and these models is tempered somewhat by the reality of making them available to all of our nation’s children. What are the other obstacles to our success?

Teacher Preparation

First we need to teach the teachers. Mathematics, science, and technological education of our preschoolers will not take place unless teachers are appropriately disengaged of their fears and anxieties in these areas.

Reproducing Social Inequalities in Educational Programs

Effective education cannot occur as long as access to high-quality preschool educational programs remains inequitable. Even though research indicates the need to invest in early childhood education and illustrates the benefits accrued when we do, “…Only 45 percent of three- to five-year-olds from low-income families [are] enrolled in early childhood programs, compared with 71 percent from their high-income counterparts” (Day and Yarbrough, page 32–33). Statistics from the Annie E. Casey Foundation cited on page 33 “reveal that a large portion of children do not participate in early childhood programs.” Furthermore, “…the range of financial investment in early childhood education varies greatly from state to state” (Day and Yarbrough, page 33). Keep in mind that these data only pertain to those children who are actually in relatively formalized early childhood educational programs. They do not account for those children enrolled in daycare programs—licensed or unlicensed—that lack any structured educational component.

New reminds us on pages 141–142 that education, albeit inadvertently, reproduces social and cultural systems, including the existing system of economic inequity. On pages 118–119, Copley and Padrón argue that these inequities are further exacerbated by the increasingly diverse cultural and language backgrounds of children in the American educational system, the lack of teacher preparedness to teach in the face of this diversity, and teachers’ lack of facility with mathematics and science. One has to wonder where to begin.

Our sensitivity to diversity may actually perpetuate educational inequities. In our efforts to be fair, to acknowledge multiple cultural backgrounds, and to respect difference, we may abdicate our responsibilities to create common bodies of knowledge and abilities, thus closing doors well before high school to those who most need them opened (see New, page 143). Science and mathematics, because of their ubiquitous presence in the daily experiences of all groups, ought to be the great equalizers. Instead, they have long been the great dividers. The need to reverse this trend is apparent, and more pressing than ever.

Providing access to high-quality early childhood education programs, finding ways to successfully replicate pilot programs that work to reach children on a larger scale, and overcoming the anxieties that teachers themselves feel toward the subject present the greatest obstacles to success in this domain. These areas should receive considerable attention and resources in the near future.

Support for New Initiatives

What needs to be done? What kinds of initiatives deserve support? Several possibilities emerged from the work of this forum.

Materials Development and Dissemination

johnson3.jpg (13385 bytes)Although many of the resources needed for science and mathematics education are available in the natural environment of the child, scores of existing curriculum materials, mathematics manipulatives, and computer software enhance this learning. All children would benefit from efforts to disseminate these materials more widely. The U.S. Department of Education’s Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) already provides a resource bank for teachers and parents. Linking early childhood personnel to existing resources, increasing their familiarity with the materials available, and increasing the technological literacy of early childhood practitioners are all worthy endeavors. Encouraging practitioners to use online data sources and to communicate with their peers via online study groups could significantly enhance preschool efforts in mathematics and science literacy, as well as increase the technological literacy of those same practitioners.

Collaborations Between Researchers and Practitioners

Practitioners attending the forum warned against the dangers of putting the research scientists in charge. Instead, they suggested that providing opportunities for academics and early childcare employees to work side-by-side could produce the most fruitful results. Beginning on page 123, Copley and Padrón recount the successes of several existing programs that engage early elementary school educators, prospective teachers, and university faculty in what appear to be highly productive exchanges. We should attend to the practitioners’ warnings and further explore and foster such “side-by-side” initiatives.

Science and Mathematics General Education

General education initiatives that can help prospective early childhood educators to overcome their anxieties about science and mathematics are worthy of support. Nothing is more apparent from this forum than the need to enhance the mathematics and science education of preschool teachers. Their preparation in these subjects is the cornerstone of children’s success. If the teachers see themselves as unable, if they believe that mathematics and science are too hard, then we will never reach the first national Educational Goal as defined by Congress and the nation’s governors: “All children come to school ready to learn.”

Science and Assessment

We would do well to support research efforts that 1) examine the implications of K-12 standards in science and mathematics for early childhood education and 2) determine appropriate ways to assess our efforts to impart this content to very young children.

Final Words

Given the gross inequities in the provision of high-quality early childhood education, initiatives that benefit the most needy families must receive top funding priority. Even with the best assessment and evaluation measures, it is difficult to sort out the reasons for the success of initiatives and programs that occur in privileged settings. Numerous advantages exist in these settings—in the physical environment, the superior education of the personnel, the teacher/student ratio, and even in the prior experiences of the children themselves. While it is encouraging that some programs work, we will only enjoy true success when these programs reach across economic and social lines to serve teachers and children in the most disadvantaged circumstances.


Bowman, B. (1998). Policy Implications for Math, science, and technology in early childhood education. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Chittenden, E., and Jones, J. (1998). Science assessment in early childhood programs. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education: Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Clements, D. (1998). Young children and technology. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Copley, J.V., and Padrón, Y. (1998). Preparing teachers of young learners: Professional development of early childhood teachers in mathematics and science. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Day, B., and Yarbrough, T. (1998). The state of early childhood programs in America: Challenges for the new millenium. Dialogue on early childhood education: Expert research and views on when and how children should learn science, mathematics and technology. Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Elkind, D. (1998). Educating young children in math, science, and technology. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Gelman, S.A. (1998). Concept development in preschool children. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

New, R.S. (1998). Playing fair and square: Issues of equity in preschool mathematics, science, and technology. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Smith, S. S. (1998). Early childhood mathematics. Dialogue on early childhood science, mathematics, and technology education. Washington, DC: Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Jacqueline R. Johnson is professor of sociology and chair of the department of anthropology and sociology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI.

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