Guest host Emily Simon leads today’s episode of Teaching with CLASS. In today’s conversation, you’ll hear from Lexi Alexander, an applied developmental psychologist specializing in early learning. She has extensive experience, both as a classroom teacher and mother herself and having co-led the Early Science Initiative, a system of professional learning and family engagement focused on using early science as a driver of high-quality teaching and learning, over the past 10 years.
Listen to the episode to learn more about concept development during science and why it shouldn’t be confined to science-specific blocks of the day. In this episode, you’ll learn about the power of surrendering power and control over thinking to children, building on children’s innate curiosity, and implementing concept development across the day.
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Emily: Welcome back to the Teaching with CLASS Podcast. The podcast that gives you quick, actionable tips to easily implement in your classroom. You may have noticed that I'm not Monica. My name is Emily Simon, and I'm your guest host for today.
I'm a former early childhood educator turned product marketing professional, who has a deep passion for all things education. I couldn't be happier to be connecting back to my classroom roots and joining you all for today's episode, in which we'll be chatting about all things CLASS with a focus on an area that many teachers, myself included, have questions about, concept development.
We are joined today by Lexi Alexander, an applied developmental psychologist specializing in early learning. Hi, Lexi. Thanks for joining us.
Lexi: Hi, Emily. Thanks for having me.
Emily: Lexi, today we're thinking about concept development and the idea of concept development during science class. But before we dig in, when I hear concept development, that sounds deep. Maybe a little scary, a little hard, but it's not. Before we dig super deep, can you share a little more about concept development and highlight what teachers are likely already doing in their classroom every day that supports it?
Lexi: Yeah. Concept development, all those guys in that instructional support domain can feel a little daunting, but they're really not. Concept development specifically is all about critical thinking, all about higher order thinking skills, really about surrendering this thinking power over to our kids. By that, I mean we're giving them the autonomy to be thinkers, creators, and planners.
As teachers, we often want to plan and structure things. Kids need that. They need structure, but they also need that room and space to really explore and think deep. Concept development is getting at that.
As you said, teachers are already doing a ton of things within concept development all the time. We're always asking why and how questions of our children. When we do that, it presses them. It provokes them to really use their minds, start to think, wonder, and come up with some of those explanations. Through that process, they're engaging in that critical thinking.
We're problem solving. Preschool and early childhood settings, broadly, we are constantly problem solving, and our kids are too. Again, the more we engage them in that process and give them that autonomy to do that, they're going to start doing these things also.
We're always brainstorming and planning as we go through our day. What are we going to build in the block center today? How are we going to move the balls off the playground into the classroom? There's always a problem to be solved and brainstorming and planning, that comes along with solving that problem.
Finally, we're consistently making connections to various concepts throughout our days. Teachers do this because we want to remind children what they've learned previously so they can build on those understandings and make connections to the real world. Your kids won't let you not do that.
Everybody's always going to have a story to tell you about what they did on the weekend, or what happened at their grandma's house. They're making those connections. We can leverage those stories our children give us to further enhance that. Again, through all those different avenues, concept development, critical thinking, using your brains, is happening.
Emily: Wow, that's really powerful. I really loved what you said about surrendering that thinking to power and letting the children be in control. Sometimes that can feel a little scary for teachers. Do you have any advice on how to start that if you don't typically do that in your day to day?
Lexi: Yeah I think that's probably one of the biggest hurdles because as teachers, that's a big part of our role. Helping our little guys, understand routines, keep the classroom really peaceful, harmonious, and organized. Probably one of my weakest points as a teacher was my organization. I think for some, where that's difficult to give over some of that power is really just trying it out, but doing so intentionally.
If there's a problem, if there's a spill in the classroom, I might want to jump to it right away and be like, let's clean it up quick. I don't want anybody to slip, that's important. But we can also pause and again give that control over. Gosh, what happened here, guys? There's a problem. What can we do to solve this? Do you have any ideas? They're going to come up with ideas.
Through that, we're already doing a ton of these indicators and concept development. We're already brainstorming, planning, and problem solving. That's fantastic over a simple thing like spilling something on the floor, but giving them that time. Giving time is going to be a critical way to surrender some of that thinking power and giving room for mistakes.
They might try something and it doesn't work, and that's okay. We can try again. When we have the stakes, and we have failures, that's part of learning. If we can make that normalized in the classroom like, ah, you try this, it didn't work. Now, what can we do?
When we have the stakes, and we have failures, that's part of learning.
We're giving over that power to think, giving them space to do it, and making it okay to try again later. I think that's probably a big part of it. Again, letting yourself try it and being intentional about that.
Emily: I love that. Really great tips. Thank you. Lexi, I remember from my days in my classroom, and now as a mom to a preschooler, that children are naturally curious. There are so many why questions. Why this, why that, why mommy, that are being asked over the course of a day. There are many times where they're testing the limit, and there's even more times when they're just simply exploring the world around them.
Even my youngest who's only nine months old at the beach, putting her hands in the sand, and then bringing that sand directly to her mouth. It makes you realize that they have all of these innate characteristics already that are helping them drive towards that critical thinking and problem solving that you mentioned too. How can teachers better leverage those innate characteristics and build upon them using the strategies that we typically associate with concept development?
Lexi: I loved your examples, especially with our infants. Everything goes in the mouth. That's how they're exploring. They are acting as scientists. They are observing. They don't have the language yet to describe it, but we can provide that for them. We can describe it. The sand is gritty, it's grainy. It doesn't taste very good. It's okay, they're exploring. That's how they're building understanding.
I think the biggest shift in seeing all these, there are opportunities for learning. Science learning is happening around us all the time in our classrooms and in our homes as well. The biggest shift that needs to occur is that we need to be able to see those moments as children acting as scientists, as opportunities for learning. Often, those moments, just like the sand you described, is not embraced in that way. It's like, oh, no, don't put that in your mouth.
In Miami, I have a lot of Spanish friends with little babies, la boca no is what they go to right away right. Yes, their safety, we have to understand and respect that. It's more of how we can see children, how we view them, and how we can understand that. We want to be able to respect children's desire to explore and understand.
When we see their behaviors as science behaviors, the sand in the mouth isn't a bad behavior. This is my child observing. When we can make that shift, now it opens up for exploration.
I have a son who's seven now, which is wild. He still does wild things. But when he was younger, it was like, "Oh my God, there are puddles outside, I'm going to go jump in them." Yes. He did, and it was fun, but then his shoes were soaking wet. We have to balance these realities of day-to-day and with opportunities for exploration.
When those moments happen, we can build on them for learning. We can make a shift and be like, oh, he's exploring how this water is moving. The force of his feet is causing water to splash up. That's really cool. Otherwise, the water is just sitting there still. Something's causing it, a force that's making it explode.
We can build on that. We can ask those questions. When we do that, kids are motivated. They want to explore, they want to understand. They're super engaged because it's coming from their own curiosities. Oftentimes, it's a lot of fun.
When we do that, kids are motivated. They want to explore, they want to understand. They're super engaged because it's coming from their own curiosities.
It doesn't always have to be this disaster moment with sand in your mouth or getting your shoes soaking wet. There are lots of opportunities for this to happen, where there isn't a minor crisis on the side. It's really about seeing those behaviors as opportunities for learning.
When we see our children's behaviors as scientists, when we can notice what they're doing is observing, when we can honor their questions as curiosities instead of just words coming out constantly, when we can really respect what they're saying and wonder with them, we have opportunities to open up this concept development. We can support them in asking why and how questions, by modeling it for them also.
We can provide them those opportunities to problem-solve. Oh, gosh, your shoes are soaking wet now. What are we going to do? How can we solve this problem? They're going to come up with a million different ways they can do it. It might be putting it in the dryer. We just did this two weeks ago with his soccer shoes, and my daughter brings out the hairdryer. She's two.
Let's use the hairdryer, mama, because the hairdryer causes your hair to dry. We can use the hot air, and it's going to dry your shoes. Okay, let's try it. We put things in the sun to dry. There are lots of ways we can do it. Through that, not only are they solving problems, but they're pulling on their understanding of how the world works.
Emily: I love that. What I love there is that you really turned those everyday moments, if you will, into science learning and exploration. Oftentimes, there can be the misconception that science has to be its own time of day, that there has to be a very detailed plan and a very deep experiment, if you will. It has to be its own time of day for science to be learning.
What I'm hearing you say is science is happening throughout every moment of every day. When we think about that, and we also then hear how concept development can be applied across every day by allowing them to think more critically and to be those problem solvers, how can we use that information to be more intentional in supporting science and concept development throughout the day?
Lexi: There are these opportunities all around us. In a classroom, we're going to see it in all of our centers, all of our learning. Like I said, it's about noticing what children are doing, reframing that as, oh, you're learning something, oh, you're doing science. In my work, we use the early science framework, which provides a guide and outline to how we define science. We can look for behaviors like asking questions, making observations, predicting, planning, and experimenting. If we can start to look for indications that kids are doing those things, we can build on that.
Focusing on concepts, which is within concept development, is going to help unlock those opportunities also. Some of the concepts that are very, very salient when we think of science are our simple concepts that really cut across our day are the underlining to how our world works. Things like cause-and-effect relationships, it’s happening all around us.
If we can simplify our approach to our world and look for this caused that, now we have something to stand on and dig into those explorations. You're going to find that everywhere. That's making playdough, that's in cooking, that's in building a tower, outside on the slide. There are moments everywhere.
Just sitting on the sidewalk and feeling the heat from the sun, that heat from the sun causes the sidewalk to feel warm. That is moments of learning. Looking for those cause and effect relationships, and then engaging your kids in wondering things like stability and change, something stay the same, something's change.
When we start to notice what things are changing, then we can start to ask, why is it changing? As soon as we ask that why or how is it changing question, that unlocks all of these indicators within our concept development. Now we're able to classify and compare. This one changed, this one didn't. Let's see how they changed. Getting really into the nitty gritty, pressing children to think deeper.
When they come up with an explanation, we can drive further provoking them to come up with these explanations. The deeper we dig and press them to think about that scientific explanation of why it isn't like that, they're going to engage in those various indicators.
Another great concept to focus on is things like structure and function. The way something is designed affects how it works. Again, this is so, so simple. Something as simple as a cup has a structure, and it has a function. It's designed this way to actually work to give me water. If I use something else other than a cup and my daughter, a two-and-a-half-year-old, does this all the time with a super shallow bowl or a spoon, it does a terrible job of being able to let us drink things.
We take that time. I let her do that. We talk about and be like, ah, it's spilling everywhere. Let's look at the shape of it. Let's talk about how it's designed and why it's able to do its job or not do its job. Did I answer your question? I feel like I drifted.
Emily: No, that was so powerful. I love just the recognition of the things you could do with a cup. I could just see that being an experiment that a teacher does in her classroom one day, or just has the various containers out at the water table and listen to those findings and questions on children's own exploration.
I want to dig in a little bit to what you were seeing around the example of the sun on the sidewalk. I felt that one because over the weekend, the sun was out, and I sat on the sidewalk to get the warmth from it. When I'm thinking about that, it's specific indicator of analysis and the reasoning. This concept of children are asked to explore concepts deeply, rather than being given the rote information or memorization of facts. I'm applying that to your example.
I want to just give you how I'm thinking about it and get a gut check from you, if you will. In that scenario, the rote memorization or rote instruction would have been me telling you, oh, Lexi, you're sitting on the sidewalk, the sidewalk is warm, the sun must be making that sidewalk warm.
Versus if I want to unlock the concept development and critical thinking skills, I couldn't approach it by, Lexi, what are you doing? You might respond, oh, I'm sitting on the sidewalk. Oh, why are you sitting on the sidewalk? To which you might reply, oh, because it feels warm. The tipping point, if you would, would be in how I respond to that.
Instead of saying, oh, the sun made it warm, it would be responding with, why do you think the sidewalk is warm? And really allowing you as the child in the scenario to look around the world around you and to try to identify, what about the world has made the sidewalk warm in this moment in time? Am I applying those indicators?
Lexi: Yes, a hundred percent. Absolutely. What I heard you do is really just asking a lot of questions. Being curious, giving children space to think, to speak, they're not always going to have the right answer. If you look at concept development, it's not about the right answer. It's about this process of thinking.
We don't expect our littles to have all the answers to how the world works. I don't have all the answers to how the world works. But the more we challenge ourselves to think about it, the more we engage in that process of thinking, of analyzing, of reasoning, our misconceptions that we develop, which is totally normal. They'll start to get stomped.
My misconceptions, if I think that the sidewalk is warm because the hairdryer made it warm or whatever it might be, there's going to be multiple opportunities for me to see that that's not the case because the hairdryer is inside, so how could that be? We can even challenge our children to explain deeper if they have a misconception.
It's not shutting them down, it's just pressing them to think more. They'll come to those conclusions on their own. If not in that moment, the next day or the day after. The more opportunities they have to think and to press their thinking against reality, they come through it.
The really cool part about science learning also is that the majority of the time, it's tangible stuff that we can see and touch. At least in early childhood, that's the way we really want to approach it so that it's relevant to children's lives, and it's something that they can actively see, feel, and witness. Yes, absolutely approaching those wonderings in their situations with questions of our own and scaffolding children through that process is spot on.
Emily: I love it. Thank you. One more question for you, Lexi. I'm thinking about what we've talked about so far, this idea that science really is all around us happening all the time. As a teacher, I can help promote that learning across my entire day.
I know some listeners might be thinking, but Emily or Lexi, I have to have a science block on my lesson plan. I have to plan for a science activity. When we are planning for those very specific science opportunities of learning, how can we ensure that we're taking everything we're hearing today and putting it into practice? But also, how can we ensure that those activities are developmentally appropriate and are getting us to help those children become critical thinkers?
Lexi: I think focusing on some of those concepts I discussed earlier, cause and effect, stability and change, structure and function. rooting your experiences in those concepts is going to be a big help in ensuring that those experiences are effective in helping children think. I'd say approaching your science lessons with built in opportunities for children to actually ask a question, and then plan how to answer the question or test their idea, is going to allow you to provide children opportunities to think and get into those higher order thinking skills.
A big pitfall I often see is teachers and parents too will say, okay, we're going to do a science experiment. Let's start, let's do the steps. This is the question we're going to ask, this is the first thing you do, this is the second thing you do, and this is the third thing you do. Okay, do it. Kids aren't thinking, they're just following instructions.
There are some value to that. Children need to be able to follow directions, excellent. But there's even more value when they can plan their own steps. Here's the stuff I brought you. Here's these materials. What do you wonder about this? What questions can we ask?
Through that process, we can model our own question. Some questions are going to be more investigable. We're going to be able to test them easier, and some questions, we're not. That's okay. We want to give children's practice in asking questions and thinking about, what do I know about these materials, and what don't I know? What might I wonder about?
Providing them support in making their own plans. You want to see what happens when you mix the flour and water. Okay, what can we do to try it out? What are we going to need? Let's write down our materials together. Building into your plans that your plan is to help them plan. That's going to provide a really exciting experience because your kids are going to be so excited that they get to plan what to do.
You're also going to engage in all of these indicators within concept development. You might have children asking a question or making a plan. You can ask them, what makes you think that? Have you done this before? Where have you seen it before?
That's going to help us make those real world applications and connections to their own lives because it's coming from them. It's not coming from a book or a lesson I printed off the internet, it's coming from them. That is going to really help to enhance those moments and experiences.
I'd say, again, approaching each of these experiences with not forgiveness for yourself, but with the willingness to take a risk, to give over some of that control with the understanding that it might not go well. We've done mixing together ingredients, flour, water, oil, which makes playdough, and doing it in a really open-ended way. Let's see what happens. How can we change the texture of these materials?
I tested this out with my son. He was two and a half at the time. Alright, I got a big bowl of flour, a big pitcher of water, let's see what happens. It was a disaster. It was just a mess. He didn't notice the differences in texture because it was just too messy, so flop.
We tried it again the next day. I was like, all right, I need to control the water. I need to control the amounts. I can still give him time, openness, and space to mix as he chooses. But if I control the quantities, it's going to reduce mess, and it's going to heighten the opportunity to notice those differences, to notice the change in texture.
I got small cups. I've seen teachers use spray bottles or little pipettes. That changed it completely because by restricting the materials, I could slow down the process, and then it was successful. Those are two suggestions. Think about your materials, think about how you want to introduce them if they're going to be all on the table, or if you pull them out one at a time because you have really eager hands that want to reach, and also being okay with trying again.
If you try something in your logistics, make it a little wonky like my example, okay, the next day, let's try it again. Guys, I want to try this again. Let's see if we can explore this experience one more time, and that's okay. We have to give ourselves space, really embody this.
That is being a scientist, it's trying something without knowing what the outcome is going to be. We can approach our teaching. We can approach our experiences with our children in that same way. I think my kids are going to do XYZ, let's see what happens. We can adjust and go from there.
Emily: I love that. That's such a powerful example of the playdough. I'm connecting your earlier strategy of don't tell them what you're doing. See where their brain is going, what they want to try.
I'm thinking about your exact playdough and remembering, when I made playdough with my daughter around two and a half, I did that. I told her, we're going to make playdough today, and here's what we're going to do. Now I'm seeing that as, wow, I have another opportunity to redo that to your point and allow it to be more open-ended of exploration for her. To your earlier strategy, I'm going to surrender my power and control to her, so thank you for sharing.
Lexi: Sometimes that means the playdough that they make is goopy soup. That's okay because we can also model alongside them. In this situation, mine came out really nice. It was a nice firm ball, and I could roll it around like, hey, look, it's playdough, and his wasn't. Now we're comparing, we're engaging in these indicators within concept development also.
Now he's eager to say like, well, how can I change mine to make it look more like yours? We then extended it more. It's like, alright, yours is really wet. What can we do to cause it to become more dry? We add more flour. Okay, let's try it.
This ongoing process can still happen. Being the adult in the classroom, understanding where an experience may go, we have that foresight to provide a model to play alongside them, engaging in some of that parallel play, using self-talk to actually speak out why the decisions that we are choosing to make that our own experience, why we're doing that, kids are hearing that. They're seeing it. You're giving them their own space, you're allowing them to try their own thing, and you may in a certain situation model alongside them.
They might see, oh, I could do it this way. I could wonder about this, I could choose to do that. Being that adult in the classroom, you can still provide a lot of that support and scaffolding but in a way that invites children to it instead of telling them, instead of taking away their opportunity to think.
Emily: Yeah, almost that serving as that facilitator of exploration. Wonderful. Lexi, as we wrap up our time today, what are the key ideas that you hope a listener takes away from today's episode?
Lexi: I think the first thing is to be curious as an adult. Sometimes, it's been a long time since you've actually gotten excited as an adult, gotten excited and wondered about something. You were just stumped about how something works, gosh, it's amazing, if you've ever watched these nature shows, and you see some of the hard science that's happening in our lives about how stuff works, your whole mind blown, and it feels really exciting. It feels so exciting to wonder, be curious, and be amazed by the world around us.
That's how our kids feel all the time because everything's new, everything's exciting, and what joy and energy that brings to our lives. I encourage you to get curious with your kids. Be excited by those simple moments. Get genuinely invested in wandering with them. Through that, it's going to allow you to, again, give over some of this control. We're not looking at this end products, but it's more about this process.
Your own curiosities will really kick in too. You'd be amazed at all of the incredible things you learn as an adult by wandering alongside your infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The world is amazing. Be open to that and engage and get curious on your own.
Another suggestion is to focus on some of those concepts I talked about. Shifting our focus on how we view the world. Not just as this is a fact, but find that underlying concept that's driving it. What is the cause and effect relationship? If you can make a simple statement of blank caused blank, you've identified a cause and effect relationship.
Through that, we can press on children's thinking. We can ask those open-ended questions. We can encourage them to compare, classify, plan, and brainstorm. Focusing on those concepts cause and effect, noticing how things change, even something as simple as color mixing.
Have blue and yellow. These are two distinct colors. Now, all of a sudden, it changed. It changed, that's so cool. Now it's green. That's amazing. That's really neat. Noticing that change and honoring that change is awesome, and then we can start to get into why. What caused it to change? That's how we can really focus our thinking by seeing those concepts and valuing those concepts.
By focusing there too, we also are able to make connections across contexts. Noticing cause and effect with a force, causing blocks to fall down. That force causing something to move happens when we pull a wagon. The force is pulling it. It happens when we fly a kite, the force of the wind is pushing it. It happens all the time.
When we give children that tool of noticing that cause and effect, now they can start to understand those things. They can make predictions. They can start to adjust their misconceptions to be really, really clued into how the world works. Second tip, focusing on those key concepts.
The third thing I'd say and I talked about it already is embody what it means to be a scientist. Through that, it means you're not always going to know what's going to happen. You're going to fail sometimes, and that's okay.
As a teacher, we can try something in our classroom. We can make a prediction about how we think our children will engage in it, but we will never know until we try it. Be brave as a teacher. Try new things in your classroom with the understanding that we can reflect on it. We can try again the next day or the next week and learn from there.
Emily: Awesome. Well thank you, Lexi, for sharing all of your insights and stories with us today.
Lexi: Thank you so much, Emily. It was a pleasure.
Emily: You can find today's episode and transcript on our website, teachstone.com/podcasts. Remember, be humble, be teachable, and always keep learning.