Early childhood teacher beliefs about learning science

By Heather King - June 2011


Fleer, M. (2009). Supporting scientific conceptual consciousness of learning in a ‘roundabout way’ in play-based contexts. International Journal of Science Education, 31(8) 1069–1089.


Primary and early childhood teachers are generally regarded as lacking competence and confidence in teaching science. But rather than pointing the finger at teachers, Marilyn Fleer suggests that the prevailing philosophy of pedagogy may be to blame.

Fleer notes that while early childhood student-teachers have been found to lack confidence in their science content knowledge, there are other contributing factors. Firstly, they do not recognise their own informal knowledge gained through interests and hobbies. Secondly, they understandably find it difficult to implement curricula that have been developed for older children. And most significantly, Fleer argues that the basic philosophical beliefs held by teachers about the value of teaching science to young children and the teacher’s role in mediating science content is essentially stifling their capacity to teach.

Fleer bases the latter claim on a study of 24 preschool children and their teachers in which she observed and video-taped child-teacher interactions and interviewed the teachers. In the paper, she presents excerpts of the interviews and transcripts of the child-teacher interactions to highlight a clash in teacher approach and the consequences for the children’s learning. She notes that the more senior teacher believed that children should explore materials or objects for themselves and that situations should not be set up even though she was aware of the science learning potential offered by particular objects. Thus, while she provided the children with the opportunity to mix water, oil, vinegar and sand, she did not discuss the nature of the materials explicitly. As a consequence the children developed their own role-play with the materials around cooking. The teaching assistant on the other hand, expressed her desire to explain scientific ideas to children, and noted that adults must play an active part in helping children to learn.

This case study has interesting implications for the field of ISE. The senior teacher’s notion that minimal teacher input – and leaving phenomena to speak for themselves – will result in the best learning for the children is akin to the discovery learning approach used in many informal institutions. Yet as Fleer notes, this approach does not appear to help learners. Instead of exploring the differing nature of oil and water, the children invent their own game based on the only prior experience they have – that of cooking – in order to engage with the materials. In contrast, the teaching assistant advocates a more Vygotskian approach to supporting learning – that of mediating their engagement through talk and helping them to understand the phenomena. Fleer quotes Karpov (2003:66) ‘In contrast to Piaget’s (1970) and Dewey’s (1902) constructivist notions…,Vygotsky held that children should not and cannot be required to understand the world by rediscovery of the principal explanatory laws already discovered by humankind’. In other words, science learning, be it in an informal institution or a preschool, should be supported with explicit guidance on the part of educators.

Fleer concludes by arguing that teacher beliefs about learning in science constitute an important variable when considering teacher ability. This conclusion clearly has implications for professional development providers: even if early childhood and primary teacher knowledge of science content were to be enhanced, student learning would still be limited if the teachers retained their views that objects on their own are sufficient for learning.

In her discussion of the literature, Fleer draws attention to the work of Hedegaard (2002) who argues that teachers need to know both science and science as it relates to the everyday cognition of children in their everyday lives. She also notes the need to connect the two. Hedegaard has called the way in which teachers effectively combine everyday knowledge with the highly-valued subject specific knowledge as the ‘double move in teaching’. Fleer notes that by acknowledging this double move, researchers are able to better understand the factors affecting teacher confidence and competence in science teaching.

References Cited:

Hedegaard, M. (2002) Learning and child development. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

Karpov, Y.V (2003) Vygotsky’s doctrine of scientific concepts. Its role for contemporary education. In A Kozulin, B Gindis, V.S Ageyev, & S.M Miller (Eds) Vygotsky’s educational theory in cultural context (pp 65-82) New York: Cambridge University Press.