Deepening Discussion of STEM for Early Learners, Part 2

Blog Post
June 20, 2016
This is part two of a two-part series that highlights and expands on topics from Fostering STEM Trajectories, a forum hosted on May 31-June 1 by New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and funded by the National Science Foundation.

It was a question I should have seen coming: A few days before our forum at New America on early childhood and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), I mentioned the topic to the father of a six-year-old girl. He seemed concerned. “Is my child already behind?” he asked. “Should I be drilling her in math?”

No. Please no.

I rushed to tell him about the power of children playing with blocks, not only in pre-K but also in the early grades, and especially when a parent or educator can gently guide and challenge them. I explained that a growing number of early childhood experts are taking new cues from cognitive science that show how young children begin to learn mathematical concepts and how well their brains are attuned for scientific thinking as they explore their world.

But I also realized that his question was a warning sign. It hinted at communications challenges and serious misunderstandings about what it looks like to teach STEM. Those misunderstandings could blunt any efforts at boosting the system and focusing on educator training so that children can thrive and grow into confident students in these subject areas.

The two-day forum, Fostering STEM Trajectories, was designed with our partner, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, to stimulate discussion on upgrading the research enterprise to catalyze STEM learning in children’s early childhood years (including the K-3rd grades).  A recent post from the Cooney Center explains our task, and  Part 1 of this blog series  recaps a luncheon discussion of best practices across the PreK-12 age span in the United States and internationally. The forum ran from May 31 to June 1 and was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of a larger project.

As the forum progressed, two huge hurdles came into view: the public’s misunderstanding of STEM in early learning (hinted at by my friend’s question days before) and the almost debilitating constraints placed on today’s educators who work with young children.

On that first hurdle, research from the Frameworks Institute is eye-opening. Frameworks founder Susan Nall Bales addressed many of these points in her remarks at the White House STEM event in April. At our forum, CEO Nat Kendall-Taylor showed several person-on-the-street videos that laid bare the challenge. Several people in the videos, who come from all walks of life, expressed the belief that STEM was too specialized for young children and that kids would be better served by just going “back to the basics.” There is a perception, Kendall-Taylor said, that “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” are all kids need. This gets in the way of helping people see any benefits of introducing early concepts in science and engineering, on opening up discussions of the uses of technology, or on providing opportunities for children to gain any math exposure beyond simple addition and subtraction.

Another challenge comes with people’s perceptions of early learning. Frameworks’ research on the communication of issues in early childhood shows that “the imperiled child” is a common way for the public to think about young kids. When concerns center primarily on how much adults are trying to “hurry” children, that can derail efforts to provide them with more learning opportunities.

The second hurdle—the state of today’s early childhood workforce—is rapidly gaining attention in policy and research circles. In her keynote address, Deborah Phillips, a professor of psychology and an associated faculty member in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, described the challenges faced in today’s systems of early learning but also framed her remarks in the context of insights from new research on child development. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, she said, have driven cutting-edge research in early STEM learning that offer many lessons in how to improve educational opportunities for children in ways that recognize their capacities to learn.

“Children get into everything and constantly ask ‘why, why, why?’ ” she said. “It is a tiny leap from this understanding to appreciate that asking whether the early childhood years are too early to be learning STEM concepts is the wrong question. The right question is, why do we tolerate an early childhood system that misses so many opportunities to build on children’s natural curiosity and drive to learn STEM concepts?”  (Go to the :32 minute mark in this video to hear her keynote.)

Phillips cited Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8a volume published last year by the National Research Council that calls for giving more support to early educators and other professionals who work with young children—and raising the bar for their training. (For full disclosure, I was a member of the Committee on the Science of Children: Birth to Age 8 that wrote the Transforming the Workforce report.)  The volume, which was sponsored by four national philanthropies, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education, includes a chapter that synthesizes the latest research on what and how young children learn. In addition to laying the groundwork for deeper understanding of children’s cognitive and social development, it explains how children acquire skills and knowledge in language and literacy, mathematics, science, and technology. (For those eager to jump in, a fascinating discussion of these subject areas starts at page 107.) In math, for example, the report states that young children “possess a remarkably broad, complex, and sophisticated—albeit informal—knowledge of mathematics” that can be built upon “if given opportunities to learn.” And yet, “early childhood classrooms typically are ill suited to helping children learn mathematics and underestimate their ability to do so.”  As recounted later in the report, this deficit likely derives from a host of problems with teacher preparation systems, a lack of effective continuing education for teachers, a resistance to changing classroom routines, and disparities in compensation, including the stress and retention problems that are inherent in working for very low pay.

Addressing these issues begs the question: What should those “opportunities to learn” actually look like? Answering this may be the best way to paddle out of what Kendall-Taylor calls the “swamp” of public perceptions on STEM. Many early educators and parents recoil at the idea of pushing more rote learning on children, filling them up with “science” words, or putting them in whole groups to chant numbers up to 20.  Many experts at the forum have spent their careers exploring different ways of teaching STEM, such as encouraging kids to closely observe insects and consider why they move the way they do, or helping children grasp the interrelated concepts of “more” and “less” while also examining and seeking out different geometric shapes (for an example, see Doug Clements explain a fun whole-body activity that children enjoy; video here at the 4:34 minute mark). This may take a concerted effort at erasing what the Transforming the Workforce report, and many other experts, have concluded is a false dichotomy between “play” and “learning.”

And of course large systemic divides between the birth-to-five world of early learning and the K-3rd grades can exacerbate these false dichotomies. Broadly speaking, parents and even educators may perceive that before age five children should just “play” and that after five they should stop playing and become “students.”  Promoting policies that help to bridge the birth-to-five and K-12 divide (a key mission of New America’s Early and Elementary Education Policy Program) would also help to change these perceptions.

In the coming months, New America and our partners at the Cooney Center will continue to reflect on the themes that recurred in this forum and grapple with overcoming these hurdles to improving STEM learning for young kids. As Elisabeth McClure at the Cooney Center wrote last week, we welcome comments and ideas from you all, our readers: What priorities we should be considering? What do you think are the barriers? Please send your thoughts to We will keep you posted this fall on the release of our joint report.