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LeGard (2004) OU
Children’s Scientific Thinking: Social Interaction and Cognitive Development
Abstract An observational study examined children’s scientific reasoning pertaining to objects that float or sink. The study was designed to test the hypotheses that social interaction is related to cognitive change, and that children move through developmental stages in an understanding of science. The sample comprised a male child aged eight and a female child aged twelve. Data were collated from video-recorded scientific tasks. The participants’ predictions and explanations were coded. Findings revealed that social interaction and cognitive conflict can cause conceptual change, and that there exists a developmental progression in children’s scientific thinking. The complexity of conceptual change is related to the child’s age. Scaffolding is only successful if the ZPD is identified correctly. Introduction Although Piaget (1955a) regarded cognitive development as an endogenous process, he proposed that peer-interaction has the potential to promote cognitive development. He claimed that such interactions allow children to experience socio-cognitive conflict. Thus, conflicting viewpoints may compel the child to re-evaluate their individual knowledge. Vygotsky (1978) perceived children as social beings who are able to appropriate new patterns of thinking when learning alongside individuals who are more proficient. Through such collaboration, children come to master activities and think in ways that have meaning in their culture. Vygotsky called this concept, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is the expanse between the child’s level of development and their potential developmental level, in collaboration with more competent individuals. Thus, social interactions ‘scaffold’ (Wood, 1988) the child’s cognitive development in the ZPD, leading to a higher level of reasoning. Many researchers (e.g. Brownell and Carriger, 1999; Perret-Clermont, 1980; Doise and Mugny, 1984; Howe et al., 1992) maintain that social interaction is related to cognitive change and the understanding of concepts in science. Selley (1993) proposed a developmental progression of children’s scientific understanding, relating to floating and sinking. He maintained that children initially acquire practical comprehension of buoyancy. As children realize their theories are insufficient, they progress through various stages, what Selley termed Hypotheses 1, (1A), 2, 3 and 4. The above research proposes that social interaction and cognitive conflict contribute to cognitive change, and that children undergo a progression in scientific understanding. The present observational study measured children’s predictions and explanations concerning the sinking and floating behaviour of a variety of objects. The study’s principle intention was to answer the following research questions: 1) Do the results support researchers’ findings that cognitive conflict and collaboration play a role in cognitive development? 2) Is there evidence that the participants relate to
Selley’s progression of scientific understanding? It is predicted that the outcome of the present study will support the above research. Method Design A cross-sectional research design employed science-based tasks. Data were collected using observation of scientific procedures, where the participants discussed their thinking. Video recordings were made of the children’s investigations, which were led by Professor Terezinha Nunes. The participants’ responses were coded and analysed. Participants Participants included one male and one female child − aged seven (Daniel) and twelve (Jessica) − selected from two state schools in the Oxford area. Materials The participants’ predictions and explanations were coded (Appendix 1) and the frequency of main causal themes identified (Appendix 2). Questions and statements that induce cognitive conflict were posed, and an example of these is included in the appendices (Appendix 3). The approximate length of the tasks for Daniel and Jessica were thirty-five and thirty minutes respectively. For a complete list of the objects used and the protocol for the practical task see Appendix 4. Procedure A primary school was approached for children who would be willing to participate in a video-recorded practical investigation. A number of children agreed to take part. The recordings took place in March 2005 within the school building during the school day. The seven-year-old participant was recorded in a room familiar to him, and was accompanied by a teaching assistant. A sound recordist, two camera operators, a member of the course team and the producer were present. Professor Nunes, who had no previous knowledge of the participants, led the investigations. The children were presented with eight objects and asked to speculate if the items would sink or float and their reasons for their predictions. The predictions were tested and the participants asked to comment on what had occurred. The children were asked to explain why the two groups of objects behaved as they did. The participants were presented with the next ten items and the above procedure was repeated. This part of the investigation was referred to as the Initial Stage. Attention was drawn to objects where the children’s explanations indicated an incomplete understanding. This phase of the task was referred to as Stage 6/7. The participants were again asked to explain why the items in each group floated or sank. A set of scales and two similar shaped, but different sized, tins containing lentils were introduced. The larger tin was the heaviest and floated. The participants’ understanding of scales was confirmed and the tins weighed. The children were asked to predict what would occur once the tins were placed in the water and to discuss what happened. Finally, the participants were asked why the two groups of objects behaved as they did.
Informed consent was obtained and the children were notified that they could end their participation at any time. Any indication that the participants were uncomfortable with the procedure was regarded as withdrawal of consent. Personal information was protected in line with the British Psychological Society’s protocols. Results The participants’ predictions and explanations were coded. Where two or more explanations were offered for the same object, each was coded separately. The coding method was used to attain a clear comparison between the children’s Initial Stage explanations and those following cognitive conflict (Stage 6/7). Daniel correctly predicted that 13 out of the 18 objects would sink or float. Jessica accurately identified that 12 of the 18 items would behave as they did. Both participants made false predictions on the tin lid, the painted block, the button and the elastic band. Daniel initially cited 5 causal themes. Following cognitive conflict, the number of explanations remained at 5 (Figure 1). At the Initial Stage of the investigation, Jessica named 9 causal themes. At Stage 6/7, this was reduced to 6 (Figure 2).
Figure 1: Frequency of main causal themes (Daniel)
6 Number of explanations
5 Initial Stage 6/7
0 Weight Experience Material Shape Causal themes Holes Grouping Similar Materials No Answer
Figure 2: Frequency of main causal themes (Jessica)
8 7 6 Number of explanations 5 4 3 2 1 0
ow M as s er e Sh ap rie nc at er ia at An en si ty e So lid l Ai r Si ze ei gh t er ia ls Kn sw
Initial Stage 6/7
Daniel cited shape as an explanation 6 times. This rose to 7 at Stage 6/7. Jessica initially referred to air on 3 occasions. Following cognitive conflict, she discarded the explanation completely. For a comparison of the themes of the initial and later stages of the investigation for individual participants, the frequencies were converted to percentages (heavy floaters/light sinkers only, Appendix 5). In the Initial Stage, 8.3 per cent of Daniel’s causal themes related to his own experience. For Jessica the result was 16.6 per cent. Following cognitive conflict, Daniel’s explanations declined to 7.1 per cent, while Jessica’s decreased to 0 per cent. Daniel identified weight as a main causal theme in 25 per cent of the initial themes and 14.2 per cent of the Stage 6/7 themes. Mass was identified as an explanation in 0 per cent of Jessica’s initial themes and 10.5 per cent of the Stage 6/7 themes. Discussion Both Daniel and Jessica gained a high number of correct predictions, which indicates that they posses a good everyday knowledge of science (Nunes and Bryant, 2006). That both participants made false predictions on identical items suggests that, initially, the weight and size of an object were present in their thinking. Indeed, Selley (1993) asserted that young children focus upon one prominent attribute of an object when beginning the search for a basis for predictions. Daniel’s initial predictions were based upon the weight and shape of the objects. Although Jessica originally based her predictions upon weight, the shift in attention to the material of the object, following cognitive conflict, supports Selley’s (ibid.) claim that once an older child’s theory is contradicted, they switch to another, improved, hypothesis which moves the focus from the object to the material. Jessica initially cited a larger number of causal themes than Daniel, which indicates that she has acquired additional scientific knowledge. Indeed, Inhelder and Piaget
G ro up i
(1958) maintained that comprehension of scientific methods only develops once the formal operational stage has been reached. Daniel’s scope of explanations was limited, demonstrating that he has yet, perhaps, to develop the appropriate cognitive structures required to master scientific concepts (ibid.). Daniel’s perseverance with shape as a causal theme indicates that he has not yet gained Selley’s Hypothesis 1 stage (that objects float if they contain air). Jessica initially referenced air for three causal themes. However, following cognitive conflict she did not cite air at all. Thus − referring to density and mass − she abandoned Selley’s Hypothesis 1 and shifted to Hypothesis 2 (that objects float if they are light for their size). Piaget (1955b) claimed that children progressively build up mental representations of how the world operates. Thus, what a child is capable of learning depends significantly on what they already know. This was demonstrated by the initial reliance upon experience by both participants. Indeed, the findings of the present study back up di Sessa’s (1993) argument that children’s initial concepts concerning the physical world are based upon their perception of everyday experience with physical objects. Following a challenge to their thinking, Daniel reduced experience as an explanation and Jessica discarded the causal theme completely, which implies that cognitive conflict was sufficient to cause conceptual change. Daniel’s citing of weight as a causal theme reduced at Stage 6/7, while mass increased as an explanation for Jessica. This suggests that cognitive conflict fostered conceptual change in both participants. However, the complexity of the conceptual change was relative to the ages of the children. Piaget (1958) averred that young children may discard contradictory evidence and retain their own theory. Certainly, once Daniel’s belief (heavy things sink) was challenged, he simply re-categorized the painted block as ‘not that heavy’. Daniel’s theory, therefore, remained the same, while his perception of the evidence was altered. Daniel’s cognitive process was guided during the scaffolding stage. However, he remained convinced that shape was the main causal theme. This indicates that his ZPD was not identified correctly and, moreover, that conceptual change is related to the child’s age. Jessica’s ZPD was identified and her thinking extended. This Vygotskian approach enabled Jessica to begin to move towards Selley’s Hypothesis 3 (that objects float if their density is less than the density of the fluid). An understanding of how children gain comprehension of scientific concepts is significant because of its relevance to how educators may teach children to acquire scientific understanding. The use of an observational approach ensures that the conditions are the same for all participants. Moreover, the video recordings can be scrutinized and coded by the investigator or, indeed, other researchers. Several limitations to the present study should be noted. Observer influence can reduce the accuracy of observations. A number of the participants’ predictions and answers were absent. A further inadequacy was the difficulty in coding (Appendix 6).
The study was completed with two participants, and generalizations from such a small sample would be unhelpful. The study could be improved in a number of ways. Fewer individuals should be present during the task, and all participants should attend the same school or schools. Questions to elicit predictions and explanations should be posed while the child is examining each object. The data should be coded to assess intra- and inter-observer reliability. To examine accurately the role of social interaction in children’s scientific thinking, research must be based upon patterns found among a larger sample of children across cultures. Indeed, this, same and mixed gender small groups and peerpeer collaboration should be considered for future research. Conclusion The results support researchers’ findings that social interaction can cause conceptual change, and that there exists a developmental progression in children’s scientific thinking. Conceptual change is related to the child’s age. Scaffolding is successful only if the ZPD is identified correctly. There are limitations to the study and further research is required. References Brownell, C. A. and Carriger, M. S. (1999) cited in Littleton, K. and Miell, D. (2005) p.119. Bruner (1975) cited in Oates, J. (2005) p.275. Chevallard, Y. (1985) cited in Perret-Clermont, A. N., Carugati, F. and Oates, J. (2006) p.317 Ding, S and Littleton, K. (eds) (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. di Sessa, A. (1993) cited in Terezinha, N. and Bryant, P. (2006) p.282. Doise, W. and Mugny, G. (1984) cited in Terezinha, N. and Bryant, P. (2006) p.292. Howe, C., Tolmie, A. and Rodgers, C. (1992) cited in Terezinha, N. and Bryant, P. (2006) p.292. Inhelder, B and Piaget, J. (1958) cited in Terezinha, N. and Bryant, P. (2006) p.288. Littleton, K. and Miell, D. ‘Children’s Interactions: Siblings and Peers’, in Ding, S. and Littleton, K. (eds) (2005) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Oates, J., Wood, C. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2005) Psychological Development and Early Childhood, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University.
Oates, J. ‘First Relationships’, in Oates, J., Wood, C. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2005) Psychological Development and Early Childhood, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Oates, J., Sheehy, K. and Wood, C. ‘Theories of Development’, in Oates, J., Wood, C. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2005) Psychological Development and Early Childhood, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Oates, J. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2006) Cognitive and Language Development in Children, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Perret-Clermont, A. N., Carugati, F. and Oates, J. ‘A Socio-Cognitive Perspective on Learning and Cognitive Development’, in Oates, J. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2006) Cognitive and Language Development in Children, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Perret-Clermont, A. N. (1980) cited in Terezinha, N. and Bryant, P. (2006) p.292. Piaget, J. (1955) cited in Oates, J., Sheehy, K. and Wood, C. (2005) pp. 66-67. Piaget, J. (1955b) cited in Oates, J., Sheehy, K. and Wood, C. (2005) p.65. Piaget, J. (1958) cited in Terezinha, N. and Bryant, P. (2006) p.291. Terezinha, N. and Bryant, P. ‘Mathematical and Scientific Thinking’, in Oates, J. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2006) Cognitive and Language Development in Children, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Vygotsky (1978) cited in Oates, J., Sheehy, K. and Wood, C. (2005) p.73.
Appendix 2 Table 1: Frequency of main causal themes identified in Daniel’s data Theme Initial Stage 6/7 Weight 6 2 Experience 4 1 Material 3 1 Shape 6 7 Holes 0 2 Grouping Similar Materials 1 0 No Answer 0 1 Total 20 14 Table 2: Frequency of main causal themes identified in Jessica’s data Code W Ex M Sh A Sz So Ms DK GM NA D Theme Weight Experience Material Shape Air Size Solid Mass Don’t know Grouping Similar Materials No Answer Density Total Appendix 3 Questions and statements that induce cognitive conflict. Daniel Professor Nunes: But, you know, this is a bit like a ball too, isn’t it? Daniel: Except it’s heavy and that’s not extremely heavy. TN: But that is a bit heavy, too, isn’t it? * PN: But this one really isn’t shaped like a boat at all. * PN: Look at the needle; it’s shaped a bit like a boat too, isn’t it? * PN: This ones a bit like the pencil, isn’t it? So why would it sink? Jessica PN: But there’s one thing I’m curious about, Jess. Look, which one do you think is heavier, the penny or the grapefruit? Jessica: The grapefruit. PN: So why would the penny sink and the grapefruit float? Initial 7 2 3 1 3 1 2 1 1 2 1 0 24 Stage 6/7 3 0 5 0 0 0 3 2 1 4 0 1 19 Code W Ex M Sh H GSM NA
* PN: So when you put it on the scale, you’re looking at weight or are you looking at mass? * PN: Is there a way we could compare that and say if we compared it this way, we’d know exactly? Appendix 4 List of objects used and the protocol for the task Part A: assessing the participants’ initial understanding with light objects that float and heavy objects that sink. Stage 1: the participant is presented with the following eight objects:Light floaters 1. Small wooden rectangle 2. Pencil 3. Small candle 4. Ball Heavy sinkers 5. Spanner 6. Rock 7. Tin can 8. Tin lid Stage 2: the participant is asked to predict what will happen and why they think the object will sink/float. Stage 3: the objects are placed in the water and the child is asked to comment on what happens. Part B: assessing the participants’ initial understanding with light objects that sink and heavy objects that float. Stage 4: the participant is presented with the following ten objects:Heavy floaters 1. White candle 2. Red candle 3. Large wooden rectangle 4. Painted (black) wooden block 5. Grapefruit Light sinkers 6. Eraser 7. Needle 8. Penny 9. Button 10. Elastic band Stage 5: the participant is asked to predict what will happen and why they think the object will sink/float. Stage 6: the objects are placed in the water and the child is asked to comment on what happens. If the child’s prediction is not confirmed, they are asked to explain the result. A Stage 7 type discussion for an object may be instigated. Stage 7: cognitive conflict is induced. Stage 8: scales are introduced in an attempt to scaffold the participants’ thinking.
Stage 9: the participant is asked why the items that float and sink behave as they do. Plastic water tank; set of scales; two similar shaped, but different sized tins; lentils. Appendix 5 Table 1: Percentage of main causal themes identified in Daniel’s data (heavy floaters/light sinkers only) Theme Weight Experience Material Shape Holes Grouping Similar Materials No Answer Initia l 25% 8.3% 16.6 % 41.6 % 0% 8.3% 0% Stage 6/7 14.2% 7.1% 7.1% 50% 14.2% 0% 7.1%
Table 2: Percentage of main causal themes identified in Jessica’s data (heavy floaters/light sinkers only) Theme Weight Experience Material Size Solid Mass Don’t Know Grouping Similar Materials No Answer Density Initia l 16.6 % 16.6 % 16.6 % 8.3% 8.3% 0% 8.3% 16.6 % 8.3% 0% Stage 6/7 15.7% 0% 26.3% 0% 15.7% 10.5% 5.2% 21% 0% 5.2%
Appendix 6 Notes on the coding The certainty of Daniel’s belief, that paint makes objects float, was difficult to judge. His explanation seemed to occur as an utterance obtained from him because of the ‘didactic contract’ (Chevallard, 1985) between the researcher and participant. Such questioning may influence the study’s validity. Several responses were difficult to
judge and some were absent, and this may call into question the reliability of the research.
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