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Peggy Kessner, Germany

We were lucky to be able to tap into a fountain of knowledge with nature pedagogue, digital educator and special advisor for inquiry-based learning, Peggy Kessner from the Foundation “Haus der kleinen Forscher” in Germany, who visited us in Sydney in February.

Peggy, you have a background in digital education and nature pedagogy – two areas that don’t have much in common. 

You’d be surprised how much they have in common! I used to take children outdoors and we would record all the noises we could hear. We tried to figure out what noise belonged to which animal, whether it was running water we could hear in the background or the train going past and wondered why wind was so noisy. Those excursions were led by the children as they were the ones following a certain noise which then led into further investigations.

Why did you focus on nature pedagogy? 

It’s the educator’s approach in nature pedagogy that fascinates me the most. It’s a more holistic view on pedagogy – the child, the environment and the educator are embedded in a closed system – our world. Everything in this world is interrelated; if things change on one end it impacts the other end. Nature pedagogy is based on this simple yet powerful concept, the three basic principles of Science: the concept of the elements, the concept of energy and the concept of interaction.

You facilitate STEM workshops for educators in Germany. Are your workshops based on these three principles? 

Yes, they are. Once the educator has grasped those three principles of science and is aware of them, it gives a completely new perspective on teaching and how to facilitate educational content. In my workshops I like to use the water cycle to demonstrate those principles. The example shows beautifully the importance of science education. And as the principles can be applied to any area – water, the human body, mathematics, engineering, computer science, optics, chemical reactions, our actions– it really doesn’t matter what specific subject the educator is facilitating. We want to increase the educator’s awareness for the interrelation, and this includes how we treat our environment and the consequences of our actions.

And how does inquiry-based learning tie into this? 

Children are naturally inquisitive and have an innate curiosity. Combining the three principles of science with the concept of inquiry-based learning happens almost naturally. We try to encourage and foster the innate curiosity of children by letting them pick their topics of interest. The educator just provides the stimuli.

What is your definition of inquiry-based learning? How do you explain it to educators in your workshops? 

Capturing an everyday situation and recognising it for what it is. The situation could be natural phenomena, sounds, smells or the structure of things. Inquiry-based learning builds on children’s curiosity and follows this curiosity to explore their questions further. Raising questions, investigating more and trying to make sense of a complex situation. There is almost always a light-bulb moment which will be documented and might lead to further investigation.

Is inquiry-based learning something new in the educational landscape in Germany? 

The concept of inquiry-based learning is not new and has been around for many years in Germany. Not only educators and professionals in the field value the concept for its importance in helping children navigate a complex world. Parents and carers also see the great effect inquiry-based learning has on the cognitive and social development of the child.

Teaching STEM in the early years using an inquiry-based approach seems like the perfect match. 

Indeed. Science wouldn’t be at the point where it is today without inquisitive minds. So, starting STEM education in the early years using an approach that explicitly nurtures inquisitive minds is a great way to familiarise children with science.

The Foundation “Haus der kleinen Forscher” currently has 15 STEM workshop topics on offer in Germany. Is there a workshop topic that is particularly popular among childcare services? 

The Water workshop and the Acoustics workshop have been very popular since we’ve started. Children are usually fascinated by water and Acoustics is a wonderful workshop to investigate the world of sound. As my background is in media education, it is no surprise that my favourite workshop is Acoustics. I think, Mathematics is the most transformative workshop. Educators walk in feeling a little bit nervous and wondering if they are prepared for the topic. All of them walk out feeling very confident in bringing maths into their service.

Inquiry-based learning is hands-on learning. Does it mean all workshops are face to face? 

All our workshops are face-to-face workshops, but we also offer blended learning courses. The increasing number of online courses is the best indicator for its success.

What was the initial idea behind “Haus der kleinen Forscher”? 

The “Haus der kleinen Forscher” Foundation was founded in 2006 in Germany. It was the response to the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by OECD that evaluates educational systems by measuring 15-year-old students’ school performance in mathematics, science and reading. Germany’s performance was quite alarming. In order to counteract this development, two scientists from Helmholtz-Stiftung had the idea to run science workshops in early childhood services. They walked in with all their science gear and started demonstrating experiments. It soon became clear that the initial idea was brilliant but that it would take more than just explosions to engage the children in science. The experiments had to be embedded into a pedagogy that is child-led, fun and engaging. The Foundation “Haus der kleinen Forscher” was born.

How did you experience the Little Scientists program during your visit? 

I’m so excited to see the amazing work Little Scientists have been doing in the past two years. Since Little Scientists Australia was founded in 2013, we have been working together closely, and I had an idea of what to expect. Being here, meeting the trainers and the team and visiting Little Scientists Houses that engage the children in STEM topics is wonderful to experience. Research shows clearly that STEM in the early years is crucial to raise resilient and confident children who are able to navigate a complex and ever-changing world – Little Scientists has the knowledge and the resources to help services all around Australia to reach this goal.

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