Parents know the power of a good story to hold children's attention and help them make sense of the world. So do teachers. But curriculum pressures can sometimes make classroom stories seem like a luxury.
That might be a mistake, says Carolyn Yates. "Story is how we make sense of our lives and mental constructs. I had been doing a lot of work on early years reading - pre-school to Primary 2 - studying what stories they like and why they like them. We then took a look at the story resources that are available for developing children's science concepts at that early age.
"We found there wasn't a great deal, apart from Millgate House's Discovery Dog, which is very good. So we decided to look at it from the other direction - starting with the stories teachers are using and finding out what science is already in them."
A meeting at last year's Association for Science Education Scotland conference with biologist and former science teacher of the year Sheila McDougall (TESS, 12 March, 2010) provided a practical impetus to that new perspective.
"I had been doing science with my grandson's nursery," says Mrs McDougall. "What I'd found was that the subject is covered in lots of stories. But staff are not confident enough in the science and the outcomes to acknowledge this. I discussed it with Carolyn and discovered that she had been thinking along similar lines."
Books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar or ones about babies offer plenty of scope for early years science education, says Mrs Yates. "We found that good writers for young children are already offering ways into exploring scientific aspects of the world. So teachers don't necessarily need new stories. What they need is guidance on what kind of questions to ask the children around much-loved existing stories."
Carolyn Yates, a former biology teacher and education college lecturer, has taken a cross-disciplinary interest in science learning and teaching since the 1980s, when she was part of the King's College London team that first developed cognitive acceleration. She is currently chair of ASE Scotland and literature development officer for the Wigtown Book Festival.
Some of the science story practice with early years might seem simple, she says, but the approach has sound theoretical underpinning. "It can sound like, 'Just read this book and ask the children these questions', but there is more to it than that."
Designed to develop young people's thinking skills, and supported by classroom evidence of its effectiveness in subjects from science and maths to art and drama, cognitive acceleration builds on Piagetian principles of child development - particularly the transition from concrete to abstract thinking in young learners. It draws on Vygotsky for the teacher's role as mediator in the zone of proximal development.
"In the early years it's all about how you read to children and how you question them," says Mrs Yates. "Teachers know about open and closed questions. It turns out that with young children it is better to use closed questions when you want to get them thinking about science. This sounds contrary to what we're often told - that open questions work best in class."
The age of the learner is what makes the difference, she says. "Open questions do not help very young children to structure their thinking. If you ask them what happens next in a story, that's a big question. But if you ask something specific - like what food the caterpillar will want to eat - that might be a closed question, but it does focus their attention.
"We know from early language development how important that is. Instead of 'green cars', for instance, at that age you would say 'the car - look it is green'. That is far more effective for helping them learn the concept of colour."
All this is well documented by now, she says. "Teachers are not being asked to adopt a whole new system. We are giving them pointers on how to exploit what they already know and are already doing."
In Piagetian terms it's about "narrative seriation", she explains, "the way people make sense of mental constructs and the ability to sequence and re-sequence actions to create a story.
"More simply, I want to get children, teachers and books coming together constructively. It's about the power of story to develop ways of thinking, rather than separating out a subject such as science and doing it in half an hour a week. Children at that age - maybe any age - are turned on most by stories and storytelling.
"What we're aiming to do is help early years teachers use skills they already have and build confidence in their ability to teach what many believe is a difficult subject."
Carolyn Yates: http:bit.lyVavj9g
SESSION ON STORY SCIENCE
Carolyn Yates and Sheila McDougall will present a session on Story Science at this year's Association for Science Education Scotland's annual conference on 8-9 March.
They will show how to select and use popular storybooks for early years to stimulate scientific ideas and questions. Participants will try out story-linked activities, get a reading list of recommended books linked to science and be invited to add their favourites.
For the full programme or to book for the conference at Creiff Hydro, go to: http:bit.lyZU3l6k.