The end of scientific thinking is near

From soccer to experiment - how children learn to think scientifically

It is an old teaching adage: if you are interested in something, you learn faster. But why is it like that? And can this fact be used to show children the path of thought through unknown terrain? Sebastian Kempert, junior professor for empirical primary school pedagogy and didactics, examines how existing interests and new learning material can be intelligently linked.

Paul is passionate about football. He knows all the tricks, knows how best to keep a penalty or how to score the decisive goal as a striker. Every free minute he plays with his friends on the sports field and already plays in the club.

Like Paul, most children can have an above-average interest in a particular cause. One for music, another for fantasy stories. A pound that can be used to proliferate while studying. Or as the didactician puts it: "We can use extracurricular interests to embed explanations in lessons in a way that is based on experience and is motivating."

Sebastian Kempert wants to better understand the processes of interest-based learning in order to derive concrete tips for the design of the lessons and to develop new didactic materials. In a project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), he investigates the connection between interest and learning in elementary school age using the example of a topic from early science teaching: In the third and fourth school years, children deal with the basic principles of experimentation for the first time. They should acquire the ability to recognize and produce controlled experiments. Not an easy task. How do you learn this faster and more easily when your own interests play a role in the mediation? Does Paul understand better how a science experiment should work when it comes to football? Sebastian Kempert and his doctoral student Ann-Kathrin Laufs put it to the test and had student teachers test in class how the children react when their individual interests are included.

Is the working memory relieved?

Before that could happen, however, they had to find out what third and fourth graders in general are actually interested in. The result of a pilot survey was not really surprising: sport and football were right at the forefront, as were animals, exciting stories and of course cell phones and tablets. With this knowledge, Kempert and Laufs then started their specific investigations at primary schools in Berlin and Brandenburg. Around 250 girls and boys were involved. First, the researchers determined what the children already know about experimentation strategies and how they understand them. This is the only way to describe a before-and-after effect later - at the end of the investigation. In addition, they measured the linguistic competencies, the resources of the working memory of the students and their general cognitive abilities, partly with playful computer tests. Kempert and Laufs suspect that the working memory is relieved if the children can fall back on prior knowledge from their own area of ​​interest while learning. The free capacities could then be used to a greater extent for reasoning, problem solving and further elaboration, which in turn would explain why they learn faster and better in this way.

Another research question aims to compensate for linguistic and cognitive weaknesses through individualized teaching of the subject matter. "If we want to address the differences between the students and take their respective learning needs into account, we have to differentiate more strongly," emphasizes Sebastian Kempert, referring to inclusion education, which would be unthinkable without individual support.

Student teachers drew attention to experimentation

In the further course of the investigation, Kempert and Laufs determined the personal interests of each individual child and formed small groups of students with similar inclinations in order to be able to teach them specifically. This is where the student teachers came into play. In two hours of specialist knowledge, they tried to build on the children's previous knowledge and to draw their attention to the subject of scientific experimentation. The football fans, for example, were confronted with two fictional friends in a factual task: Elisa and Ben. The two consider how they can balance a ball on their feet for a particularly long time. You have three ideas: The size of the ball is crucial. Success depends on the hardness of the ball. Or it depends on the material - foam or leather. Ben suspects that you can balance a hard ball longer than a soft one. The children now have to decide what Ben should do to find out whether the hardness of the ball is important for the duration of the balance. There are again three possibilities for discussion. Ben could compare several balls and see which ball he can balance the longest. Or he just tests two balls that differ in material, size and hardness. The third option would be to try hard and soft balls of the same size and material.

Good example of research-based studying

During the lesson it became clear how the children react to the question and whether their enthusiasm for football can be used to solve the task. “Have you learned to formulate a guess and to come to a result by observing and trying? How do you evaluate the result and how do you explain a possible deviation from the assumption? Are you able to transfer this way of thinking to other subjects? ”For Sebastian Kempert, this is how the learning success is measured, which he finally assessed in a new survey on the understanding of experimentation strategies.

"There are indications that the children are recording a strong increase in learning with regard to the experimentation strategy taught and that their learning motivation is increased by the interest-based teaching," says Kempert. Further analyzes will investigate whether the increase in learning can be explained on the basis of the assumed relief of working memory, and whether the control and experimental groups differ from one another.

The scientists are currently working flat out on the evaluation of the data and are also including the teacher training students here. “A good example of research-based studying,” says Kempert, referring to two master's theses and three bachelor's theses that were created in the project. When the investigation is completed in a year, Ann-Katrin Laufs will submit her doctoral thesis. The schools will receive feedback and didactic materials and the parents of the students tested will also receive feedback.

In any case, the children who have learned from the example of a soccer ball, a superhero story or a cell phone which principles a scientific experiment works on have already benefited. Perhaps these will remain intertwined in her memory forever.

The project

Scientific thinking in elementary school age. The importance of interest as a moderator for the connection between working memory resources and learning performance Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)

Duration: 2017-2020

The scientists

Prof. Dr. Sebastian Kempert studied psychology in Berlin and did his doctorate in educational psychology in Frankfurt (Main). Since 2017 he has been junior professor for empirical primary school education and didactics at the University of Potsdam.
Email: kempertuni-potsdamde

Ann-Kathrin Laufs studied education in Frankfurt (Main) and intercultural communication and education in Cologne. Since 2017 she has been a research assistant in empirical primary school pedagogy and didactics at the University of Potsdam.
Email: Laufsuni-potsdamde


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Zwei 2019 "Daten".