FIUS 2009: Curious Minds

Wednesday Morning Keynote: "Curious Minds: in search of scientific reasoning skills in pre-school children"
Speaker: Jan de Lange, Freudenthal Institute USA

Jan started out as a mathematician and when he joined the Freudenthal Institute his interests were mainly in upper-secondary education. Gradually, he worked down the grade levels to lower elementary, and, combined with his experience of becoming a father late in life, that sparked a great interest in the reasoning skills of pre-school children.

Research suggests that the curious minds of young children are underused; both formally and informally, more could be done to maximize their cognitive capacities. It is the mission of Curious Minds (PDF) to chart the talents of young children and to investigate how they can be kept alive, especially in the area of scientific reasoning and problem solving. The Curious Minds project brought together developmental psychologists, neuroscientists, behavioral scientists, and mathematics education experts. Previously, these groups had never worked together.

The research questions are:
  • How do the talents differ among tasks and children?
  • How do they develop in individual children?
  • Are the 'talents' observable in the actions and evaluations of children in talent-eliciting tasks?
  • What is the role and development of language?
  • What role play contextual factors?
  • What is the predicitive value of talent at a young age?
  • How do kids reason?
This is an intensive project that will follow 20 students for 20 years. They have no plan (but do have funding) as they are in search for something and need as much freedom as possible.

"We are born with navigation and spatial reasonings skills, but we do little to develop it. So 20 years later we need a Garmin or a TomTom."

The immediate focus for the Curious Minds project is to build a network of researchers, map the talents and effects of their interventions, develop talents, identify variables that influence talent development, and identify talent eliciting tasks and useful materials. From 2011 onwards (the project is funded through 2017) they are looking to collect data through experiments at daycare centers and primary schools, performing pilot studies about the role of parents, and development of new tasks.

In Jan's opinion, the biggest threat to the project is that everybody wants to get on the bandwagon, and people's natural impatience will lead them to make immature conclusions and improper implementations. In any case, says Jan, playing with the kids "will be the best way to spend my retirement."

(Sorry I can't post the videos shown of kids interacting in the activities. They're fascinating!) [Edit: if you can make your way through the Dutch (at least I think it's Dutch), the videos are online at the project website.]