Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Preschoolers demonstrate scientific experimentation

I tweeted a review (Wired) of this article: Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers' exploratory play (1). I managed to secure a copy of the article (perk for working at a college) and just finished reviewing it and felt the need to share it with the world.

The study looked at preschoolers (mean age: 54 months) to see if they could isolate variables of a system to infer information about that system (i.e. apply the scientific method) when the probability of information gain is high. Their approach involved a toy that was activated by placing coloured beads upon it. Some of the beads would activate the machine (i.e. it would light up and play music) and some would not. The participants were divided into two groups: the all bead and the some bead conditions. In the all bead condition, the participants were shown that all the beads caused the machine to activate when applied individually. In the some bead condition, the participants were shown that some of the beads caused the machine to activate. They were then provided with two sets of beads (in pairs): one set could be pulled apart to test individually whereas the other had been glued together.

Nearly half of the children in the some beads group tested individual beads in the machine whereas only 5% (1 child) did the same in the all beads group. However in both groups the amount of play with the machine was the same (i.e. the some beads group did not use the machine more and thereby test individually through random chance). In fact, some of the children actually performed a test that the experimenters hadn't thought of; namely holding the stuck pair vertically to test it one bead at a time.

This prompted the investigators to create a second experiment where both sets of beads are stuck together. The results in this experiment were very similar to the first in that nearly half of the some bead group tested the machine by varying contact with the beads.

So what does this mean. Well, what it doesn't necessarily mean is that children are born scientists. What it does mean is that in isolated environments with limited distractions (i.e. limited variables) and limited information (i.e. high probability of information gain), preschoolers tend towards a systematic experimental approach. The authors quickly and rightly note that the current research indicates that this is not true when the systems approach real-world systems with greater complexity.

What does this mean for teachers? Well, it appears that children have an innate sense of experimentation when not overwhelmed by other task demands and there is the potential for information gain. I feel that this should be nurtured with simple experiments that are then discussed and dissected to help develop the habits of mind of successful scientists and critical thinkers. Additionally, there should be teacher led experiments that are more complicated and would overwhelm the students if done alone. This allows for the teacher to model the proper process to the students.

One conclusion that I am tempted to jump to is to bemoan the loss of this 'gift' that students are born with. However, to extrapolate this experiment and apply it to older students or adults would be wrong. I would like to see a similar experiment done with those age groups. My hypothesis is that we would see similar results. So it is not that students lose this basic innate experimental ability; it is more probable that we are not nurturing this skill and helping it grow into a viable ability.

What we need is science based education and critical thinking being taught in primary school and continuing along until high school. Additionally, we need to begin differentiating between teaching science (i.e. the subset of facts and knowledge the scientific method has garnered for us) and teaching with a science based education (i.e. learning to utilize the scientific method, rational thinking, critical thinking, and logic). As the (paraphrased) adage goes: If you teach a student some knowledge, they will know it for a day; if you teach them to think, they will learn for a lifetime.

  1. Claire Cook, Noah D. Goodman, Laura E. Schulz, Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers' exploratory play, Cognition, Volume 120, Issue 3, Probabilistic models of cognitive development, September 2011, Pages 341-349

One note: the authors of the study did receive a grant from the John Templeton Foundation however, having reviewed the study (with my limited knowledge of cognitive theory) I don't see anything fishy going on.

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