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20/04/2014

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Turn maths and science education on its head!

Psychological sciences should inform what goes on in the classroom, says Jo Evershed

Psychological sciences should inform what goes on in the classroom, says Jo Evershed.

One hundred years ago, science transformed medical practice, resulting in a seismic improvement in human health and wellbeing.  The psychological sciences – which seek to understand the mental processes involved in learning – could impact education in a similar way.

Mathematical story-telling

Basic arithmetic is to mathematics as basic letter and word recognition is to literature.

Thankfully, the joy of reading stories is shared with children, before they can read, and inspires children to persevere with basic reading skills.  By the same token, it can be argued that engaging children in the application of mathematics, before they can do arithmetic, will inspire them to persevere with basic arithmetic skills.

Loaves of bread

Like language, mathematics describes and constructs the world around us.  Demonstrating mathematical relationship with everyday objects that relate to a child’s experience can show them this.  For instance, mathematics describes how many loaves of bread you need a week in order to feed a family of five who each eat four slices of bread a day. 

The beauty of a concrete approach is that children learn that their observations can be combined – in a mathematical model – to answer novel questions.  It may even inspire children to seek out new information in order to make better predictions about their environment; a motivation that is a foundation to STEM careers.

Unfortunately, most children spend the majority of primary school learning arithmetic and have to wait until secondary school or university before they encounter applied mathematics.  If their early experience of arithmetic is unpleasant, they can be put off for life.  Consequently, exposure to real-world uses of mathematics in tandem with the current syllabus should form the basis of maths and science education from nursery to graduation.

Concrete and abstract thinking

People readily accept that teaching applied mathematics would engage and motivate students, but fear such an approach would inhibit a student’s ability to develop abstract (context-independent) representations of mathematics.

Abstract representations are essential for transferring knowledge from a known to a novel domain, and this knowledge transference is essential to success in STEM subjects.  But psychology teaches us something counter-intuitive: that we form the most meaningful abstract representations if we start with a concrete example.

So, in science, children can recognise that their skin protects them from dirt and infection, that their clothes protect them from their environment, and that a house protects them from the elements.  From these multiple and varied concrete representations, children can derive an abstract representation of a barrier affording protection and use this to understand that the ozone layer, something that they can neither see nor touch, protects the planet from the sun’s radiation.

Best practice

Children can form abstract representations more easily when a teacher gradually simplifies multiple concrete and detailed examples so as to draw attention to the common structural features which are necessary for the abstract idea.

An approach informed by evidence from the psychological sciences would advocate that educational best practice would teach using a practical experience first, and study the theory second, as this supports the natural formation of abstract representations.

Neuroscientists are also currently investigating the neural underpinnings and development of abstract reasoning.  Several fMRI studies have shown that specific prefrontal areas (the front of the brain) are involved with abstract thought, and that these regions change in many different ways between childhood and adulthood.  This understanding may eventually inform teaching practice.

Lifelong learning

An applied approach to maths and science education enhances student motivation, and supports and enriches the development of context-independent thought.  Through learning to see both the concrete experience and abstract representation in everyday experience, children become equipped to be life-long learners and original thinkers.

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Jo Evershed
Jo Evershed is an economist turned psychologist. This article is adapted from a presentation given to the Royal Society Vision Committee for Maths and Science Education.
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