Why Preschool Kids Aren’t Learning Science

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What should you teach a pre-schooler? When I think of kids that age, say 3-5 years old, I think of teaching them their colors, the ABCs, how to count, how to say please and thank you — what’s shocking is that I don’t think of teaching them science. That’s shocking for several reasons: one, because I obviously love science and think it’s incredibly important for kids to understand; and two, because I know that kids that age have the capacity to start learning scientific principles.

I thought of all this recently when I read a study showing that preschool teachers in the US are vastly unprepared to teach kids science. 99% of teachers surveyed taught literacy 3 or 4 times a week, compared to 75% for math and only 42% for science. Amazingly, how educated a teacher was didn’t correlate with whether or not they spent ample time on teaching science. What did seem to determine that was the teacher’s self-reported comfort levels with each subject. Teachers who had a high self-efficacy in science were more likely to incorporate scientific tools and lessons into their classrooms. Those with low self-efficacy were less likely.

The researchers report other reasons for low interest in science, like the fact that preschool teacher training programs don’t emphasize science, and kindergarten-preparedness tests don’t emphasize it either, so with limited time, more teachers will focus on literacy.

But self-efficacy in the subjects definitely seemed to be a motivating factor, which is why I was surprised to not see any mention of gender in the entire report.

97% of pre-school teachers in the US are women, and we know for a fact that women do worse on math and science tests when they’re reminded that they’re women and that women are supposed to not be good at those subjects. In other words, women have lower self-efficacy in those fields, even if they have the education and the talent to put them equal to men.

Thanks to the research in this area, we know that women are dissuaded from pursuing careers in those fields, but here’s another example of how our society’s sexism negatively impacts everyone. When women aren’t confident in their abilities in science and math, they’re less likely to teach science and math to the next generation. And considering that our society has demanded that women be the ones doing the teaching, we’ve really shot ourselves in the proverbial foot.

Considering that by fourth grade, only about 38% of American children are proficient in science, and that number drops to 22% by the time they graduate high school, we really need to realize how important it is to start kids early with a healthy interest in science. One way to do that is of course to make sure that preschool teachers are trained in the importance of science. But this study shows us that another thing we can do is to do away with old, tired sexist standards. We need more women realizing that they are capable of understanding (and enjoying!) math and science, and we need more men realizing that they are capable of teaching young children.

If we can manage that, then maybe all children can grow up knowing that they are capable of anything they set their minds to.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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One Comment

  1. Here is a kid-friendly science question I came up with a few years back (although at the time I was with kids aged about 10 rather than pre-school.)
    We saw a daisy bush. (I.e. bushy daisies, not lawn daisies.) Some of the flowers had white petals, some had purple petals. What makes a daisy white or purple?
    We came up with a number of hypotheses:
    (1) There were two or more intermingled bushes, one with purple flowers and one with white.
    (2) Flowers start off purple and bleach white, or vice-versa
    (3) It is determined by something micro-environmental, such as sun exposure of that particular flower.

    We disproved (1) by finding both colours on a single stalk.
    We disproved (2) by finding both colours for both of freshly opening buds and mature flowers.
    We discussed how we could test (3), for example by putting some stalks in shade boxes. As it wasn’t our bush, we couldn’t put this into practice.

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