The Element of Surprise: Variability as the trigger of science conceptualization and transfer in kindergartners


Preparing students for learning outside of the classroom is a central goal of education. Yet, in the domain of science learning, children are often unable to transfer concepts from one context to another. This project aims to maximize kindergartners’ ability to transfer science concepts by improving conceptualization in an educational setting. To this end, conceptualization is framed as a cyclic prediction-and-update process that refines concepts to a point of being neither too precise to be transferable nor too abstract to be accurate. Central to this process is surprise, as this triggers concept updating. This proposed model is empirically tested in three studies in which kindergartners are guided in performing hands-on experiments on the concept of balance. First, the relationship between surprise and conceptualization is mapped using a neural marker of surprise. Second, how to best schedule variability to optimize conceptualization and transfer is explored. Finally, the role of explicit pedagogy in enhancing surprise for previously unnoticed dimensions is measured neurally. Taken together, the combination of behavioural and neural measures provides insights into a fundamental learning mechanism while simultaneously supplying practitioners with an evidence-based model that offers guidelines for improving science concept pedagogy at the start of children’s school careers.



  • JE van Schaik(2018): Surprising Science: Triggering and scaffolding young children’s experimentation on the balance-scale





J.E. van Schaik

Verbonden aan

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculteit der Gedrags- en Bewegingswetenschappen, Pedagogiek


J.E. van Schaik


15/03/2017 tot 31/10/2018