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Early Education: An Interview with Prof. Dr. Mirjam Steffensky

November 21st, 2018

IPN JOURNAL Professor Steffensky, in recent years the number of initiatives aimed to support mathematics and science education in ECEC centers (early childhood education and care) has rapidly increased. The curricular frameworks of the federal states in Germany also mention math and science as central areas of education at the pre-school level. How useful is it to teach mathematics and science in ECEC-centers?

STEFFENSKY It makes sense to provide children with opportunities in which they can gain science or math experiences and develop initial ideas about concepts or the processes in these domains. Many routine situations in ECEC can represent such opportunities, for example, when children set the table, weigh something when baking or build towers with building blocks. However, it does not make sense to teach academic school contents which children cannot understand because they lack the necessary prior knowledge.

IPN JOURNAL Is there any scientific evidence regarding the long-term effect of fostering early math and science education?

STEFFENSKY Generally, prior knowledge is regarded as extremely important for learning processes. This is also evident in the domains of math and science. For example, there are quite a few studies in mathematics that show the long-term effects of basic numeracy skills of preschool children on mathematics performance at school.

IPN JOURNAL Do ECEC institutions work with a uniform concept according to which they teach mathematics and science, or does each institution do this as it deems appropriate?

STEFFENSKY ECEC centers in Germany have an enormous variety of organizational forms, pedagogical concepts, group forms and public and independent sponsorships. There is no uniform concept for the implementation of math and science education. In contrast to schools, preschool curricula are merely a framework of orientation and do not lay down binding competencies as is the case at school. Moreover, one can assume that the educational areas such as language, math or arts are implemented in different ways within the institutions.

IPN JOURNAL From your point of view, would it be desirable to have mandatory education curricula in the preschool sector as well?

STEFFENSKY The curricular frameworks reflect the pedagogical self-image of early education in Germany. There are no individual subjects or lessons like in school. The children tend to learn in playful and often informal situations in the everyday life of the ECEC center. In this context, it is difficult to establish binding competences. For the teachers, however, it might be helpful to identify a few essential and specific skills that children should develop before entering school in order to specifically integrate appropriate learning opportunities into the day-to-day life of the ECEC setting.

IPN JOURNAL How well prepared are teachers to foster children’s math and science education?

STEFFENSKY We know relatively little about the professional skills ECEC teachers need to implement high-quality math and science education. Initial findings indicate, for example, that content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge are important for a high process quality and the development of children. However, it is unclear at what level teachers need domain-specific knowledge. In general, education areas lie within the training, but this comprehensive training does not necessarily have a subject-specific focus. This makes it even more important to offer good and domain-specific professional development courses.

IPN JOURNAL Let's stay with the process quality you just mentioned for a moment. What is important here in relation to math and science educational processes?

STEFFENSKY In addition to aspects such as emotional support, interactions between children or between children and teachers are particularly important for domain-specific educational processes, in which children are encouraged to engage more deeply with a subject so that they can expand their ideas or be introduced to things that do not arise from their immediate view or experience. Such stimulating interactions include features such as asking questions, reasoning, dealing with other people's ideas, or comparing things.

IPN JOURNAL What about teachers in elementary schools? Depending on the ECEC centers in which children are cared for until they start school, some are exposed to science and math at an early age, others for the first time in elementary school. Are there problems regarding the first lessons in elementary school?

STEFFENSKY That is true, but at the same time, not something new for elementary schools, because the children come into first grade with very different prerequisites in all kinds of cognitive, but also social and emotional development areas. A starting point may be projects in which ECEC centers and elementary schools work together on specific educational areas. In this way, cumulative learning paths can be facilitated.

IPN JOURNAL The Leibniz Center of Excellence for Early Childhood Education was recently established at the IPN. What is it all about?

STEFFENSKY The Leibniz Center of Excellence for Early Childhood Education is an interdisciplinary research network that includes various Leibniz institutes, e.g. the IPN and the DIPF, as well as a number of universities. The research focus of this network is on the developmental processes of children in the first eight years of life, fostering these processes in home and institutional learning environments, and the professionalization of early education professionals.

IPN JOURNAL Thank you for this interview.