The Power (and Philosophy) of STEAM Learning, Part 2 – Science

Science is a way of observing the world and making predictions. 

When it comes to STEAM programming, science can typically be classified as a means of thinking and making predictions. According to the Boston Children’s Museum, students are “doing science” when they are “observing and experimenting, making predictions, sharing discoveries, asking questions, and wondering how things work.” Another way to think about science programming is that it has very little to do with providing answers or information to children. Instead, asking questions should be at least as highly lauded as having the correct answer. In an ideal world, answers are much less important than questions.

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It is important to note that children are naturally gifted question-askers. Most adults can identify a situation or period where a child regularly asks “why.” This often becomes frustrating to the adult, but for many children the adult frustration is not a side effect, but the goal. We must stop here and ask ourselves why (oh the irony!) too many questions are considered a bad thing.

According to recent studies, preschool-aged children ask their caregivers an average of 100 questions a day. However, by middle school, these numbers go down to the point where, statistically, children have stopped asking questions altogether. Middle school also marks the time where motivation for learning plummets in many students. It is unclear whether this drop causes a decrease in questioning, or the lack of space for questions causes a reduction in motivation. Regardless, it seems apparent that these two things are intrinsically tied together.

The Importance of Asking

Our role as educators is to encourage children to look at the world around them and ask questions. This is science, in its purest form. With this in mind, science becomes a way of thinking. As educators, one of the best things we can do is to offer a positive response to questions that children ask. We want to encourage asking questions, and even more so, we want to ask questions with them.

Responding to a question they don’t know how to answer can be intimidating to any adult, let alone a designated educator. At the Museum, we believe that questions like these are, in fact, the best ones. They allow the process of finding the answer to become the lesson, not the solution itself.

Shifting the Focus

Switching the focus from “why” to “what” is a good strategy for opening up a discussion. Asking a child (or anyone, really) why something happens implies that there is a correct answer. It may also imply that we expect that the individual knows it. If we want to encourage further questions, this will not be the most productive method.

By asking “what” questions, we are starting a conversation and becoming discoverers of knowledge, instead of recipients, as John Dewey would say. “What” questions focus on what is happening, what we are noticing, and what we are doing. The answers are immediately available through observation.

By focusing on what children observe and notice, we help them build the skills that make up science thinking and we show them that they have the expertise to discover knowledge by observing the world around them. “What” questions help students become observers of the world around them, also known as scientists.

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A Toolbox of “What” Questions

  • What happened there?
  • What did you try?
  • What have you changed?
  • What else could you change?
  • What do you think will happen if we _____?

As illustrated beautifully in the comic “A Day in the Park,” answers are useful, but questions can keep up with the ever-changing present.

Our imperative as educators is to help children ask questions, to encourage them to ask questions, and to ask questions with them. It is, however, rarely, our job to answer them. The accurate measure of early childhood science education comes from the educator and the questions that they inspire. This ability to ebb and flow with thoughts and connections is one of the superpowers of children.

Happy questioning!

– Chris

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