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Childhood disadvantages due to social and migration related differences.

June 10th, 2022

Development of scientific literacy and the impact of home and institutional characteristics

Jana Kähler

Building scientific literacy begins in early childhood using an experiential learning environment that children explore independently and through play. They interact with other children, adults and their environment and thus develop their first theories about scientific topics. An IPN study investigated to what extent social differences play a role in the development of scientific literacy prior to the start of elementary school, how the development of this literacy depends on home characteristics, and if in elementary school other characteristics have an effect on the growth of scientific literacy in addition to home characteristics.

The general consensus is that scientific education processes are a necessary prerequisite for both individual and societal development, because scientific literacy helps to meet global challenges such as the energy transition, climate change and the fight against pandemics. Scientific literacy is understood as basic education enabling people to use their own knowledge of scientific content and processes to reflect on and adapt the consequences of their own behavior and to meet the aforementioned challenges.

Until now, large-scale systematic studies of scientific literacy have focused primarily on the secondary school level (e.g., PISA). Studies dealing with scientific literacy in kindergarten and at the beginning of elementary school have been lacking, although evidence shows that the foundations for building this literacy are laid here. The study presented here focuses on the development of scientific literacy in young children. Data were used from starting cohort 2 of the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), which covers kindergarten and primary school children. The questions investigated were to what extent social and migration-related differences become apparent before the start of elementary school, taking into account learning opportunities at home and in kindergarten, how scientific literacy develops taking these characteristics into account, and to what extent the composition of the student body of a class in elementary school, in addition to home characteristics, have an effect on the growth of scientific literacy.

 

Characteristics of children's learning environments

In educational psychology research models, the characteristics of children's learning environments are divided into structural and process characteristics. Structural characteristics comprise the temporally stable, unchanging framework conditions of a family or an institution. They are understood as indicators of the quality of the home and institutional learning environment, which are related to the process characteristics. The process characteristics of the home and institutional learning environment are understood as the sum of all educational interactions and activities of children with their parents, educators, peers, and environment that contribute to supporting early childhood development. This subdivision of process and structural characteristics was also used in the studies cited here.

 

Family social background determines preschool children's science literacy

Significant effects of social family background emerged from the analyses on the development of scientific literacy in kindergarten children. The language spoken at home, the number of siblings and the number of books, which is a measure of parental willingness to invest in cultural capital, showed significant effects on scientific literacy. Furthermore, vocabulary proved to be an important influencing factor. A higher vocabulary level in kindergarten was associated with higher scientific literacy. The importance of kindergarten as a learning environment for young children also became apparent here: children from kindergartens with a focus on science showed a higher level of competence than children focusing on other areas.

 

Social and migration disparities persist at the elementary school level

Analyzing the development of scientific literacy from kindergarten to the third grade of elementary school, there was a (linear) increase in scientific literacy among children from kindergarten to the third grade of elementary school. Additionally, initial differences in science literacy emerged in kindergarten. Surprisingly, however, no interindividual differences emerged when examining the development of scientific literacy. Accordingly, children did not appear to differ in their scientific literacy growth, implying that existing differences in kindergarten largely persisted over time in elementary school. In a second research approach, the structural and process characteristics from home and kindergarten were included in the model calculation. The language spoken at home and the number of books in the household as a measure of parental willingness to invest in cultural capital as well as the presence of a scientific focus in kindergarten showed significant effects on the scientific competence of kindergarten children. Thus, social and origin-related differences in literacy were also evident before the start of elementary school, and these differences largely persisted into the third grade.

 

Home environment and class composition determine science literacy of elementary school children

In a third study, we investigated how children's scientific literacy develops in elementary school and to what extent, in addition to known family characteristics, the composition of the student body in a class also has an effect on scientific literacy and its development. For this purpose, the initial competency from the first grade was first included in the multilevel model. In line with expectations, this proved to be the strongest factor influencing the growth in literacy, even when other variables were added at the individual level. In addition, the social background of the students was also related to the growth of scientific literacy. This is because higher parental education, higher social status, and a greater number of books in the household turned out to be relevant factors for the growth of scientific literacy among elementary school children. At the class level, the (average) initial literacy of the first grade was also taken into account. Of all the factors at the class level, this is the most important for the development of scientific literacy. Furthermore, there was a significant negative effect of the number of students with low social status on the growth of scientific literacy, because the average growth in scientific literacy was lower when there was a higher proportion of children with lower social status in the attended class.

 

Conclusion

The studies presented here show the relevance of the home and institutional learning environment in early childhood for the establishment and development of scientific literacy. For example, significant effects were found for the number of books in the home or the focus of the kindergarten, while the process characteristics studied (activities and learning opportunities) did not appear to show any relevance for scientific literacy. Instead, vocabulary, as an aspect of children's linguistic competence, emerged as the strongest factor influencing the development of scientific literacy.

Kähler, J., Hahn, I. & Köller, O. (2020). The development of early scientific literacy gaps in kindergarten children. International Journal of Science Education, 42 (12), 1988 – 2007. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2020.1808908

Dr. Jana Kähler is a research associate in the Department of Educational Science and Educational Psychology at the IPN. She studied psychology at Kiel University and subsequently completed her doctorate at the IPN on the topic presented in this article.