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Journal for STEM Education Research

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 154–171 | Cite as

Kindergarten Teachers’ Attitudes toward and Confidence for Integrated STEM Education

  • Ying TaoEmail author
Research Article

Abstract

This study examined kindergarten teachers’ attitudes toward and confidence with implementing integrated STEM education in early childhood classroom settings. Data were collected through a self-report survey completed by 430 kindergarten teachers across China, as well as face-to-face interviews with 14 teachers from six provinces. The results revealed that the participating kindergarten teachers tended to have positive attitudes toward early childhood STEM education. However, the majority of the kindergarten teachers were not confident with implementing STEM education in their classroom settings. Regional differences were evident in the data: Kindergarten teachers from eastern region of China reported a higher level of confidence than teachers from central and western regions. Moreover, kindergarten teachers’ years of teaching experience and level of education were not found to be associated with their attitudes toward or confidence with STEM education. This paper concludes with a discussion of the potential challenges for STEM education in Chinese kindergartens based on the findings from this study. Implications and suggestions for future research are proposed.

Keywords

Kindergarten STEM education Attitudes Confidence Teacher education 

Introduction

Integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education has increased in prominence internationally in early childhood settings over the last decade (e.g., Haden et al. 2014; Kazakoff et al. 2013; Moomaw and Davis 2010). While there is an increasing awareness of the importance of early childhood STEM education and a growing interest in incorporating STEM education into kindergarten classrooms (e.g., Chesloff 2013; Katz 2010; Moomaw 2013; Moomaw and Davis 2010), a large body of research indicates that early childhood teachers tend to be less accustomed to planning integrated activities that related to science, technology, and mathematics (e.g Appleton 2003; Greenfield et al. 2009; Moomaw 2013). This lack of familiarity might due to a number of reasons including: (a) teachers’ personal sense of having inadequate skills or low self-efficacy in these content areas (Akerson 2004; Greenfield et al. 2009; Hallinen 2008); (b) teachers’ misconceptions that content areas related to STEM are difficult to teach, or are too abstract for young children to learn (Brenneman 2011; Metz 2009); (c) inadequate pre-service professional preparation and in-service professional development that emphasize integrating science across curriculum areas (Brenneman et al. 2009; Pendergast et al. 2017).

The literature also reveals that early childhood teachers tend to have difficulty coping with the shift from science education to STEM education, often due to feeling unsure about what kind of learning experience they should provide for young children (Counsell et al. 2016). Conversely, teachers seemed to recognize the value of STEM education for children, but reported feeling unprepared and lacking in confidence to teach STEM content due to their educational preparation focusing on different matters and not incorporating sufficient content knowledge (e.g., Hammack and Ivey 2017; Hsu et al. 2011; Linder et al. 2016; Saçkes 2014; Torquati et al. 2013). These factors contributed to them being less likely to adopt STEM approaches in their classrooms (Nadelson et al. 2013). Moreover, early childhood teachers have difficulty capitalizing on the science opportunities embedded throughout the classroom activities (Kallery and Psillos 2002). Although there has been a widespread movement for STEM integration in China’s K-12 education, empirical studies that explore how Chinese teachers feel about incorporating STEM education in classroom settings are rare. This study presents a first attempt to examine Chinese kindergarten teachers’ attitudes toward and confidence with STEM implementation. The study is significant because it provides us with valuable insight into potential opportunities and challenges to the implementation of STEM education in China.

Early Childhood Education in China

In China, the term ‘kindergarten’ (called ‘you’eryuan’ in Chinese) refers to center-based childcare for children three-to-six years of age. According to the Statistical Report of National Education Development in 2016 (Ministry of Education [China] 2017), there are 239,800 kindergartens all over the country with around 2.5 million kindergarten teachers and over 44 million children aged 3–6 years. Children are generally grouped by age, namely juniors (3–4 year olds), middle (4–5 year olds) and seniors (5–6 year olds) in kindergarten. There are several classrooms in each age group, and each classroom typically has two teachers and one carer. Basic activities on school days include learning activities (such as whole group instruction), life activities (such as eating, sleeping, and toileting), free play activities (children’s playing, either independently or in small groups, in interest areas or learning centers, such as reading, dramatic play, puzzles and games, block building, science, and arts and crafts), and physical activities (gross motor movement). Curriculum content in kindergartens are organized according to the Early Learning and Development Guidelines for Children Aged 3 to 6 Years (Ministry of Education [China] 2012). In the Guidelines, detailed expectations for children’s development and educational advice are provided across five domains, namely language and literacy, social and emotional development, art, physical health, and science (with mathematics included). Currently, learning expectations for technology and engineering have yet to be included in the Guidelines.

Despite significant progress that has been made in educational investment and attainment, early childhood education in China faces the challenge of reducing the development gap among different regions, particularly between eastern and western areas (Pang and Hong 2012). By province or municipality, due to differences in factors like economy, population, society, and culture, a fairly large gap exists with regard to the level of development and quality of preschool education. Issues of teacher shortage and teaching quality, inadequate resources and ‘left-behind’ children remain in the less developed, western part of China where the significance of ethnic diversity, urban-rural disparity and variations in school development exists (Yang et al. 2016; Zhu and Zhang 2008). Previous studies reveal substantial disparities between eastern regions and other regions in school spending in both elementary and lower secondary schools in China (Tsang and Ding 2005). Our previous research also indicates that elementary schools in the central and western provinces of China tend to have limited teaching resources and facilities, and put less emphasis on the quality of pedagogy (Tao et al. 2013).

Purpose and Research Questions

Given the gaps in the literature identified in the previous section, the aims of the current exploratory study were: 1) to examine Chinese kindergarten teachers’ attitudes toward STEM education; 2) to examine Chinese kindergarten teachers’ confidence with implementing STEM education; and, 3) to reveal possible regional divergence in kindergarten teachers’ attitudes toward STEM education and confidence with implementing STEM education. The research questions were:
  1. 1.

    What are Chinese kindergarten teachers’ attitudes toward STEM education?

     
  2. 2.

    How confident do Chinese kindergarten teachers feel about implementing STEM education in their classrooms?

     
  3. 3.

    How do Chinese kindergarten teachers’ attitudes toward and confidence with implementing STEM education compare among eastern, central and western regions?

     

Method

Instrument

A teacher survey (see Appendix) was developed and adopted from K-12 Teachers’ Familiarity with Teaching Design, Engineering, and Technology (DET) instrument (Yasar et al. 2006). The original instrument consisted of 41 items with a four-point scale response format. These items were clustered into four factors (Importance of DET, Familiarity with DET, Stereotypical Characteristics of Engineers, and Characteristics of Engineering). Exploratory factor analysis reported reasonable internal consistency for Importance of DET (Cronbach’s alpha = .91), Familiarity with DET (Cronbach’s alpha = .83), Stereotypical Characteristics of Engineers (Cronbach’s alpha = .76), and Characteristics of Engineering (Cronbach’s alpha = .66). Overall internal consistency was reported to be satisfactory (Cronbach’s alpha = .88) (Yasar et al. 2006).

However, the original instrument specifically addressed teachers’ perceptions of DET, including their motivation to teach DET, their understanding of national standards related to DET, and their perception of a typical engineer. These items were either not applicable to the current study, or to the Chinese context. Therefore, in order to meet the research aims of the present study, only items that focused on general attitudes toward and confidence for teaching DET were adopted. Some of the DET items were modified to reflect a more general focus on STEM. For example, the original item “How familiar are you with DET?” was rephrased to be “How familiar are you with STEM education?” The survey, which was translated into Chinese, consisted of 10 items with a four-point rating scale format. Four items focused on teachers’ attitudes toward STEM education, and six items focused on teachers’ confidence for teaching STEM. Teachers could rate each item from one (which indicated either “not at all” or “to a minimum extent”) to four (which indicated either “very much” or “to a great extent”).

An information letter briefly describing the purpose of the survey, a brief introduction to integrated STEM education for early years, and an example of an integrated STEM activity were attached to the survey to facilitate teachers’ responses to the survey items in case that they had very limited knowledge about STEM education. The survey also collected self-reported data on the participating teachers’ demographic information including gender, years of teaching experience, level of education, type of kindergarten (public or private), and the geographic location of their kindergarten. The survey was field tested with 67 kindergarten teachers before it was formally administered. The internal consistency estimates of reliability were computed for the whole survey. The alpha coefficient for the ten-item survey was α = .81, indicating modest reliability. Exploratory factor analysis suggested adequate internal consistency for Attitudes toward STEM Education (Cronbach’s alpha = .79), and Confidence with Implementing STEM Education (Cronbach’s alpha = .91).

Participants

The survey was administered anonymously to kindergarten teachers from all over the country attending various professional development programs in Nanjing from March to June, 2017. In total, five hundred hard copies of the survey were administered anonymously and 430 copies were completed and returned, with a return rate of 86%. The respondent sample included kindergarten teachers from eastern China (n = 101), central China (n = 200) and western China (n = 129). Among the 430 kindergarten teachers, 406 were female and 24 male; 353 were from public kindergartens and 77 from private kindergartens. Thirty two percent of the participating teachers had teaching experience of less than five years; 24% six to ten years; and 44% of the participating teachers had teaching experience of more than ten years. Around 71% of the kindergarten teachers had a bachelor degree or higher. Detailed demographics of the participants are presented in Table 1.
Table 1

Demographics of participants

 

Percent of Kindergarten Teachers

Gender

Female

94.4%

Male

5.6%

Years of Teaching

≤5 years

32.1%

6–10 years

24.4%

11–15 years

15.8%

>15 years

27.7%

Level of Education

High school

1.9%

Associate bachelor

26.7%

Undergraduate

66%

Postgraduate

5.4%

Type of Kindergarten

Public

82.1%

Private

17.9%

Region

Eastern China

23.5%

Central China

46.5%

Western China

30%

In addition to the survey, fourteen kindergarten teachers from six provinces (five teachers from eastern China, five from central China, and four from western China) attending the “Workshop on K-12 STEM Education” in Nanjing, July, 2017, were invited to participate in face-to-face interviews to probe their attitudes toward and confidence with implementing STEM education in early childhood classroom settings. The interview protocol included questions about what they knew about STEM education, how they felt about implementing STEM education, how confident they were if they were going to incorporate STEM into their daily practice, and what they viewed as potential barriers. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed.

Data Analysis

The data generated from the survey were analyzed in terms of the two factors, namely, Attitudes toward STEM Education, and Confidence with Implementing STEM Education. In the first stage, descriptive statistics including the kindergarten teachers’ mean scores on each item within each factor were generated and interpreted. In the second stage, one-way between-groups analysis of variance (ANOVA) (Allen and Bennett 2008) were conducted for each factor to compare Attitudes toward STEM Education, and Confidence with Implementing STEM Education among kindergarten teachers from eastern, central and western regions of China. This was followed by an exploration of the qualitative interviews for evidence that further explained the patterns in the quantitative data.

Results

Attitudes toward STEM Education

The participating kindergarten teachers’ mean scores on the Attitudes toward STEM Education scale are presented in Table 2. As Table 2 shows, across the whole country, the majority of kindergarten teachers expressed willingness both to learn more about STEM education (M = 3.38, SD = 0.59) and to try STEM activities in their classrooms (M = 3.16, SD = 0.78), demonstrating their openness to STEM education. A number of kindergarten teachers believed that STEM education would find its place in kindergarten (M = 2.83, SD = 1.22) and it was necessary to incorporate technology and engineering with science and mathematics learning for young children (M = 2.77, SD = 0.95).
Table 2

Kindergarten teachers’ mean scores on Attitudes toward STEM Education by region

 

Eastern China

Central China

Western China

National average

Attitudes toward STEM Education

Mean (SD)

Mean (SD)

Mean (SD)

Mean (SD)

Willing to learn more about STEM education

3.43 (.59)

3.33 (.60)

3.41 (.58)

3.38 (.59)

Implementation of STEM in kindergartens

2.81 (1.26)

2.74 (1.30)

2.96 (1.03)

2.83 (1.22)

Incorporate technology and engineering with the current science and mathematics curriculum

2.91 (.92)

2.71 (1.00)

2.77 (.88)

2.77 (.95)

Willing to try STEM in classrooms

3.28 (.67)

3.13 (.82)

3.12 (.81)

3.16 (.78)

Total

12.43(2.68)

11.92(3.07)

12.26 (2.69)

12.14(2.87)

Kindergarten teachers’ mean scores on Attitudes toward STEM Education by region are displayed in Table 2. The ANOVA test result showed there were no statistically significant differences among the three regions in mean scores for the attitudes (p = .304), indicating that kindergarten teachers across China had similar attitudes toward STEM education in the early years. However, as displayed in Table 2, kindergarten teachers from central China reported a slightly lower mean score than the national average. Generally speaking, kindergarten teachers tended to have positive attitudes toward early childhood STEM education.

The correlations between kindergarten teachers’ demographics and their attitudes toward STEM education were calculated. There was little association between teachers’ years of teaching experience and their attitudes (p = .58), or between their level of education and their attitudes (p = .31). The results indicated that kindergarten teachers at various stages of their career and from various qualification backgrounds had similar attitudes toward STEM education.

Interviews with kindergarten teachers also indicated that although their knowledge about STEM education was limited, these teachers tended to see the value STEM education could have for young children. For example,

I’ve heard about STEM education several times, but the first time I knew anything about STEM education was last winter vacation. The principal took three of our teachers to attend a workshop in Shanghai. Through the workshop I learned that STEM education can focus on children’s ability to think, problem-solve, and work with others. I think it is very beneficial for young children. (Ms. Ding, from eastern region, 28 years of experience)

I’m not very familiar with STEM education. I searched some information on the internet and read a couple of books about it. I found that STEM education aims to prepare children to be problem solvers, inventors, and technologically literate, which I think is what we need nowadays. (Ms. Zhang, from central region, 23 years of experience)

As far as I know, early childhood STEM education focuses on scientific inquiry, and aims to engage children in the process of asking questions, conducting surveys and investigations, and sharing their findings. This is very similar to our Early Learning and Development Guidelines for Children Aged 3 to 6 Years. (Ms. Chang, from western region, 30 years of experience)

Confidence with Implementing STEM Education

Participating kindergarten teachers’ mean scores on the Confidence with Implementing STEM Education scale are presented in Table 3 with data available at both the national and regional levels. At the national level, as Table 3 displays, many teachers reported that they were not familiar with STEM education (M = 1.69, SD = .70), or have rarely participated in any workshop or seminar related to STEM education (M = 1.42, SD = .54). Moreover, teachers reported a lack of confidence when talking about technology and engineering with young children (M = 2.15, SD = .75), having difficulty capitalizing on STEM opportunities (M = 1.58, SD = .56), building STEM content into existing curriculum (M = 1.73, SD = .61), and lacking confidence for organizing STEM activities (M = 1.58, SD = .57). These findings are consistent with previous studies on early childhood teachers’ confidence for teaching STEM in other countries (e.g., Hallinen 2008; Nadelson et al. 2013; Yasar et al. 2006).
Table 3

Kindergarten teachers’ mean scores on Confidence with Implementing Integrated STEM Education by region

 

Eastern China

Central China

Western China

National average

Confidence with STEM implementation

Mean (SD)

Mean (SD)

Mean (SD)

Mean (SD)

Familiarity with STEM education

1.65 (.64)

1.81 (.72)

1.53 (.67)

1.69 (.70)

Having attended relevant workshop or conference

1.56 (.65)

1.43 (.50)

1.29 (.46)

1.42 (.54)

Having confidence when talking about technology or engineering

2.61 (.62)

2.13 (.72)

1.83 (.72)

2.15 (.75)

Being able to capitalize on STEM opportunities

1.85 (.57)

1.58 (.53)

1.38 (.49)

1.58 (.56)

Being able to build STEM content into the curriculum

2.07 (.60)

1.73 (.57)

1.46 (.53)

1.73 (.61)

Having confidence for organizing STEM activities

1.81 (.56)

1.54 (.57)

1.46 (.55)

1.58 (.57)

Total

11.56(3.16)

10.23(2.91)

8.95(2.88)

10.16(3.10)

At the regional level, a clear pattern was reflected in the teachers’ mean scores on each item across the three regions. As Table 3 shows, kindergarten teachers from the eastern region reported higher scores on these items than teachers from central and western regions. A one-way ANOVA was conducted to determine if there were any significant differences among eastern, central and western regions in relation to teachers’ mean scores on Confidence with Implementing STEM Education.

As displayed in Table 3, teachers from western China reported the lowest mean score on their level of confidence, with 1.21 below the national mean. The ANOVA test result was statistically significant, indicating that the teachers’ mean scores varied considerably among regions, F (2, 427) = 22.28, p < .01, η2 = .094. Post-hoc analysis with Bonferroni (using an α of .01) revealed that teachers from the eastern region (M = 11.56, SD = 3.16) had a significantly higher mean score than teachers from the central region (M = 10.23, SD = 2.91) and teachers from the western region (M = 8.95, SD = 2.88). Significant differences were also found between teachers from central and western regions.

During the interview when asked about how confident they felt about incorporating STEM education into daily practice, all five teachers from the eastern region responded very positively. They attributed their confidence to abundant teaching resources and facilities, plentiful manipulatives for children, working with local science museums and regular guidance from academic staff at local universities. For example,

Our kindergarten has been working with the local science museum for many years, and we have a science learning center in our kindergarten. We’ve already had several project-based learning programs with children and now I know that what we did is actually STEM. That gives me a lot of confidence. (Ms. Yang, from eastern region, 11 years of experience)

Science education has always been the strength of my kindergarten. We have abundant teaching resources and facilities, including a wood work studio, clay work studio, and shadow puppets studio. So I believe that STEM activities can be easily organized. (Ms. Wang, from eastern region, 16 years of experience)

Three of the five teachers from the central region of China reported that they were somewhat confident and the remaining two teachers reported that they had no confidence at all. Interviews indicated that these teachers felt unprepared to implement STEM education due to a lack of educational preparation and insufficient content knowledge. For example,

I don’t have enough confidence. My understanding of STEM education is very superficial. I do believe STEM education is important, but I’m not sure where to start. I would be more confident if I had some training or teaching resources. (Ms. Wu, from central region, 13 years of experience)

I’m not confident at all. Mostly because of lack of time, and I am not really sure how to do it. There wasn’t any course work relating to STEM integration during my undergraduate study. I need more training or workshops that show me an easy way to do it. (Ms. Li, from central region, two years of experience)

In comparison, all four teachers from the western region of China reported that they were not confident at all. Interviews indicated that these teachers worried about the lack of sufficient funding, resources and materials, and inadequate professional development opportunities to learn more about STEM education. For example,

STEM activities require a lot of hands-on materials, manipulatives, and even some technical facilities. Well, there must be some expense related to those things. The kindergarten doesn’t have sufficient funding and may not be able afford those materials and facilities required for STEM activities. (Ms. Liu, from western region, three years of experience)

Unlike those teachers from Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hangzhou [eastern cities with advanced economies], we have very few chances to go out to attend workshops or conferences that show us new ideas, new concepts and new practices. (Ms. Chen, from western region, six years of experience)

Correlations between kindergarten teachers’ demographics and their confidence with STEM implementation were calculated. Results revealed that neither years of teaching experience (p = .67), nor their level of education (p = .77), was associated with their confidence level. The results were consistent with a previous study by Nadelson and his colleagues (Nadelson et al. 2013) in the US, indicating that when facing the new focus on STEM education, kindergarten teachers at various stages of their career with various qualification demonstrated a lack of confidence for responding to the challenge.

With regard to the barriers to implementing STEM education, interviews with teachers indicated that the perceived barriers included a lack of teacher training in early childhood STEM education, a lack of sufficient knowledge and experience, a lack of systematic STEM curriculum and learning guidelines, having big class sizes, and having difficulty finding time for STEM in the busy daily routine. For example,

Currently, there are no learning guidelines for early childhood STEM education in our country. I’m not sure about what learning outcomes we have to accomplish and how we would know that we have accomplished them. (Ms. Mao, from eastern region, six years of experience)

I think integrated STEM education requires much more time than a typical science lesson. I have difficulty finding time for it, since we are following a very busy daily routine. (Ms. Jiang, from central region, 12 years of experience)

STEM education is emerging in the eastern coastal cities in our country, people in the central and western regions don’t know much about it. Many people think that STEM education is for older children rather than young children. What we need most is teacher training that show us how to incorporate STEM into our daily practice. (Ms. Su, from central region, 31 years of experience)

Regarding implementing STEM education in my classroom, I’ve got two big barriers. One is that I don’t know what topics or content are suitable; the other is that I don’t know how to do it. My mind is totally blank in this area. I need a lot of training or professional guidance before I can do that. (Ms. Chen, from western region, six years of experience)

I’m worried about my own knowledge and literacy related to science and technology. I may not be able to provide effective guidance to children during activities. Moreover, I’ve got too many children in my classroom, it’s almost impossible for me to pay attention to an individual child during activities. (Ms. Wang, from western region, 14 years of teaching experience)

In summary, data from the survey revealed that kindergarten teachers across China were not familiar with STEM education, and were not confident with implementing STEM in their classrooms. However, they tended to have positive attitudes toward early childhood STEM education. Regional divergence was detected in teachers’ confidence to implement STEM education. Teachers from the eastern region of China reported a higher level of confidence than teachers from central and western regions. Moreover, teachers’ years of teaching experience and level of education were not found to be correlated with their attitudes toward or confidence with STEM implementation.

Discussion

Early childhood education in China has gone through dramatic changes during the last few decades (Pan and Liu 2008; Zhu and Zhang 2008). In recent years, kindergarten teachers in China have been increasingly introduced to progressive Western curricula and innovative pedagogical models, such as Montessori programs, Reggio Emilia, High/Scope Approach, Developmentally Appropriate Practice (Chen et al. 2017), and the Project Approach (Hammer and He 2016; Yang and Li 2017). However, a number of studies have revealed that kindergarten teachers in China have difficulties adapting and incorporating these imported models into their practices due to their lack of in-depth understanding of the pedagogical approaches coupled with socio-cultural incompatibilities between Chinese and Western contexts (Chen et al. 2017; Cheng 2006; Li 2012; Rao et al. 2010). When the movement for integrated STEM in K-12 education arrived in China, one of the questions that immediately arose was with regard to what would happen to STEM education in kindergartens. Will teachers have to overcome similar incompatibilities during the process of STEM curriculum adaptation and localization at the kindergarten and early childhood levels? The present study, as an important step to answering these questions, has revealed both potential opportunities and challenges for STEM education in Chinese kindergartens. On one hand, the opportunities include kindergarten teachers’ openness to early childhood STEM education. On the other hand, challenges include their lack of confidence to implement STEM, and inter-regional divergences in their levels of confidence.

Openness to STEM Education

It was interesting to find that Chinese kindergarten teachers, though unfamiliar with STEM education and lacking confidence with implementing STEM, tended to have positive attitudes toward STEM education in the very early years of formal schooling. Teachers’ openness and welcoming attitudes toward STEM education may be attributed to the ongoing reform of early childhood curriculum, which encourages integration both across and within content areas (Zhu and Zhang 2008). The two most influential national guidelines and regulations on kindergarten education, namely the Regulations on Preschool Routines (Ministry of Education [China] 2016) and the Guidance for Preschool Education (Trial Version) (Ministry of Education [China] 2001) call for an integrated curriculum across the existing five content areas and emphasize that teachers support child-initiated inquiry and provide learning experiences including exploration and collaboration.

Moreover, early childhood education in China has a history of valuing integration across content areas. More than thirty years ago Chinese early childhood researchers and educators started a reform movement of changing the subject-based curriculum to an integrated curriculum, which was called comprehensive curriculum. The comprehensive curriculum was developed with the whole-child rationale, aiming to promote children’s physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development through integrating various educational opportunities and engaging children with meaningful interactions with their environment (Li and Huang 1999). In the 1990s, many Chinese kindergartens started exploring an integrated Science, Technology, and Society (STS) education (Gao 2011). At that time, the integrated STS education had a focus on promoting children’s positive attitudes toward science and technology, and enhancing their knowledge and ability of using technological tools through hands-on activities (Dai 1995). These early explorations of the comprehensive curriculum and integrated STS education provided valuable experiences for integrated STEM education for teachers.

Lack of Confidence with Implementing STEM Education

An important finding from the present study is that Chinese kindergarten teachers reported low levels of confidence with implementing STEM education in their classrooms. Many reasons may account for these low levels of confidence. First, kindergarten teachers’ lack of knowledge of STEM content and classroom teaching activities may contribute to their low levels of confidence to implement STEM. A number of previous studies revealed strong and positive correlation between teachers’ knowledge of STEM content and teaching activities and their confidence for teaching STEM (Bleicher 2006; Nadelson et al. 2013; Nadelson and Seifert 2017; Yasar et al. 2006; Yilmaz-Tuzun 2008). These researchers argued that a lack of knowledge could make a teacher feel unprepared or unsure about their ability to teach STEM. Currently, STEM education, including STEM content, pedagogy, and conceptualization, is not available in kindergarten teacher preparation programs in most teachers’ colleges across China (Zhao 2014). Moreover, very few professional development opportunities are available for providing in-service kindergarten teachers with STEM content knowledge and pedagogical guidance. The absence of STEM training at both the pre-service and in-service stages may lead to Chinese kindergarten teachers’ low levels of confidence for teaching STEM.

A second reason to account for the finding in this current study regarding teachers’ lack of confidence to implement STEM is that a number of previous studies have revealed that kindergarten teachers often have a weak scientific background and hence lack the confidence in their own abilities to teach science (Akerson 2004; Kallery and Psillos 2002). Previous studies also found that elementary teachers were worried about their own integrated content knowledge when developing an integrated STEM project (Frykholm and Glasson 2005; Stohlmann et al. 2013). Recent studies on Chinese kindergarten teachers’ scientific literacy also revealed that many teachers’ were weak in their science content knowledge (Li et al. 2014; Wang 2007). STEM education, however, is trans-disciplinary, and teachers are supposed to have a “thorough understanding of the subject domain” (Morrison 2006, p. 4). For the majority of kindergarten teachers who do not have a background in any of the individual disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, capitalizing on the STEM opportunities that are embedded throughout a wide range of classroom activities would be challenging (Kallery and Psillos 2002).

A third possible explanation for the teachers’ lack of confidence to implement STEM may relate to findings of previous cross-cultural comparative studies. These studies found that in comparison to western teachers, Chinese preschool and elementary teachers tended to rely on direct, whole-group instruction, and exert a high level of control through their teaching approaches with an emphasis on knowledge or concept imparting (Hammer and He 2016; Tao et al. 2013). This focus on direct and whole group instruction in China may not be consistent with contemporary approaches to teaching STEM. One comparative study of Chinese and Norwegian preschool teachers’ approaches to science revealed that the Chinese teachers tended to incorporate whole-group instruction into every little detail including each sentence and question, and they also tended to correct children’s misunderstandings by giving the correct answer (Hammer and He 2016). A large body of research found that Chinese teachers’ preferences for direct and whole-group instruction could be attributed to a number of factors. For example, the cultural tradition of collectivism and related subject-teaching methodologies, as well as an emphasis on maintaining discipline, teaching rules and teaching academic skills (Hu 2015; Li and Rao 2005; Li et al. 2016; Ng and Rao 2010; Rao et al. 2010); as well as contextual constraints such as large class sizes, low teacher-child ratios, and strict time schedules (Hammer and He 2016; Rao et al. 2010). These cultural and contextual factors present considerable challenges for Chinese teachers who want to adapt to implementing STEM education.

Inter-Regional Divergence in Confidence with Implementing STEM Education

The present study also revealed that kindergarten teachers’ level of confidence with implementing STEM education varied considerably among eastern, central and western regions. Teachers from the eastern region of China reported significantly higher levels of confidence for implementing STEM than teachers from central and western regions. The inter-regional divergence may be attributed to the following reasons.

First, the eastern coast of China consists of municipalities and provinces that have affluent economies, rich educational and academic resources, and convenient transportation. The eastern region, thanks to its geographic advantages, tends to be the first to be informed of new and innovative ideas from the Western world. For example, in the past few years, a number of international conferences, workshops and expositions on STEM education have been held in eastern coastal cities to share STEM information, content knowledge, teaching kits or packages with K-12 teachers. By contrast, central provinces, due to their geographic and socioeconomic complexities, have large rural populations with lower levels of urbanization and inadequate educational resources (Liu 2013). The western region of China, where socio-economic development trails the national average, is even more rural and remote (UNICEF 2013). Both geographic and economic challenges create significant difficulties for STEM education information dissemination and for professional development to be delivered to these isolated inland areas.

Regardless of these challenges, local governments and educational administrative institutions in the eastern provinces of China have been aware of the importance and value of early childhood STEM education. In the past few years, local governments and educational administrative institutions in the eastern provinces have being working with local science and technology centers to advocate K-12 STEM education by providing administrative, financial and intellectual support to schools and teachers.

Limitations

There are a number of limitations to this study. A relatively small sample of research participants might be viewed as a limitation since there are around 2.5 million kindergarten teachers in the entire Chinese nation. However, the respondents were fairly diverse in their experience and perspectives, and were likely to be representative of kindergarten teachers from eastern, central and western regions of China. In future work it will be informative to replicate the survey with a larger number of kindergarten teachers with a broader range of demographics to confirm and extend the findings of the present study. Although the 10-item survey with a four-point rating scale format used in this study had adequate reliability and validity, this approach necessarily limited the scope of possible responses. The findings, however, do provide a current snapshot of Chinese kindergarten teachers’ attitudes toward and confidence for STEM education that is useful and meaningful at the national level. Moreover, globally the findings may be useful and informative to researchers and educators in other nations, in particular, nations looking to integrate STEM education into more traditional, discipline-based curricular approaches.

Many questions arise from the findings of this study that are important to investigate in the future. One of the questions that immediately comes to mind is with regard to the kindergarten teachers’ qualitative perceptions of STEM education, including their conceptual understanding of STEM education, their views of STEM integration, and the association between teachers’ perceptions of STEM education and their classroom practices. The findings also raise questions about the adaptation and localization of STEM education to the Chinese context. Future research should also observe and document the challenges that kindergarten teachers have when organizing STEM activities for young children, and difficulties they have when building STEM content into their existing curriculum.

Implications and Conclusions

The implications of this study for enhancing kindergarten teachers’ knowledge of and confidence for STEM education are important. The study found that most kindergarten teachers were not familiar with STEM education and reported a low level of confidence for teaching STEM in their classrooms. According to previous studies, content knowledge and classroom practices are the most important considerations for teachers new to integrated STEM education (Morrison et al. 2009; Radloff and Guzey 2016; Stinson et al. 2009). To overcome the challenge associated with low level of confidence for teaching STEM, quality professional development programs addressing content knowledge in STEM subjects and pedagogical skills should be provided at both pre- and in-service level (Hallinen 2008; Morrison et al. 2009). At the pre-service level, STEM learning modules focusing on integrated STEM content courses and methods courses should be provided in kindergarten teacher education programs. At the in-service level, professional development in STEM curriculum and instruction can take many forms ranging from seminars to university courses or programs (Morrison et al. 2009). The present study also revealed that teachers’ years of teaching experience was not associated with their confidence to implement STEM in classrooms. Therefore, professional development addressing STEM knowledge is likely to be needed by teachers at various stages in their careers (Nadelson et al. 2013). In order to overcome the regional divergence in teachers’ confidence for teaching STEM, professional training programs and “models of successful implementation” (Nadelson and Seifert 2017, p. 223) should be accessible for kindergarten teachers across central and western China.

It is of great importance to examine Chinese kindergarten teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and confidence for integrated STEM education, since this innovative model of education is crossing geographical, cultural, and disciplinary borders. As the first step in such planning, this study presents a preliminary survey that examined Chinese kindergarten teachers’ attitudes toward and confidence with STEM education.

The survey revealed that although teachers across China reported a low level of confidence for teaching STEM, they tended to have positive attitudes toward STEM education in kindergartens. Significant inter-regional divergence was detected in teachers’ confidence for teaching STEM. Teachers from the eastern region of China reported a higher level of confidence compared with teachers from the central and western regions. Moreover, teachers’ years of teaching experience and level of education were not found to be associated with their attitudes toward or confidence for STEM education.

Notes

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Declaration of Conflict of Interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

41979_2019_17_MOESM1_ESM.docx (19 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 18 kb)

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Education ScienceNanjing Normal UniversityNanjingChina

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