This blog first appeared on Share My Lesson.

Has anyone ever told you that young children aren’t capable of having abstract thoughts? That was the prevailing view when I studied psychology many moons ago. But recent research and practical experience are challenging this conventional wisdom. According to Eager to Learn, the National Research Council’s report on 2- to 5-year-olds:

There is strong evidence that children, when they have accumulated substantial knowledge, have the ability to abstract well beyond what is ordinarily observed. Indeed, the striking feature of modern research is that it describes unexpected competencies in young children, key features of which appear to be universal. (p.5)

Indeed, a new series of books called Baby University is committed to teaching big ideas in science and math to babies. I own a couple of them, and my barely 2-year-old repeats things like, “This is a ball. This ball has energy.” Amazing!

These ideas are not entirely new. Some cognitive scientists have been arguing for bite-sized, age-appropriate versions of complex information for decades.

In the 1950s, cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner showed that basic concepts of science and humanities can be grasped at a very early age. In fact, his research demonstrated that without a corresponding conceptual idea, the learning will be easily forgotten. “An unconnected set of facts has a pitiably short half-life in memory.”

I wholeheartedly agree that children of all ages are able to handle more intellectual challenges than most teachers give them. This does not mean more facts for students to memorize or teaching at a faster pace. It means that they, even at a very young age, can usually make more connections, draw more conclusions and hypothesize more potential solutions than we typically ask them to do.

Here are five research-based steps to increase the intellectual rigor in early childhood:

1. Write out the big ideas that describe the relationships between concepts, and use them to guide your planning.

For example, young students studying communities might explore the relationship between communities and rules such as: Rules create safety and order in a community. The teacher could pose a question such as: Why do communities create rules? Then, the teacher could start within the context of the classroom, asking students to explore the rules and the reasons behind them. They would likely conclude with something like, Communities create rules to help everyone get along. To deepen their understanding, students could explore the larger school community and rules beyond the literal classroom walls. Next, the teacher could ask the kids about their families, where they can explore examples of rules and how they help everyone to get along.

As a summative task, students could tackle the problem of accidents at an ice-skating rink. They could propose rules that might help everyone to get along. One group of students might suggest making the first half hour of every hour for beginners while the second half hour is reserved for experienced skaters wanting to go faster. Another group could suggest placing a rope around the middle of the rink where beginners could practice safely while experienced skaters would use the outer part of the rink to go faster. When we abstract to the conceptual level and transfer understanding to increasingly complex tasks, young children can practice real-world, innovative problem-solving!

Nearly everything at this young age is a concept: color, shape, number, letter. Ask yourself why we use them to come up with very simple big ideas, such as:

  • Numbers help us to count things.
  • Letters come together to form words.
  • Germs can cause illness.
  • We can prevent the spread of germs by making safe choices.
  • Detailed pictures and words help us to communicate our ideas to others.
  • We can compare numbers as being greater than, less than, or equal to other numbers or quantities.

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2. Explore lots of “examples” of concepts.

Concepts are general ideas that group things together according to accepted characteristics (Nottingham, 2017). We come to understand what a concept is by looking at lots of key examples. Chances are, you already do a lot of this type of categorizing because young children are constantly learning how we organize our world.

Here are two examples from my 3-year-old’s preschool:

Even very young children can understand that concepts help us to organize things. Students need time to think about the characteristics that all of the examples share. After a few attempts though, we’ve seen students shift not only their approach to learning, but their drive. When learning isn’t just about re-telling what they heard from someone else, but using their personal intellect to create their own understandings and unravel complex situations, it brings the joy back to learning. It is an investment, but it will pay off!

3. Reflect on the characteristics of concepts.

Young children have a remarkable ability to explain how they know something to be true. I’m always struck by how much better they are at it than the average secondary student. We can help them exercise and maintain this executive thinking by asking them key questions about what they are learning. This step is often missing in early childhood education.

For example:

  • What do all of these examples have in common?
  • What makes something a plant? Can you describe the difference between a plant and an animal?
  • How do you know that is a brachiosaurus?
  • What is the difference between a number and a letter? What do we use numbers for? What do we use letters for?

Consider young science students who are asked what it means for something to be “living.” After the students share their initial guesses, the teacher shows several slides of living things. The first might be a human, then several animals. Kids may guess that “living” things run, eat and breathe. Then the teacher may show pictures of trees, flowers and mosses, and kids may need to revise their answer in light of the new examples, since these plants cannot “run.” Perhaps they notice that all of these things “grow,” so they add that to the list. The class continues this way with progressively more nuanced examples. Students are challenged to alter their definitions when the teacher shows pictures of pinecones and roadkill (in science, “living” refers to anything that is or has been alive).

Research suggests that preschoolers can think about their thinking and be metacognitive about how to learn. We have experience with 4- and 5-year-olds who kept pictorial journals; they would talk to each other and us about their scribbles in the journals. They motivated each other to work harder in their inquiry centers. You can also dedicate a wall space for this purpose as well as group journals or scrapbooks. Take photos of students as they explore concepts. Ask them to draw pictures of how ideas are related. Capture things that they say and review this with them regularly. Add materials and other evidence of concepts the kids have explored and ask them to explain each example and what they were thinking as they explored it.

4. Solidify understanding of the big ideas.

A major sticking point for me is that teachers articulate and craft learning goals of the big ideas or conceptual relationships for students. I encourage play-based learning and following student interests as methods to uncover conceptual understandings. But I want to be clear: It often requires gentle guidance and prompting from adults for students to develop the organizing ideas essential for building expertise.

For example, imagine a classroom where kindergarten students showed an interest in ramps. The teacher noticed that their interest increased and added new elements such as ways to make the ramps taller and longer, and different materials to use to make the ramps. By the end of the lesson, students had formed their own definition of “ramp.” I support the idea that teachers followed student interest but would simply suggest that the teachers take it one step further by asking students to notice the difference in the speed of toy cars or balls going down the ramp based on the steepness of the ramp. Students could uncover the idea that, the steepness of the ramp determines the speed an object will travel. The steeper the ramp, the faster the ball or car will go.

Another example is when students study the relationship between animals’ characteristics and their environments. They may begin with the simplest or clearest example and move on to progressively more complex examples to deepen and complicate their understanding as the unit goes on. For example, a unit on adaptation might begin with animals that simply migrate when the environment becomes too cold. But then students could look at other animals that have characteristics which allow them to survive. In the end, the kids have gained knowledge of whales, chameleons, camels and bats. More important, though, they have used their study of these topics to uncover a deep, enduring understanding about ways in which animals adapt in response to their environment. This is much more interesting and useful to students than a unit that “covers” all of these topics but does not bring conceptual coherence to the learning.

5. Strike a balance between structured and completely unstructured time, as well as child-directed and adult-directed learning.  

It can be difficult to find the right balance between child-guided and adult-guided learning experiences. Early childhood expert Anne Epstein writes, “Rarely does learning come about entirely through a child’s efforts or only from adult instruction.” She recommends that when children are motivated, focused, and making connections on their own, we should probably stay out of the way. If they seem frustrated or have not reflected on how or why something has happened, it is a great opportunity for us to step in.

However, especially for very young children, protecting a love of learning should be scrupulously guarded. If a child is not interested in our questions and if gentle, playful encouragement does not yield interest, we should almost always stop adult-directed time. I also believe that social emotional learning is most important from birth to age 5. The same five steps apply. And stay tuned, because I will write a second blog post about it soon!

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

For more practical strategies, see: Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary.

Additional References:

Bowman, B. T., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S. (Eds.). (2002). Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1977). The Process of Education (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Epstein, A. S. (2014). The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the Best Strategies for Young Children’s Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Ferrie, C. (2017). Quantum Physics for Babies. S.l.: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.

Nottingham, J. (2017). The Learning Challenge: How to Guide Your Students Through the Pit of Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.