Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler offers insight into how children learn in Distinguished Scholar Lecture

The professor of psychology and director of the Center for Global Engagement discussed her research into how parents can guide their children and foster a spirit of inquiry, particularly as they learn in natural contexts. 

The young boy in the video was intimidated by the gap between the river rocks, wanting to join his friends on the far one, but not wanting to get wet in the process. 

With some gentle guidance to the boys from a teacher that offered one way to look at the challenge, a friend reached out across the gap, helping the boy traverse the flowing water and join his friends without a drop of water on his shoes. 

Professor of Psychology Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler delivers the 2019 Distinguished Scholar Lecture on Tuesday, Feb. 12. 
The video was just one piece of data from the extensive research history of Professor of Psychology Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, who had watched and rewatched the video to see how children confront challenges and learn from them with the guidance of parents and teachers. Vandermaas-Peeler shared it with the audience in the LaRose Digital Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 12, as she delivered the 2019 Distinguished Scholar Lecture highlighting the work she's accomplished in better understanding how children learn. 

This type of research — poring over taped interactions among children and between children and their parents and teachers — is vital to understanding how children learn and techniques that might be able to help them develop a sense of inquiry and curiosity, Vandermaas-Peeler told the audience. 

"It is very time-consuming, and you have to be a little bit crazy to do it," said Vandermaas-Peeler, who is the director of the Center for Research on Global Engagement. "And I love it."

The lecture showcased the great strides Vandermaas-Peeler has made through research and scholarship in the area of early childhood development throughout her career. Since coming to Elon in 1995, she has published 35 peer-reviewed scholarly articles and has made more than 75 presentations at international and national conferences. Her edited book, "Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research," was published last year and showcases her work in that area as well. She received Elon's Distinguished Scholar Award in 2018, which led to Tuesday night's presentation.

As Cindy Fair, Watts-Thompson Professor and chair of the Department of Public Health Studies, noted in her introduction Tuesday, Vandermaas-Peeler has devoted her research to the context in which children learn by studying their interactions in real-world situations, particularly within natural outdoors environments.

As context for a lot of the research examples she provided during her lecture, Vandermaas-Peeler explained that one area of interest has been in the "zone of proximal development" — a concept centered around tasks that a learner can complete with the appropriate assistance. That was at work in the case of the boy crossing the river rocks, or in other examples when teachers don't complete tasks for their students, but guide them toward solving them on their own. 

Vandermaas-Peeler has focused on "bridging the known and the new," which serves to help children make connections that tie new knowledge to what they already know. Vandermaas-Peeler cited the example of a parent helping a child learn about what saltwater fish eat by connecting it to the film "Finding Nemo," a film about a lost clownfish and his father that the child was very familiar with. "He gets that reference immediately, and that helps him make that connection," she said.

Through a concept called "intersubjectivity," the teacher and the child are both focused on the task at hand and have a mutual regard for the task, and for each other, Vandermaas-Peeler said. 

These three concepts create the framework for Vandermaas-Peeler's research into how children learn, particularly as it relates to how young children learn numeracy and mathematics. Studies have shown that learning to work with numbers at a young age can be a good predictor for future academic success, so understanding effective techniques to help them engage with mathematics and guide them as they learn is important, she said. 

She devised studies that provided a section of parents some instruction into how to include numeracy into how they worked with their children while not providing that guidance to the other parents in the study. That general guidance on how to work with their children to learn numbers, counting and other mathematical concepts yielded impressive results, Vandermaas-Peeler said. 

"Math talk matters," Vandermaas-Peeler said. "It turns out when adults talk about math, children also talk about math. … Parents can be guided with very simple instructions on how to guide their children."

That research expanded when Vandermaas-Peeler became a mentor to Honors Fellow Cara McClain '14, an experience that both said had a profound impact on their approach to learning about childhood development. During the course of two years, the pair extensively studied how children were learning at Children First, a nonprofit preschool in Durham, N.C., founded by McClain's mother, Donna King. The school is built inspired by the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy and focuses on the use of the outdoors to help children learn. 

"What we found really fascinating was the functional use of math in the environment," Vandermaas-Peeler said. 

During her full-year sabbatical, Vandermaas-Peeler extensively recorded how children were learning at Children First, with a focus on mathematics and science taught in natural environments such as in a garden or along a river. That has extended into her research into parental guidance, with parents taught how to foster inquiry among their children — not telling them the answers to mathematical or scientific questions, but helping them seek the solution. 

Vandermaas-Peeler pointed to a quote from Carla Rinaldi, a pedagogist and practitioner of the Reggio Emilia philosophy, as underscoring what she has found in her work. "Observe and listen to children because when they ask, 'why?,' they are not simply asking for the answer from you. They are requesting the courage to find a collection of possible answers. … Yet it is possible to destroy this attitude of the child with our quick answers and our certainty," Rinaldi wrote. 

Video of Vandermaas-Peeler's entire lecture is avaiable here