Science: An Elementary Teacher’s Guide/Educational Psychology and Science Teaching

Why Teach Science? edit


Some educators draw back from teaching science because they feel unprepared or don't know where to start. They may also feel they do not have the time for science lessons, since science sometimes needs extra explanation, especially during experiments. Some school districts may not have the budget to offer students the lab equipment that they need. Not all educators have a strong background in science, but that does not mean they cannot teach the subject. As with anything else, the more you get involved with a subject the more you will feel confident and ready to teach. Each time you teach a subject, try to learn new things about it yourself as you prepare, and try to think of new ways to present the information or to help the students discover the principles for themselves. The educator is the ultimate role model to children so it is important to show genuine interest in the subject and keep a positive attitude. By doing so it can spark curiosity and increase the joy of learning. You do not need to know all the answers to a question--the willingness to look and explore to find the answers will enhance the learning process. There is not a single way to teach science--every educator has different strengths and weaknesses--but applying learning theories and "best practices" can help you become more effective. Science is universal and can be included in many other subjects including art, music, language arts, math, and more. The main goal of elementary science is to capture the curiosity of young minds, to help them dream of finding new solutions and contributing to society in new ways. Science influences so many aspects of our lives, and the more we learn the more it broadens our perspectives. As educators we have the opportunity to create a base of curiosity, sound thinking, and a scientific framework so our students can become happier and more effective adults.

Here are some ideas to get you thinking about your future classroom and how you can impact the thinkers and inventors of the future:

  1. Expand interest in all things by being curious and making discoveries together
  2. Guide and explain basic concepts of science so they can later apply it for future studies
  3. Teach students to look for and discover new answers through experimentation and measurement
  4. Help students develop problem-solving skills
  5. Increase level of science literacy by using scientific language correctly and demonstrating use of critical thinking
  6. Establish a positive relationship between students and promote cooperative problem solving
  7. Do experiments that will interest the students and challenge their understandings
  8. Teach process skills, such as measurement, observation, and presentation of data

Influential Past Thinkers edit

Everyone is a teacher to some extent--we all explain things to our friends, colleagues, and children. Some people find real joy in helping others understand new concepts, or helping young children with their emotional, social, and intellectual development: some of these decide to become elementary school teachers! Although teaching may come naturally to some, and anyone can improve with practice, teaching can also be improved by studying educational psychology, the scientific study of human learning, including the influence of teaching (for current scholarly articles regarding education, one source is the American Educational Research Association; here is a brief video introduction to the topic). An educational psychologist working at Harvard may seem quite removed from the daily struggles that happen in your classroom, but the insights gained from their studies may provide just the solution you are looking for. Here are some influential thinkers and their ideas you may find useful:

Plato and Aristotle edit

Plato and Aristotle, by Sanzio

Serious consideration of how people learn had started by 400 BC, with Plato, a student of Socrates and the founder of the first formal school for higher learning in the western world. Plato's well-known student, Aristotle, expanded greatly upon his work. Plato and Aristotle researched individual differences in the field of education, training of the body and the cultivation of psycho-motor skills, the formation of good character, the possibilities and limits of moral education, etc. They wrote about the effects of music, poetry, and the other arts on the development of the individual, the role of teachers, and the relations between teacher and student. Plato saw knowledge as an innate ability, which evolves through experience and understanding of the world. Such a statement has evolved into a continuing argument of nature vs. nurture in understanding conditioning and learning today. Aristotle believed knowledge was gained through empirical observation and experience. Aristotle is considered by many "the first genuine scientist" and he wrote hundreds of books on topics such as physics, biology, zoology, logic, aesthetics, music, poetry, linguistics, and politics!

John Locke edit

Born on August 29, 1632, in Wrington, Somerset, England, during the 1600s Locke introduced the idea of "tabula rasa," or "blank slate." He believed we were born without knowledge and that all learning came through experience. He also explained that successions of simple impressions give rise to complex ideas through association and reflection. It also emphasized the freedom of individuals to author their own soul. Individuals are free to define the content of their character but basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be altered.

John Dewey edit

John Dewey 1859-1952

John Dewey was born in October 1859 and died in June 1952. He was a leading proponent of Progressive Education and the American school of thought known as pragmatism. This is a philosophical movement that emphasizes the importance of "learning by doing," or taking a "hands-on" approach instead of just being told about something or just reading it. He felt that teachers and students must learn together and that students should have a voice in their education (it was a more democratic and child-centered education). Dewey was very interested in developing a better "theory of knowledge." The main idea prior to Dewey was that there is a difference between thought and the world of fact to which thought is referred: thought was believed to exist apart from the world, as the unique aspect of the self. Dewey believed instead that thought was the product of the interaction between organism and environment; that thinking arose from trying to have an effect on one's surroundings. In other words, active manipulation of the environment is critical in the process of learning. For Dewey, learning common sense through everyday experiences was not much different than learning science through carefully-controlled experiments. An experience-based model of education implies students learning new material must find a way to ground unfamiliar concepts and ideas within the scope of ordinary life-experience. Progressive education with an emphasis on experience-linked learning relies on the role of the educator to structure material being studied in a manner that facilitates this. Conversely, students' diverse backgrounds create an infinitely diverse range of experiences for the educator to consider. It is his/her responsibility to organize learning experiences to allow assimilation of new material in a context appreciable by and beneficial to the student. The educator's discretion is important in selecting the material for a course of study and a sensitivity to weaving connections between the students' previous experiences and new material, such that the lesson learned is of greater value.

In Dewey's eyes, the purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one's full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good. As a result of the direct influence teachers have in shaping the mental, moral and spiritual lives of children during their most formative years, Dewey held the profession of teaching in high esteem, often equating its social value to that of the ministry and to parenting. He advanced the training of teachers by insisting that teacher education requires a constant study of school room work, constant study of children, of methods, and of subject matter in its various adaptations to pupils. He also spoke out against teachers who did not enjoy their work, writing "One of the most depressing phases of the vocation is the number of care worn teachers one sees, with anxiety depicted on the lines of their faces, reflected in their strained high pitched voices and sharp manners. While contact with the young is a privilege for some temperaments, it is a tax on others, and a tax which they do not bear up under very well. And in some schools, there are too many pupils to a teacher, too many subjects to teach, and adjustments to pupils are made in a mechanical rather than a human way. Human nature reacts against such unnatural conditions." Dewey's best-known contributions are found in two of the many books he wrote: How We Think, and Democracy and Education. A short video description of Dewey's approach to education can be found here.

Jean Piaget edit

Piaget was born in Switzerland in 1896. At an early age he became interested in mechanics, birds, fossils, and seashells and published his first science paper at age 10. He became an expert in mollusks, which grew from all the time he spent collecting them and from years of volunteering at the local museum where the director had him labeling the extensive collection of shells. Later he took interest in developmental psychology which had connections with his biological studies. As he got older he became more interested in the reasoning process and understanding how people learn. At the age of twenty-five he began his research in the process of thought and logic for different ages, which became his life’s work. Piaget then developed the four stages of cognitive development through which all people progress: the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and lastly the formal operational stage. In the first stage, the sensorimotor stage, the child shows reflexive behaviors, motor coordination, and sense of permanence of objects. This is followed by the preoperational stage, in which the child is egocentric-sees things from their point of view, language is developing, and they cannot conserve quantity. Then, in the concrete operational stage the child begins to use logic to solve existing issues, but cannot apply logic to hypothetical problems. However, by the next stage, the formal operational stage, the child or adult can apply logic to abstract concepts in a way that helps them solve future problems.

Jean Piaget

1. Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2-3 years)Infant uses senses and motor abilities to understand the world, beginning with reflexes and ending with complex combinations of sensorimotor skills.

    Reflexive behaviors
    motor coordination
    sense of permanence of objects
  • Between 1-4 months The child works on primary circular reactions which are action of their own which serves as stimulus.

For example, the baby may suck her thumb. That feels good, so she sucks some more..

  • Between 4-12 months The infant turns to secondary circular reactions, which involve an act that extends out to the environment.

For example, a baby may squeeze a rubber duck. It goes "quack." That's great, so do it again, and again, and again. She is learning "procedures that make interesting things last."

  • Between 12-24 months The child works on tertiary circular reactions.

This kind of active experimentation is best seen during feeding time, when discovering new and interesting ways of throwing their spoon, dish, a food.

  • Around 1 and 1/2 The child is developing mental representation, the ability to hold an image in their mind for a period beyond the experience.

2. Preoperational Stage (2-3 to 6-7 years) Now that the child has mental representations and is able to pretend, in this stage they can use symbols to represent something else. Creative play is shown here where children use a symbol to represent something else. For example, a box could be used to represent a table. The child is quite egocentric during this stage, he/she sees things pretty much from one point of view: their own!

    egocentric (self point of view)
    language develops
    cannot conserve quantity

3. Concrete Operational (6-7 to 11-12 years) In this stage, the child not only uses symbols representationally, but can manipulate those symbols logically. This stage begins with progressive decentering. Later children develop the ability to conserve number, length, and liquid volume. For example, if you pour a short, fat glass with milk and a tall skinny glass with milk the child knows to look at more than just the height of the milk of glass.

    conservative skills
    hands on experience in learning
    conserve quantity in the mind

4. Formal Operational Stage ( 11-12 to Adulthood) it allows one to investigate a problem in a careful and systematic fashion. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning also emerge during this stage. For example: When you ask a student "If John is taller than Mike, and Mike is taller than Joe, who is the tallest?" If they can answer without having to draw objects, and use their mind to think and come up with a conclusion; they have entered the formal operational stage.

    application of logical operations to solve all types of problems, including future.

Jerome Bruner edit

  • “We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”

He was born in 1915 and died in 2016 (he occasionally still gave lectures at age 100!). Bruner proposed that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition in general and of language in particular. He emphasized that children learn language in order to communicate, and, at the same time, they also learn the linguistic code. Meaningful language is acquired in the context of meaningful parent-infant interaction, learning “scaffolded” or supported by the child’s Language Acquisition Support System (LASS). One of the works for which he is best known is “The Process of Education” in which he argues for “models in the head.” It also talks about how learning is done by firsthand, hands-on experiences. He also believed that humans progress through three levels of intelligent development. First the Enactive level- direct manipulation of objects, then there is the Iconic level- this is mental images but without direct manipulation and the last Symbolic level- manipulation of symbols and no longer with mental images.

4 Benefits of Discovery Learning

  1. Focuses on problem solving
  2. Motivation is shifted to intrinsic rewards
  3. Students will become independent learners
  4. Information will be fully synthesized


  • Grew up in Florida
  • PhD in psychology from Harvard, 1941
  • Disagreed with B.F. Skinner's stimulus/response model of learning
  • Led what came to be known as the "cognitive revolution"
  • Wrote "The Process of Education" in 1960

Bruner emphasized on concrete, first-hand experiences. He believed we should be doing things in these subjects (physics, history, math) and participate in the process of establishing knowledge. Spiral education of teaching a subject at an age-appropriate level early on, then teach it again at a later time, adding to it each time. Bruner disagreed with Piaget because Piaget felt some subjects should not be taught until the child was intellectually mature and ready.

Three Levels of Intelligent Development

  1. Enactive Level = Concrete- (Doing Stage) direct manipulation of objects to model problems.
  2. Icononic Level = Semiconcrete- (Seeing Stage) mental images but without direct manipulation, using representations of the objects to model problems.
  3. Symbolic Level = Abstract- (Symbolic Stage)- manipulation of symbols and no longer deals with mental objects, students are able to use abstract symbols to model problems.

Robert Gagne edit

Gagne was born in 1916 (died 2002). He was an American educational psychologist best known for his "Conditions of Learning." Gagné pioneered the science of instruction during World War II when he worked with the Army Air Corps training pilots. He went on to develop a series of studies and works that simplified and explained what he and others believed to be 'good instruction.' He saw growth from learning alone, not constrained by internal clocks. He also says that learning is built on previous experiences, therefore it is hierarchical.

  • Disagreed with Piaget & Bruner about "cognitive stages of development"
    • Believed that cognitive growth was based on learning alone, not age or genetic maturity.
  • Air Force psychologist
  • Considered the "Father of Instructional Design"

Gagne proposed:

Eight Ways in which Humans Learn edit

  1. Signal Learning: A general response to a signal. Like a dog to a command.
  2. Stimulus-Response Learning: A precise response to a distinct stimulus.
  3. Chaining: A chain of two or more stimulus-response connections is acquired.
  4. Verbal Association: The learning of chains that are verbal.
  5. Discrimination Learning: The ability to make different responses to similar- appearing stimuli.
  6. Concept Learning: A common response to a class of stimuli.
  7. Rule Learning: Learning a chain of two or more concepts.
  8. Problem Solving: A kind of learning that requires higher order of thinking.

He also proposed:

Nine events of instruction edit

  1. Gain attention of the students
  2. Provide a Learning Objective
  3. Stimulate recall of prior knowledge
  4. Present the material
  5. Provide guidance for learning
  6. Elicit performance
  7. Provide feedback
  8. Assess performance
  9. Enhance retention and transfer

Northern Illinois University describes methods that can be used for each of these nine events.

Finally, Gagne proposed:

Five different types of learning edit

  1. Intellectual skills: create individual competence and ability to respond to stimuli.
  2. Cognitive strategies: capability to learn, think, and remember
  3. Verbal information: rote memorization of names, faces, dates, phone numbers, etc..
  4. Motor skills: capability to learn to drive, ride a bike, draw a straight line, etc.
  5. Attitudes: approach to ideas, people, or situations, that affects how one acts towards these things.

You can see why Robert Gagne has been called the "Father of Instructional Design!"

B.F. Skinner edit

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner was born in 1904 and grew up in Pennsylvania.Skinner began working on ideas of human behavior after earning his doctorate from Harvard. Skinner's works include The Behavior of Organisms (1938) and a novel based on his theories Walden Two (1948). He explored behaviorism in relation to society in later books, including Beyond Freedom and Human Dignity (1971). Skinner died in Massachusetts in 1990. At Harvard, B.F. Skinner looked for a more objective and measured way to study behavior. He developed what he called an operant conditioning apparatus to do this, which became better known as the Skinner box. With this device, Skinner could study an animal interacting with its environment. Later, Skinner examined what behavior patterns developed in pigeons using the box. The pigeons pecked at a disc to gain access to food. From these studies, Skinner came to the conclusion that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors.

In 1945, Skinner became the chair of the psychology department at Indiana University.In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for seemingly implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness. In his later years, B.F. Skinner took to chronicling his life and research in a series of autobiographies. He also continued to be active in the field of behavioral psychology. While many of his behavioral theories have fallen out of favor, Skinner's identification of the importance of reinforcement remains a critical discovery. He believed that positive reinforcement was a great tool for shaping behavior, an idea still valued in numerous settings including schools today.

Benjamin Bloom edit

Bloom's Taxonomy

He was born in February 1913 and died in September 1999. He was an American educational psychologist who made contributions to the classification of educational objectives and the theory of mastery learning. He believed in three interdependent variables that must be attended to for perfect system of education. 1. Cognitive entry behaviors: Have the necessary prerequisites been learned? 2. Affective entry behaviors: Motivation of the student 3. Quality of instruction: Appropriate ness of instruction to the learner. His main contribution to education is his model of talent development, and his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in the cognitive domain. The six classes of educational objectives are: 1. Knowledge: recall of a specific bit of information 2. Comprehension: lowest level of understanding includes interpretation translation extrapolation of ideas, theory etc. 3.Application: use previous knowledge to solve new ideas 4. Analysis: able to break information into its elemental parts 5. Synthesis: combine elemental parts into a whole 6. Evaluation: involves judgment about the value of material, ideas etc.

Bloom's Taxonomy

  • REMEMBER:Recall facts and basic concepts (define, duplicate, list, memorize, repeat, state)
  • UNDERSTAND:Explain ideas or concepts (classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate)
  • APPLY:Use information in new situations (execute, implement, solve, use, demonstrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch)
  • ANALYZE:Draw connections among ideas (differentiate, organize, relate, compare, contrast, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test)
  • EVALUATE:Justify a stand or decision (appraise, argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, critique, weigh)
  • CREATE:Produce new or original work (design, assemble, construct, conjecture, develop, formulate, author, investigate)

Believed three interdependent variables must be attended to for perfect system of education Things that are related to one another in such a close way that each one needs the others in order to exist.

  1. Cognitive entry behaviors: have the necessary prerequisites been learned?
  2. Affective entry behaviors: Motivation of the students.
  3. Quality of instruction: Appropriateness of instruction to the learner.

Cognitive learning is demonstrated by knowledge recall and the intellectual skills of comprehending information, organizing ideas, analyzing, and synthesizing data, applying knowledge, choosing among alternatives in problem solving, and evaluating ideas or actions.

Affective learning is demonstrated by behaviors that indicate attitudes of awareness, interest, attention, concern, and responsibility, ability to listen and respond in interactions with others.

Psychomotor learning is demonstrated by physical skills, coordination, dexterity, manipulation, grace, strength, speed: actions which demonstrate the fine motor skills.

    "Creativity follows mastery".

Joy Paul Guilford edit

Theory of Multiple Intelligence's This theory can apply to people of all ages, but the theory is known to focus on child development. In this theory it is told that intelligence exists in many different forms. Howard Gardner in the year of 1993 pointed out that their are seven kinds of intelligence's.

  1. Verbal - Linguistic, one is able to communicate effectively.
  2. Logical Mathematical, can use numbers in a very advance way.
  3. Intrapersonal (Insight), ability to understand oneself.
  4. Interpersonal (Social Skills), a friendly and outgoing person.
  5. Musical - Rhythmic, one that can play musical interments.
  6. Kinesthetic (Movement), an athletic person.
  7. Visual - Spatial, can interpret images.

To this day, most educators teach children using the verbal - linguistic, logical - mathematical, and intrapersonal methods of intelligence. However, Gardner believed that every individual possessed all these multiple intelligence's yet to a certain extent. Therefore, he believed that children should be taught based on their strongest intelligence methods and not in a "one size fits all" category. Each classroom is filled with unique students that have strengths in different areas, so it is best for teachers to help their students discover their inner talents.

A Few More Ideas

Self Image

What is self image? What does self image have to do with teaching elementary science? It does not just apply to science, but to all the other subjects as well. The need to recognize and develop self image is important in education. One of the many jobs as an educator is to guide children when they feel discouraged or confused in order for them to reach their full potential. A healthy self image is not one that over powers or steps on others as one might think. A strong, healthy self image allows an individual to have confidence in oneself in order to help others. Therefore, an educator must first build up their own self image before attempting to help children create their own. If the educators own self image is healthy, then he or she will be able to increase others self image as well. Being a true supportive educator means being able to identify and empathize with children of diverse backgrounds. Elementary science is a great way for students to gain self image through experimenting with trial and error. By doing this the student is better able to solve complex problems on their own and recognize their own strengths and weaknesses to further become independent learners.

Influential Current Thinkers edit

The Learning Scientists edit

A team of "cognitive psychological scientists interested in research on education" runs the website, "The Learning Scientists." Not only do they have six strategies for effective learning that are backed by research, they also have helpful videos, downloadable posters, and an extensive blog that explores issues related to teaching and learning. Here are the six strategies (with links to blog posts on those topics):

  1. Spaced Practice involves planning your studying so that it is spread out over time.
  2. Interleaving involves switching between topics while you are studying, to make connections between ideas.
  3. Elaborative Interrogation involves asking yourself questions about why and how things work.
  4. Concrete Examples involves specific examples that help explain and understand abstract ideas.
  5. Dual Coding involves depicting ideas in multiple formats, such as both words and pictures.
  6. Retrieval Practice involves recalling information without use of notes as a way of finding gaps in your knowledge.

TED Talks on Education edit

Great ideas are shared more freely than ever! One of the most popular TED Talks of all time is Ken Robinson asking "Do Schools Kill Creativity?"

Here is a playlist of TEDx talks from educators from around the world who have spoken on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning.

What about Finland? edit

Finland is often held up as an example, since Finnish students rank #1 in the world in a variety of tests, and Finnish teachers are amongst the happiest teachers in the world. Take a peek at the secrets of Finland's successful educational system!

Science: An Elementary Teacher’s Guide
 ← Introduction Educational Psychology and Science Teaching History and methods of Western science → 

Quiz edit

Try this quick quiz and test what you have learned by reading this chapter!


1 Which of the theorists would advocate providing instruction based on levels of performance?


2 Students use peer mediation to solve conflicts. In which domain is this learning activity?


3 Which of the following theorists developed spiral curriculum?

Lev Vygotsky
Jean Piaget
Jerome Bruner
John Dewey

4 Which of the following theorists supported real-world experiences and volunteerism as part of the curriculum?

Jean Piaget
Robert Gagne
John Dewey
Jerome Bruner

5 Students play Ping-Pong in physical education class. In which domain is this learning activity?


Science: An Elementary Teacher’s Guide
 ← Introduction Educational Psychology and Science Teaching History and methods of Western science →