Peculiarities of pupils' cognitive processes in the teaching of natural science at the primary level of education
The paper is focused on the presentation of the peculiarities of the cognitive processes of pupils in the teaching of natural science. The author focuses on the description of the process, reasons, and essence of humanization of pupils' education at the primary school level. It presents possible strategies of teaching of the science of self-learning, resulting from constructivist theories.
The purpose of history education naturally changes over time, and views about its function also change. Ever since antiquity, the prevailing opinion has been that knowledge of history helps us to understand the present, and the teaching of history has traditionally been seen as a means of education for morality and as a tool to help build a 'better society'. Since the end of the 18th century, schools have also emphasised a national perspective, and so one of the other tasks of history education has been the formation of conscious and proud citizens.
Together with the media and the social climate, school history contributes significantly to how pupils see themselves, their history, their role in the region, the national solidarity, or the international environment. In primary education, the history curriculum is usually integrated into the subject of National History, together with natural science and other humanities subjects. Although the teaching of history is quite demanding for children of younger school age, pupils at this age can already understand general chronological sequences as well as historical events (e.g. on the basis of stories of people with whom they can identify) or distinguish between events of ancient and events of modern history by comparing different aspects of people's lives at different times (e.g. living, dressing, using different tools) – even if they are not yet able to deal analytically with abstract historical concepts and themes .
Nowadays, when activity, independence and creativity are encouraged in the work of the teacher, leading to the activity and creativity of his/her pupils, even at the primary level of primary schools, only memorization and reproduction of learned knowledge is already taking a backing up. Didactic approaches to teaching history at primary level emphasise the key role of pupils' understanding in the learning process, without overloading pupils with excessive amounts of factual information, with the need to base teaching on phenomena that pupils can imagine (e.g. concretisation on the fate of individuals) and using approaches that develop pupils' research skills. Collecting material, classifying it, the basics of historical criticism and presenting the results of one's own work are seen as important components of history education as learning about the past itself.
The teaching of regional history can contribute to the development of pupils' research skills for the construction of historical knowledge, especially at the primary school level.
Each region is specific and unique, each region offers different potential for learning. Using the regional principle in teaching presents an opportunity to approach teaching in a different way - making the learning material more engaging and interesting for pupils because it is based on concrete knowledge and experience of the 'micro-world' that surrounds them. The realities of the region serve as facts that pupils can collect, analyse, evaluate, and then formulate and present their own conclusions. Thus, education based on the regional principle does not primarily serve as a source of information to be memorised, but as an opportunity to practise cognitive functions and skills. Through regional history, the teacher not only shapes pupils' historical thinking, but also develops creative ways of working with historical material (pupils actively use historical sources that are readily available to them in regional memory and cultural institutions, e.g. they can work with school or town chronicles, regional press or fiction literature), as well as pupils' positive attitude towards cultural and historical heritage. The availability of sources and their tactility brings pupils closer to history. It concretises the distant history of the world or of a country. Bringing the historical process closer makes pupils realise that history is not just a text in a textbook but is a reality and unfolds in stories. Historical connections can later be drawn from concrete and close to the pupils' own events and phenomena, thus shaping the pupils' historical and critical thinking.
1. Humanisation of education and training
1.1. Reasons for the humanization of education and training
In Slovakia, after 1989, there have been strong efforts to humanise schools as a reaction to the previous uniform and directive pedagogy, but also in connection with the efforts to transform and pluralise education. However, efforts to humanise education are not new, they stretch back through the history of pedagogy. It has been most prominent since the 60s of the 20th centuries, when the tendency to strengthen the scientific content of education resulted in a strong preference for the cognitive component of education, with an emphasis on the pupil's performance, a preference for its scientific component, and an underestimation of its human aspects. The 1970s have been described as a crisis of the human being, manifested in the decline of moral values, a consumerist way of life, ethnic or religious intolerance, a distorting mass culture, and so on.
Philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology have therefore begun to emphasize their anthropological orientation (a turn to man as the starting point of scientific reflection), asking to develop new qualities of man who will not want to control the world, but who will constantly improve himself and his relations to people in the spirit of universal human values. Human must be an individual, himself in his nature, but at the same time a full personality with a deep moral and spiritual dimension, so that he can consciously direct his own life, overcoming himself and the world by creative acts. In this context, the UNESCO report – Learning is a Hidden Wealth – formulates four necessary pillars of education for the 21st century:
- To learn to know – that is, to control the tools with which one can explore, investigate, understand new things, and develop throughout life, because true knowledge is that which one finds out for oneself;
- Learning to act – that is, to be an active solver of life situations and not a passive manipulated object, to be a person capable of free decision-making;
- Learning to live together – to value, respect, tolerate the differences of others, to cooperate with them, not to fight them, not to want to control them, but to act responsibly and morally towards them;
- Learning to be – to be an authentic person who knows what he or she wants, who is consciously in control of his or her own life, who is himself or herself, who finds meaning in his or her own life, his or her own happiness, and his or her own identity.
According to report, only a changed, humanized upbringing and education can achieve these goals [10, p. 23].
1.2. The concept and essence of the humanization of education and training
Humanization (humanus = human) is literally translated as "hominization". The humanisation of education and training means to restore, continuously create, protect, and develop the human dimension of education and training, which consists in the production of unique, distinctive human personalities. In the conditions of our school, this can only be ensured by transforming the unified concept of education and training (all the same, for the same purpose, with the same content, methods, and forms) into a concept based on the real individual development of each pupil's personality according to his/her abilities and capabilities. The essence of this transformation is that the focus of attention in the school, which has so far been on the content of education and on the activities of the teacher who is supposed to teach it, is transferred to the person of the pupil as the active subject of his or her own development.
The humanization of education and training implies addressing two aspects:
- Bringing education closer to human nature – to create conditions for education that correspond to the natural needs and laws of child development, based on the child's capabilities and interests, which is often misinterpreted as just "being kind to children", "getting down with them", or reducing the difficulty of teaching.
- To develop the pupil's personality in all its capacities and prerequisites to the highest possible degree – to create such means of education which will activate his own personal growth as much as possible (it is often forgotten that self-development is also a human need, even the highest one, and it requires space for its satisfaction).
Placing the pupil at the centre of the educational process happens in all elements of the educational system, humanization therefore has a dimension:
- relational – a change in the teacher's attitude towards the child as a subject of his/her own development
- the goal – a new direction in education and training
- content – a different structure of education and training
- procedural – modification of the conditions and means of education and training.
The crucial relational dimension means changing the imperative approach in education, based on commands, prohibitions, and passive obedience, to a humanistic approach. The humanistic approach is characterised by respect for the child's personality, recognising his or her value as a human being who deserves attention and dignity as such, without humiliation, intimidation, or ridicule, even if he or she has just been guilty or has failed. It regards the child as a person because:
- it grants him the rights and freedoms that belong to personhood (e.g., the rights of the child);
- requires him or her to be responsible and to fulfil his or her duties in a conscious (not forced) performance of duties;
- believes in his or her capacity for positive self-development;
- supports everything that encourages the development of the personality and rejects everything that hinders it.
According to Kosova , the methodological basis of the humanization of education and training is the orientation to the personality of the child. This basis means respecting four principles in education: the human being's agency as the goal and condition of education
- human self-development as the goal and condition of education;
- the integrity of personality development;
- the priority of the relational dimension in education.
1.3. Principles of humanization of education and training according to Kosova
1) Uniqueness as a goal and condition of education means respecting that everyone is different and should remain different even after going through the process of education. If we were all the same, the evolution of humanity would stop. If we recognize that each person must be different, unique, then education must create the conditions for the birth of authentic diverse personalities. If diversity is the guarantee of progress, then it is in the interest of the very existence of human society to provide different educational paths, different educational alternatives. Setting the same goal for different children and expecting the same results is unrealistic and nonsensical. Different children will only have the same chances if the teacher approaches them differently according to their level of development. Equality, however, must be in giving love, opportunities, space for self-expression, in fair law (presumption of innocence) and in following agreed rules .
In school practice, this means individualizing the educational process. It is teaching as if tailored to the individual pupil, adapting to the needs and interests of the pupil with differentiated teaching methods and differentiated learning materials . Individualising teaching means enabling the child to learn in the most effective way and at the most effective pace for him or her, providing a method through which he or she can get the most out of it, so that he or she can work at the level of his or her personal best. This requires a teacher who is able to diagnose the post-needs of pupils or groups of pupils and flexibly adapt his teaching to them (e.g., creating task packages for different groups of children according to their learning style, prevailing type of intelligence, personal pace, etc.). It is therefore about teaching as much as possible adapted to the pupils and not to the teacher.
2) Self-development as a goal and condition of education presupposes the use of such practices in education and training in which the child sets achievable goals for himself and is as independent and active as possible in achieving them. Everything that the child can do, he is to do himself. At the same time, he is to be guided towards conscious self-regulation based on his own self-determination. He must therefore have an active share in his own education.
Humanistic pedagogy considers it a higher degree of individualization if an increasing part of one's learning and work is gradually directed by the pupil himself. If the teacher understands that the child's self-development is a need, then he or she must give him or her the space to satisfy this need, i.e., let him or her learn, plan, i.e., choose, implement, and evaluate his or her own progress. Humanistic pedagogy emphasizes leading pupils to freedom and responsibility through "pupil-centred" i.e., self-directed learning process .
Self-directed learning is characterized by educational methods and practices in which the child is as independent as possible and in which he or she must cooperate with others, such as discussions, cooperative activities, guided discovery, role-playing, projects, creative tasks, free choice of tasks, self-correction, and self-assessment. These combine individual free choice and the child's social development. Exercising free choice and taking responsibility for it is the most optimal way of nurturing a free and responsible personality, the process of becoming a person – personalisation. Humanistic pedagogy recognises that personalisation requires the active position of the individual, i.e., that the teacher cannot make the child a personality, the child must become one himself.
3) The holistic development of personality implies giving space in education for the development of all aspects of a person's personality and not emphasizing one-sidedly only some, e.g., only cognitive (cognitive processes, especially memory). It is equally important to consider and proportionally balance in education the development of noncognitive, affective aspects (feelings, attitudes, character) as well as psychomotor abilities . Integrity also implies a balanced development of both cerebral hemispheres. It requires the use of all channels of cognition e.g., all senses as well as all sources of knowledge, not only books but also individual child experience. In an activity or mental activity, an experience is created, a concrete experience is formed from the experience, based on the experience the child constructs concrete knowledge, he can generalise from the concrete knowledge. This forms a solid positive relationship to cognition.
4) The priority of the relational dimension in education is based on the philosophy of man, according to which the life of man in the world is the realization of three kinds of relationships: the relationship to oneself, to people, to the world, and each of these relationships can have a threefold character: cognitive (knowledge), transformative (abilities), evaluative (attitudes). Their intermingling forms the nine areas in which a person should develop. In humanistic pedagogy, evaluative (i.e., both attitudes and emotional experience) and transformative relations are considered more important than cognitive ones in the hierarchy. They often play a more significant role in human behaviour than rational appraisal of reality. In particular, the child acts as he/she feels and not as reason dictates.
An essential starting point for the humanization of education and training is the preference for the interpersonal level of education. While traditional pedagogy, in defining education, emphasizes that it is primarily a deliberate activity of the teacher aimed at developing or shaping the pupil, humanistic pedagogy perceives education primarily as an interpersonal relationship between the teacher and the pupil, which the teacher induces in the home in such a way as to allow the child space for active self-development. The non-directive helping relationship between teacher and pupil is seen as essential, because it is this relationship that determines whether the child accepts the teacher's action, whether the teacher induces in the child the psychological dispositions that activate his or her development. The relationship between two people is deeper the more it satisfies the needs of both partners. Children will have a better relationship with the teacher the more the relationship satisfies their educational, emotional, and social needs. Experiencing the relationship means letting oneself be influenced, opening oneself to the other person's influence, which is a condition for effective educational influence.
1.4. Procedural concept of education
Humanistic conceptions of education are based on a process conception of education. In the normative conception, what is more important for education is where it is to arrive, i.e., the goal, where the criterion of the effectiveness of education is the reduction of the distance to the expected result. The procedural conception of education emphasizes the current initial state of development of the individual's personality, where the criterion of the effectiveness of education is how much forward movement has taken place after the pedagogical intervention in relation to the previous state. It sees education as the creation of educational situations that move the concrete development of the individual always a certain step forward, but with an awareness of the desired goals.
Human always exists in some situation. Vital situations have the greatest influence on personality because they set off chains of other influential situations. For educational interventions to have an impact on personality, they must be in the nature of personally significant situations. However, the significance of a situation for an individual cannot be judged from the outside, i.e., as it is generally judged by adults, but according to the individual's own perception of it. If he considers it significant, he opens himself to it, responds to it, seeks it out, creates it. The way in which an individual deal with a situation depends on how he relates it to himself, i.e., whether the situation enters the sphere of the person's values and goals. If it does, a state of what psychology calls ego – engagement arises. Thus, in an ego – engaged situation, the individual is not merely an object of the situations he or she is placed in and experiences but is a subconscious or conscious subject of their search or creation .
According to humanistic pedagogy, the essential cause of the ineffectiveness of education and teaching is precisely the fact that the child does not become a subject of significant pedagogical situations according to the teacher, does not associate them with himself or herself, does not experience them, does not create them, is not involved in them. Often this is because adults simply do not allow it with their style of education. Facilitative, non-directive education is more in the nature of indirect educational action, where the educator creates the conditions for influencing the situation rather than directly influencing the pupil. Then there is room in the situation for the pupil to be its active subject.
2. Peculiarities of the child's cognitive process at younger school age
Natural History is one of the disciplines dealing with the description and interpretation of the real world in primary education. Its narrower focus is human society and the place of human in it, in time and space. It is time and space that are understood as the basic categories of socio-human life through which people can convey information. Different treatment in different cultures is also documented in them. The aim in natural history is for pupils to perceive changes in their environment, to understand them and to try to explain them. Educational activities are aimed at stimulating cognitive curiosity and exploring phenomena and events that are linked to the pupil's immediate environment. Teaching is based on observation and research activities aimed at solving sub-problems, taking as a starting point the children's current knowledge, their prior experience, and their level of cognitive ability as a basis for problem-setting.
The peculiarity of the cognitive process of a child at a younger school age is concrete thinking tied to real experiences. This developmental stage was characterized by Piaget  as respecting the basic laws of logic with respect for reality. This means that thinking at this developmental stage always operates with ideas or symbols that have concrete content, that is, it operates with reality. In thinking, the child draws on his own experiences with objects, events, concrete situations. The child's own experience is the richest source of information for thinking. Based on conscious perception of reality, thinking becomes more objective and accurate. This is characteristic of the post-descending penetration of logic into thinking.
At a younger school age, the child's transduction fades, but even so, the child at the primary level tends to look for the simplest possible explanation in situations. All causes found must be simple and unambiguous. The child tries to eliminate randomness in every situation. He/she thinks that in every situation certain rule must apply. Coincidences or exceptions invalidate these rules. They are a source of uncertainty for the child and are very frustrating.
According to Žoldošová, another peculiarity of the child's cognitive process at the primary level is that he uses specific logical operations in thinking, and from them mainly:
- classification and sorting: the child are able to recognise different criteria for sorting and to define different relationships of objects and to sort objects on the basis of these criteria; the basis of this operation is the understanding of the rule according to which the sorting is governed (e.g. by size, colour or number),
- inclusion (inclusion): understanding the distinction between superior and inferior classes of features for classifying elements, essential and variable properties of objects, e.g., the child distinguishes colour as a non-significant feature and type of material as a superior class,
- object ordering: the child can identify a criterion for sorting objects and correctly order objects according to it, but not on the basis of more than two criteria at a time .
Compared to the pre-schooler in a child of younger school age, there is a change in the development of imagination. Imagination gradually loses its spontaneity and unintentionality. The seven-year-old child already understands the difference between reality and fantasy. However, the world of imagination continues to hold its charm for him/her and he/she continues to enjoy returning to it in play, reading and watching fantasy stories. The development of a deliberate imagination is stimulated by learning activities. The child is already better able to locate his own ideas in time and space compared to pre-school age.
All this influences the methodological aspect of teaching (emphasis on the child's personal experience). A teacher who respects the child's personal development does not focus only on the outcome (the product of education), but also (or mainly) on the process and on the longer-term effects of education, such as thought operations, value orientation, interests, life aspirations...
3. The sociocultural construct of "space" and "time"
An important goal of natural history is the knowledge of the socio-cultural space of the child's life and the genesis of this sphere. Particular attention is paid to the tools of orientation in this sphere (orientation in sphere and orientation in time). The development of the child's cognition in each sociocultural space corresponds to the mental representation of the conceptual apparatus with which he can handle and understand their meaning. This concerns both the natural environment and the social environment and its genesis. The child becomes more aware of his or her grounding in his or her own culture, learns to deal with historical sources and is able to orient and evaluate himself or herself in it. It perceives and takes a stance of multicultural openness.
It begins with self-awareness of one's own role in society. It is a principled recognition: this is where I live, I am a member of this society. In order to function in it, I have to learn the basic principles of functioning in it. It is understandable that knowledge begins with the pupil's immediate surroundings. At the initial stage, it is the environment of one's own family (acquiring a conceptual base and conceptualising the theme of the family environment) and the social environment of the classroom (adopting a new social role – pupil, classmate) and acquiring the norms of behaviour in a given community. The pupil becomes aware that norms and relationships also apply to the wider community (community and region; awareness of the relevance of this knowledge for his/her own functioning). In order to be able to orientate himself in space, he learns to use the tools for this knowledge (orientation according to cardinal directions, observation of the description of the landscape from the habitat, working with a plan and a map). At the end of primary education, the pupil is able to use other tools to learn about the municipality, the region, the Slovak Republic and is aware that our homeland belongs to the European Union .
In terms of awareness of basic geographical categories, which are related to the knowledge of the pupil's social environment, it is possible to talk about cartographic knowledge (creation of maps and their use), regional geography (municipality, region, regions of the Slovak Republic in the spatio-temporal and natural-human aspect), physical geography (natural surface geospheres) and human geography (settlements, inhabitants, productive sectors, transport...).
The knowledge of space is systematically related to the basic geographical categories, but for primary education pupils this knowledge is associated with emotional (good-social) cognition, observation and evaluation of observed phenomena and overall impressions from the familiar socio-cultural environment (the surroundings of the school and residence, the region...). It should be added that here too there are some differences in the perception of space. In perception, the child focuses primarily overall, or on spectacular details (moving, colourful, changing). The child at the primary stage overestimates near and large objects, as well as objects with subjective affective value, and underestimates small and distant pre-meters. It is necessary to lead children to observational activities, the perception of details is not natural for a child of this age. It should also be noted that estimating distance is insufficient. As far as size comparison is concerned, it is in this period that relative size measurement can be effectively developed, the child being able to acquire the principle of universal measurement.
The second basic category of natural history is the sociocultural construct of "time". Orientation in time forms the basis of knowledge of the world. To understand physical time, it is important for children not only to know the names (days, months...), but to discover the cyclical, regularity of their alternation. In the 2nd year of primary school, pupils orient themselves in time with the help of the activities they do on a regular basis (what they do in the morning, in the morning, which day is today, which day was yesterday...), then only with the help of the celestial objects (where is the sun in the sky in the morning, at noon...). At the end of 2nd year, pupils are able to handle the time in the calendar and the school year (they are aware of the alternation of days, months, seasons and attribute meaning to them on the basis of their own experience). From the 3rd year of primary school onwards, in order to express genesis in a socio-cultural space, pupils need to handle a time line in order to understand the history of human society and its culture .
They are aware of the hierarchy of these events. Initially, they arrange on a timeline the events of their lives, their parents, and other events e.g., inventions. Dealing with the timeline is a necessity for primary pupils, because of their concrete thinking (pupils need to have a concrete idea whether a given event happened earlier or later, much earlier/much later). They need to create a system in the events that happened and navigate it. From the 3rd year of primary school onwards, the pupil encounters different historical epochs, starting with Slovakia in the prehistoric period and ending with Slovakia in the present day. This is a selection of the most significant historical events in Slovakia, which will form the basis for further learning. Pupils learn to deal with historical sources and historical content (e.g., they get acquainted with old stories related to historical events) .
The proportion of geographical and historical components of the history curriculum is both balanced and integrated in the textbooks. The full integration of both components occurs in the 4th year of primary school, where the historical component of the curriculum is supplemented by auxiliary sciences such as archaeology, ethnology, ethnography, sociology... It is a project-based approach, where pupils search for and supplement information about Slovakia by their own research .
If we had the opportunity to evaluate the approach in terms of contemporary natural history science, we can say that the anthropological perspective took precedence over the scientistic one. The content of natural history is not overburdened with concrete scientific knowledge. The emphasis is on skills, attitudes, and knowledge. At the same time, the pupil is to acquire methods (ways) which ensure the exactness of the pupil's own investigation of real reality, using childlike experience, observation, practical activities, and experiments. However, the unifying element remains the chosen real content, summarising information about things and phenomena from nature and society. This creates space for block teaching and project-based learning.
What should be the focus of natural history subject? It is about the personal development of the child, his/her communicative, affective, cognitive, including psychomotor abilities, in the way that is closest to the child of primary education: through exploration combined with play . It is about the development of the child's personality, his/her communication, affective, cognitive, and psychomotor abilities.
4. Strategy of teaching
When choosing a teaching strategy with teaching methods, teachers should be based on the knowledge of the specifics of the young school-age child, his needs, and possibilities. In terms of the cognitive process, the principle of problem-posing is emphasised, with an emphasis on discovering and constructing knowledge based on one's own activities and experiences in interaction with the teacher and classmates. A child at this age needs to discover himself, the people around him, things, and the world around him. He needs to see, hear, taste, feel, try on, discover, perform, experience, and talk for himself. It is assumed that every pupil has some preliminary more or less developed ideas and experiences about the subject matter, so-called "preconceptions" or "naive theories". We consider pupils' different experiences and knowledge, different views, and contradictions in teaching as the main driving force of cognition. A distinctive feature of the methods and forms of work is their individualization and variability depending on the pace of work, different levels of ability, experience, and interests of pupils .
Competitiveness is being replaced by cooperative forms of learning, where the performance of the individual is supported by the actions of the whole group and the whole group benefits from each individual. Pupils learn to cooperate effectively, to help each other, to give advice, to debate, to argue, to defend their opinion, but also to listen to others. The overestimation of competition in teaching had a negative impact on the less successful pupils, who did not have the chance to compete with the more gifted pupils. It led them to frustration and disinterest in learning.
Innovative methods should be based on knowledge of the personality of the pupil and also require considerable diagnostic and discernment skills on the part of the teacher. Specific methods that teachers apply within the framework of an activity-based approach to teaching with an emphasis on constructivist and cooperative strategies are: problem-solving, project-based learning, didactic play, staging and simulation methods, experimentation, concept mapping, brainstorming, etc. The teacher should choose adequate methods that meet the needs of the children. An important aid in the lessons of national history is also an interactive board, through which each pupil can perceive and search for various sights of the nearby or wider surroundings of the school, municipality, region, homeland, and various sights from all over the world.
There has also been a significant shift in pupil assessment. There has been a shift from quantitative normative assessment to qualitative individualised, diagnostic and interventionist assessment. It explores where and why a pupil is struggling and how they can be helped. Assessment is not limited to stating a result but looks for causes and suggests further developments to benefit the pupil's achievement. Error is not considered a pathological and undesirable phenomenon in the learning process, a manifestation of ignorance to be sanctioned (a bad grade), but a natural feature of the cognitive process, an important stage in the construction of knowledge. The teacher judges the pupil both in relation to the aims of teaching and in relation to his previous performances and his potentialities. Value-not in this conception establishes a reasonable relationship between experiences of success and failure. It gives all students a chance to improve .
The introduction of humanistic principles into education brings a new perspective on the perception of the pupil at a younger school age in the teaching process. There has been a shift in the focus of educational goals and content towards processes and strategies, and also a shift in the understanding of the content of natural history science, which is intertwined with the social and cultural context. In terms of the cognitive process, the emphasis is on the principle of problem-orientation, individualisation and variability, cooperation, as well as a change in assessment from quantitative to qualitative assessment.
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