Some Ph.D theses sit on shelves, collecting dust. NewTechKids is in the lucky position of being heavily influenced by the research and findings found in the Ph.D thesis of Dr. Marja-Ilona Koski, our Head of Curriculum Development and Lead Teacher. During her Ph.D studies at TU Delft, Marja-Ilona visited primary schools across the Netherlands and focused on developing new approaches for teaching technology and science to children. She also developed ideas for effective teacher training models.

Marja-Ilona taught computer science at a primary school in Finland before her Ph.D studies. She says, “I never wanted to write my thesis for academics. I wanted to write it for teachers working in the field. I may have a Ph.D but at the end of the day, I am a teacher.”

Marja-Ilona has graciously agreed to share highlights from her Ph.D on the NewTechKids blog. Enjoy!

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Long before NewTechKids workshops take place, we carefully and deliberately design and plan the activities and outline what needs to happen.

To design and teach the theory segment of the workshop, we use a thinking and planning model that helps us in structuring knowledge delivery. This model encourages children to combine and connect practical and abstract knowledge throughout the learning process. The model integrates three domains: the social context, concrete objects and abstract concepts.

Social Context: The child is confronted with real-life problems, such as a broken guitar. The social domain provides the right context to make the student curious and trigger him or her to study the situation.

Concrete Objects: The child interacts with objects such as products, materials and tools to conduct hands-on experiments. In the case of the broken guitar, relevant elements, such as instrument’s strings or the specific shape of the guitar’s sound box, need to be identified. The focus on using a concrete object is deliberate. The objects have a core role in this model because of their dual nature. On one hand, products can be brought into classrooms. They can be touched and examined and this way, they offer tangible, concrete learning experiences for the child. On the other hand, they have a functional nature. The same products connect the concept (theory) to its context (practice). The physical properties of a product gain their meaning through the functional aspect. The value to learning is that by using concrete objects, a child sees and uses an object in his or her surroundings and in a discovery context.

Abstract Concepts: In this domain, the explanations and the relevant concepts are explored. The conceptual knowledge obtained can be technical or scientific. With this obtained knowledge, children can choose the best approach for them personally to experiment with objects or design, test and create a different, improved object. In the case of the example cited, making a new version of a string instrument.

Each domain enriches and inspires learning in the other domains and this enriched experience continues until the task, activity or assignment is finished. This way of learning does not separate context from theory: learning in one domain influences learning in other domains and subjects.

Why NewTechKids uses this model?

Presenting science and technology concepts through themes that are closely related to children’s everyday-life experiences makes more sense to them. It also provides an educational approach which moves them towards tackling real problems. The social context offers a problem-solving situation which children can relate to in a much easier way than they would relate to an abstract formula.

At NewTechKids, we believe that technology education is about preparing children to be able to participate in society’s technological decisions. So it makes a lot of sense for us to teach concepts in contexts that are appealing and meaningful to them. Often science and technology concepts are taught in a way hat is strictly focused on facts and solid, well-tested topics and processes.

Concept education does not need to be an isolated event. It can be used along with existing approaches. The design processes used in NewTechKids workshops are examples of creative problem-solving processes during which children apply both concrete and abstract knowledge. These two types of knowledge are relevant in inquiry-based learning activities but they can be just as relevant for design and technology education. We generally under-estimate children’s abilities: they can understand abstract technology and science theories and they can develop abilities to apply them in real-life situations.

During NewTechKids workshops, we will be applying this learning model and analyzing results and effectiveness. We hope to share our findings with experts, schools, teachers and parents.

Please note: The ideas behind this model were first published in: Koski, M-I., Klapwijk, R., & Vries, M. J. de (2011). ‘Connecting domains in concept-context learning: a model to analyse education situations’. Design and Technology Education: an International Journal, 16(3), 50-61.

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