Dr Jen Jackson, Program Director at AERO, explains how simple and effective it is to integrate science into ECEC practice, debunking several myths about the science of early childhood pedagogy along the way.
Teacher watching toddler in outdoor setting

This article was originally published in Every Child magazine, vol. 28, no. 2, 2022

Take a moment to reflect on the last time you used science in your practice with children. Did you make a decision based on something that you observed? Did you use specific words in your documentation, such as ‘executive function’ or ‘fine motor skills’, to describe children’s learning? Did you do something based on scientific research, such as following safe sleeping guidelines for babies? If you did, then you are already using science in your practice.

Research in the field of cognitive and developmental science explains how children’s brains and bodies learn and grow, which has practical implications for educators. The Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) is developing resources to increase the use of the science of learning and development in early childhood education and care (ECEC). Our aim is to help ECEC educators and teachers become even better at using evidence from research to improve the quality of their practice and embed the science of learning and development to achieve the best possible outcomes for every child and family. The word ‘science’ can carry a lot of baggage. It can conjure images of laboratories, experiments, complex formulas or rigid procedures. At AERO, we hope to show that the science of learning and development is different and directly relevant to the day-to-day work of ECEC professionals. Let’s start the demystification process by busting a few myths about science in ECEC practice.

Myth 1: Science and relationships don’t mix

Strong relationships in ECEC services aren’t just good practice; they’re also good science. Scientific evidence shows that children learn and develop best when they have warm, reciprocal relationships with the significant adults in their lives. Children’s brains depend on strong relationships with adults to maintain the right levels of stimulation for learning and protect them against the effects of toxic stress.

Myth 2: Science is the opposite of art

Quality ECEC pedagogy is both an art and a science (Livingstone, 2018). Teachers and educators who work scientifically can still be creative and express themselves as professionals. Even highly scientific industries value people who can be creative and come up with new ideas (Deloitte Access Economics, 2014). ECEC careers provide many opportunities to bring art and science together.

Myth 3: Science means more documentation

A scientific approach means smarter, sharper documentation—not more of it. Knowing the scientific terms to describe children’s learning and development makes it easy to take and interpret observations with precision, helping you focus on what matters. Behaving like a scientist means using your observations to plan your program for each child and critically reflecting on how well the program is working.

Myth 4: Science has all the answers

Good scientists continually ask questions and stay curious about new ideas. They recognise that even tried and tested practices might look different for different children, families or communities. They listen to diverse voices, including First Nations perspectives. They investigate questions systematically, gathering evidence from multiple sources and discussing it with their colleagues.

Myth 5: Science is only for degree-qualified teachers

Scientific thinking can be part of everyday practice for all early childhood educators and teachers, regardless of their qualifications. ‘Applied science’ is a term that connects scientific knowledge from universities with the practical, hands-on focus of vocational education and training (VET). Educators with VET certificates and diplomas can also apply the science of learning and development in their practice. Busting these myths can help teachers and educators feel curious, rather than apprehensive, about what science can offer to their practice.

AERO has identified 3 ways ECEC teachers and educators can use the science of learning and development: for knowing, doing and being.

  • Knowing how children learn and develop is the foundation of quality ECEC practice. It enables practitioners to observe children’s progress and use this knowledge to plan their programs.
  • Doing evidence-based practice means translating science into action. It means adopting practices with a strong evidence base and adapting them to your service’s unique context.
  • Being scientific means collecting evidence of how well your own practices are working and using this to keep improving. It means observing closely; listening to children, families and colleagues; and making purposeful, intentional decisions about how best to support children’s learning.

AERO is creating resources to help ECEC professionals use the science of learning and development in all these ways. We’re also working with the ECEC sector to discover how teachers and educators use evidence in their practice, so we can build on what’s already happening. Like children, great scientists are continuously learning and exploring. We’re looking forward to sharing more about our journey of exploration with you.