Spotlight on Johanna van Schaik

Johanna van Schaik finished her post-doc last summer on the effect of variation and surprise on young children’s science learning.

30-01-2020 | 13:09

She is mainly interested in how children learn science and technology concepts and how we can use this knowledge to help us design inquiry-based learning contexts. For her research, she received funding from the NRO and is now an assistant professor here at the VU. Get to know more about her and her research by reading the full interview: 

What is your research focus and which research projects are you currently working on?

I specialize in my research on science and technology learning. By training, I am a developmental cognitive neuroscientist. Therefore, I approach my research from a more cognitive fundamental learning perspective. With my Learning theory-based research designs, I am trying to understand what learning context children need to learn about science and technology. For instance, I am looking at how children learn about complex physics concepts such as buoyancy. Teachers often explain this concept with various common objects from the real world. However, this variety of examples make it difficult for children to pinpoint causal mechanisms. In this experiment, we decreased this variation by providing cubes that vary in mass and volume and therefore in density. We expected that this learning material could help children to isolate the important components, mass and volume, to determine the buoyancy of the cube more easily enabling them to predict if it will float or sink. By simplifying the world in learning contexts, we want to help children to grasp concepts that are quite difficult to grasp in the real world.

I am not only testing this in the subject physics, but I am now also trying to understand how children can learn programming. Programming requires a whole new world of concepts; however, we don´t know yet what concepts children develop and how to best teach them. The idea is that by learning to program, children can also improve general thinking skills that can be useful in a variety of learning contexts. The questions I am planning to answer in this research are: Can children grasp those concepts already at a young age? Can they turn it into a thinking skill, and can they apply this thinking skill in a different context? 

Which age group are you specialized in your experiments and do you have already some first results?

At the moment, we are beginning at the age of four, when children start going to school here. So far, we only have the final results of the buoyancy experiment. Here, we were able to show that by limiting the variation, children are indeed better able to predict if new cubes will sink or float. It showed that the children were able to use advanced integrations of the mass and volume of the cubes, the two features that determine density. The children were only exposed for five minutes to the learning condition; that we already found results is very promising. 

What inspires you to do this kind of research?

I have always been interested and fascinated by how children can learn so much, so quickly about such a complicated world. In fundamental learning research, we know already a lot about the brain, learning processes and the development of a child. Of course, there is a great deal we don’t know, but there is so much we do know. The question is how to translate all this knowledge into an actual educational context. In my opinion, we miss many opportunities to address children´s early curiosity, enthusiasm, and inquisitiveness about the world in our current school system. Especially, because we do not place a lot of emphasis on science and technology in primary schools. What drives me is to figure out how to assure children can hold on to their inquisitiveness for science that they have at a young age. Another reason that inspires me is the fact that the world is becoming more and more digital and technological. In that sense, a lot is to be gained by helping children getting practical experience and have know-how in programming already at an early age. Providing them the right learning context to learn programming, children can not only acquire necessary competencies but also improve their general analytical skills.  

What advice would you give teachers to keep children´s curiosity for science alive?

This is very hard to say because I am still more on the empirical side and no one can do a teacher’s job better than the teachers. I think it is important that teachers keep in mind to provide children open-ended science experiences to maintain their curiosity and to make them feel capable of doing science. Teachers need to prepare a situation in which children can learn and explore these concepts. In the future, I hope I will be able to give teachers specific tools and guidelines on how to create those environments that foster learning. 

What was your most memorable science class or teacher during your school time?

I think I was just really lucky to have some very enthusiastic science teachers. I always had teachers who just made it fun to do science and less scary or intimidating. I also had female science teachers who were amazing role models against all the female stereotypes you can see in the STEAM subjects. They always encouraged me to pursue science myself. Another great experience was my primary school time at a Montessori school. I think this time influenced the kind of research I am doing now and my thinking of education a lot. My aim to set up an environment in which children can learn themselves aligns with the work of Maria Montessori in many ways.

Where would you be when you would not have pursued a career in academia?

As I am driven by children’s development and my desire to understand it, I would probably do some kind of work with children. Trying to practice what I preach. Science and technology learning with kids.