Science education has been a priority for a while now, as more and more educators and policymakers are understanding that science is the building block of economic progress. But it’s more than that. While the growing emergence of STEM drove home the urgency to train and encourage more scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technicians to supply the increasing demand of a future workforce, it is NGSS that is currently helping to bring into perspective why everyone should get a good science education. The take-home message that NGSS leaves us with is that science should be accessible to everyone and, as such, each child should be given an excellent scientific education. However, science is also a social enterprise that depends heavily on communication and collaboration, evidence-based thinking, and the ability to tackle challenges and solve problems. It’s important to note that these are values that are also considered important in the general workplace.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is vital for helping children (and indeed adults) develop skills and attitudes that help them form healthy interpersonal relationships, see how to solve problems and learn how to deal with rejection and failure in a healthy way. It also encourages people to seek rational explanations and not fall prey to propaganda; ultimately, it pushes them towards becoming responsible, good citizens. While there seems to be a general consensus about the importance of these skills, most schools do not teach them. This begs the question again: what are these skills?
Almost all young children exude curiosity; “But why?” being the favourite way of exhibiting this quality. Young people are full of questions – it’s why they touch everything in sight and don’t always listen when they are told not to do something. They want to know why; they want to know what happens if they do. This is actually a quality that is also exhibited by great scientists and innovators: it was Newton who saw the apple fall and asked why it fell in that particular direction. The path to scientific thinking is paved with curiosity, for it it is the starting step to instilling a lifelong love for learning – it’s just a matter of channelling it properly. The idea is to encourage children to indulge their curiosity and ask questions about the world around them. Why do volcanoes erupt? Why do cars run on fuel? Why do we have latitudes and longitudes? Because asking why leads to understanding how, and this in turn leads to identifying problems and finding solutions for them.
Teamwork and cooperation
Children can learn so much through play, and this extends to important scientific and social skills. When children play games, they learn how to work with others, how to support them and how to be part of a team: a skill that is essential to most jobs. It should therefore be important to encourage playtime activities, and especially group activities. Sports are also excellent in helping young children understand how to form goals and focus on them, building strategies towards achieving them. By monitoring children during play time, teachers can help identify traits such as bullying, selfishness or even shyness, and help encourage students to overcome these hurdles.
Teaching students how to solve problems effectively depends mostly on teaching them different ways of thinking. Creative thinking and critical thinking are the two main approaches used in problem solving. Creative thinking centres around the idea that there are several ways to approach a particular problem in order to help find the best solution to it. It encourages children to think outside the box, beyond the obvious solutions. The best way to introduce this in the classroom is through brainstorming sessions that focus on coming up with multiple correct answers to one question. For example, a discussion on flotation could involve asking the students to list as many things that they can think of that float on water. They would be encouraged to think of living things as well as non-living things and then asked to consider what common characteristics these things all share, in an attempt to come up with possible explanations as to why they think these objects or living things can float.
Critical thinking involves breaking down a problem into small sections in order to simplify and solve the problem. Incorporating critical thinking into the classroom requires a combination of listening to students’ questions and encouraging them to think of the answers for themselves. So next time a student asks questions, encourage them to break the problem down into smaller parts by asking questions around the subject. For example, if a student wants to know what a shadow is, ask them questions like: “When do you see a shadow?” and “How does the shadow behave?” Encourage them to think about the situations in which shadows exist and ask them to consider why they think this is. Critical thinking is also an excellent way to introduce children to evidence-based thinking: coming up with answers to questions based on supporting evidence gathered.
Good communication skills are vital for children to learn how to express themselves properly and correctly. They allow for clear articulation of ideas and thinking to their peers. Teaching communication skills in the classroom is most effective with a student-centered approach, and it’s important to remember that the language teachers use in class also makes a difference. A teacher who uses open-ended questions provides plenty of opportunities for students to participate in the classroom. Asking open-ended questions such as “What do you think causes rain?” opens up opportunities to students to come up with multiple answers; if the question had been “Why does it rain?” students can be led to think there is one right answer.
These are just a few of the social skills that should be taught in the classroom. The Centre on Great Teachers and Leaders details more approaches that can benefit teachers interested in integrating more SEL in their classroom. Teachers are often trained to manage the classrooms, but both NGSS and SEL put emphasis on allowing the students to manage themselves and their own learning, with the teacher acting as a guide. Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to patience, encouragement, warmth and support in the classroom. After all, children learn best by example.