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Do children require appropriate cognitive structures to be in place before they can understand scientific concepts Essay Sample

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Do children require appropriate cognitive structures to be in place before they can understand scientific concepts Essay Sample

The aim of this study was to test the validity of Inhelder and Piaget’s hypothesis that children could not develop scientific thinking without appropriate cognitive structures being in place beforehand.

Two female participants, an 8 year old and a 12 year old, were interviewed and their responses were coded and analysed.

The results showed that the older child was able to use her ‘powers of reasoning’ on her own, adapting and changing her beliefs as she experimented before displaying a clear progression in scientific thinking. The younger child was unable to develop her thinking and seemed to have a basic grasp of the concepts only after being aided by a scaffolded discussion.

Whilst the study showed support for Inhelder and Piaget, there were additional factors that could be said to have some significance. The affects of the later scaffolded discussion could support the ideas of collaborative learning and learning by appropriation.


Inhelder and Piaget argued that in order for a child to understand scientific concepts they must first develop the cognitive structures that will facilitate the understanding. They believed that only once the child had reached what Piaget called the ‘formal operational’ stage of thinking, could they be expected to develop scientific thinking. The formal operational stage is the last of the four main stages in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and is reached when the child is around 12 years old. The stage is characterised by the ability to function in a cognitively ‘normal’ way, i.e. understand logic, conservation, reversibility etc. The child is no longer egocentric and is able to think in abstract.

A key concept in Inhelder’s and Piaget’s argument is the ‘power of reasoning’. They believed that once the appropriate cognitive structures are in place the child is able to think and reason their way through scientific concepts, sometimes with no external tuition. The child is able to test out and modify their hypotheses through trial and error. Conflict also assists in this process.

This means that if the child has a hypothesis which is then proved to be wrong, this helps them work out what the right hypothesis will be. Piaget called this an ‘equilibration’ process and believed this is what produced cognitive change. (page 291, Nunes. T and Bryan. P ‘Mathematical and Scientific Thinking; in Oates. J and Grayson. A (eds) Cognitive and Language Development). This way of learning has been called ‘Discovery Learning’ (pg 292, Nunes. T and Bryan. P ‘Mathematical and Scientific Thinking; in Oates. J and Grayson. A (eds) Cognitive and Language Development) and has been adopted as a teaching approach.

Piaget’s stage development is supported by Nicholas Selley. In his ‘Why Do Things Float’ article he looked at the various hypotheses children will use to explain why certain objects may float or sink. He found that when pressed for explanations children will progress from a basic simple hypothesis (e.g. because it is light) to a more complex reasoning (e.g. the density of the object is less than the density of the water) through experimentation, and trial and error.

Howe et al conducted studies to discover whether children’s development was affected by the circumstances in which the learning took place. She found that when children were in groups with their peers and their peers disagreed with their hypotheses then the children’s development advanced more quickly than those who were in groups with children with the same hypotheses. This type of learning is called collaborative learning and compliments Piaget’s idea of conflict assisting in development.

Conversely Vygostky believed that social interaction assisted the development of cognitive abilities. He termed the area between the child’s actual development and potential development level which can be achieved with the help of adults and peers as the ‘zone of proximal development’. He therefore emphasised the role of the teacher and peers and like Howe believed that cognitive change is reached through communication with others.

Another key concept in Vygotsky’s theory is appropriation. This refers to the child’s ability to use cultural tools, for example language, in order to further their development. Cultural tools can also be physical so for example, if a child wanted to learn IT skills then according to Vygotsky the most effective way of doing this would be using a computer and having a teacher or peer sit and talk the child through what they need to do. This type of learning he called learning through appropriation.

In this report we shall examine the validity of the view that children need certain cognitive structures in place in order to develop scientific thinking.



> Semi structured interviews were conducted with each participant combined with a practical task. The participants were given a number of objects and asked for their predictions of whether the objects would float or sink. They were then asked why they thought the objects would float or sink.

> The participant and the interviewer then tested whether each object floated or sank. The participants were asked why the objects floated or sank.

> The participants were then given a further selection of objections and again asked if they thought the objects would float or sink, and why. The objects were put into water to test out the participants predictions and then the interviewer again asked why the participant thought the objects had floated or sank.

> The interviewer then conducted a scaffolded discussion where attempts were made to assist the child’s grasp of the concepts of mass and density. The children were asked to test a further two similar objects and pressed again for explanation of the floating or sinking.

> The results of the interview were coded according to the various reasons the participants gave for objects floating and sinking. They were then compared and analysed.


The participants were Remy, an eight year old girl, and Jessica, a 12 year old girl. The participants were taken from a group of volunteers at a primary school in the Oxford area. The parents of the children gave consent for their children to participate and permission for the use of video recording equipment.


For this report the materials used were a CD Rom which included 2 video recordings of the interviews with Remy and Jessica.


> A primary school in the Oxford area was approached for volunteers to take part in an experiment to investigate whether certain objects float or sink. A number of children wanted to take part and consent was obtained from their parents for them to participate in the experiment and for the experiment to be recorded on video.

> The children were recorded at their own school during one day in March 2005. They were interviewed and filmed at the same time in the school library room. The children were accompanied by a classroom assistant. In the room during the experiment were Professor Teresa Nunes who was the interviewer, as well as the film producer, two camera operators, a sound recordist and a member of the course team.

> Care was taken to put the children at ease during the experiment. They were told they could stop, pause or leave the experiment whenever they liked. None did.

> The children were sat at a large table with Professor Nunes and on the table was a large glass tank of water. Professor Nunes presented the children with a series of different objects and asked them whether they thought the object would sink or float and why. The children and the professor then tested the children’s predictions by putting each object into the large tank of water. Professor Nunes then asked the children why they thought the objects had floated or sank. She also asked whether the children could think of reasons why all the objects that floated had done so and the same for those that sank.

> Professor Nunes then presented the children with a further selection of objects and asked them whether they thought this new selection would float or sink, and why. Again the children tested their predictions and Professor Nunes asked them why they thought each object had floated or sunk. As the experiment progressed the children were encouraged to ‘reason through’ their answers, to think about why things might float or sink and to develop their thinking.

> A scaffolded discussion was held at the end where Professor Nunes used scales and two similar objects to discuss the concepts of mass and density. The children were then asked to predict whether the two objects would float or sink in the light of the scaffolded discussion. The objects were then tested in the water and further discussion was encouraged as to why the objects floated or sank.

> With regards to BPS ethics it is noted in the course that this research was carried out according to these ethics. This means that informed consent was obtained from the parents and as much as possible from the children. The children had the experiment explained to them again at the start of the interview and care was taken to ensure that the children were happy to participate in the experiment.

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