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It seems that the way in which children learn new skills is still a controversial issue in modern psychology. The question has been approached from two different angles.
One view holds that development happens before learning and that once children reach a certain level of psychological and neurophysiological development they start to identify problems in their earlier worldview and then acquire skills to resolve those problems.
This is a view held by one of the most famous psychologists in history – Jean Piaget (1977). One the other hand, Leo Vygotsky proposed a view that learning comes before development. Vygotsky argued that children acquire new skills through interaction with other people.
On this view, it is crucial that the child be in interaction with an instructor who can point to flaws in the concepts a child has about the world and incite him or her to try to resolve the problems. The ontogenesis is, thereby, triggered by learning and problem solving (Vygotsky & Cole 1978).
This issue has, for a long time, been regarded as philosophical in nature. However, in recent years experiments have been designed to try to accumulate enough evidence to conclude which of the theories accounts for the observed data more adequately.
Professor Nunez has been the author of one such experiment. Her idea was to see whether proper instruction could trigger learning in young children at a point in the development at which they are usually not able to solve a problem of that particular type.
If that turned out to be the case, we would have a good reason to believe that Vygotsky’s theory is the correct one.
On the other hand, if it happened that young children simply were not able to give a solution to the problem at hand, no matter the instructions, and the older ones were then those facts could be used to support Piaget’s theory very well.
Professor Nunez’s experiment involved six children whose ages were between 7 and 12. Since the goal of the experiment was to see whether the developmental stage of children had impact on their ability to think in a scientific way, she divided the children into the younger and the older group.
The children in the younger group were 7 or 8 years old and those in the older group were between 10 and 12 years of age.
All of the children were interviewed and videotaped by Nunez and her colleagues. During the interview, the subjects were shown several objects and were asked to predict whether an object would float or sink.
After making a prediction, the children had to give a reason on which they based their assumption. After all the objects were sorted out as “floaters” or “sinkers”, each of them was put into a tank of water to test if the predictions were correct.
If they were not, the subjects were asked to give an explanation of why that is the case.
In the final stage of the experiment, the instructor tried to give hints to the children in order to help them spot problems in their theories so that they could solve them more easily and in the end provide an adequate theoretical explanation that could predict outcomes of further trials.
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The team predicted that children would have no problems giving different explanations for different objects and involving various factors so the final step of the experiment was to have the subjects take one final look at all the objects and try to generalize about the relevant properties which make the floaters float and sinkers sink.
The aim of this step was to test the children’s ability to generalize in a scientific way.
By conducting the experiment in this way, Nunez and the team were able to test how capable the children were of scientifically analyzing the data but more importantly the experiment was an attempt at establishing the correlation between development and learning.
That way, the decades-long debate between the followers of Vygotsky and Piaget could finally be resolved or at least steered towards one of the directions. This paper will present results for one younger and one older child together with further theoretical explanations of those results.
The number of items used with both children was 16. Daniel, a child from the younger group, was a boy aged 7 and the following results were obtained from the interview with him.
First off, the initial criteria he used when making a prediction about whether an item would sink or float were related to material, weight or shape. Weight was the predominant criterion and he mentioned it 12 times; shape was mentioned 5 times and material only 3 times.
The boy also mentioned that he had been taught that things that are light or are shaped like a boat tend to float. After checking his predictions his explanations included many additional factors.
Symmetry, having holes, height, being painted, having sharp end were all mentioned once and David even thought that it mattered in which way an object likes to float. Of course, shape, weight and material were used most of the time. Shape and weight were used 11 times and material 3 times.
The older child, Jessica, was 12 years old and she gave the following results. Initially she cited 8 themes as her criteria.
These were: weight, which was mentioned 7 times, shape, having air inside, density, material, solidity and size which were all mentioned once. In addition, there were 3 other reasons like pure guessing and having already tested the item in question.
After having seen whether her predictions were correct, Jessica gave much more diverse explanation. She used 12 different themes as explanations.
This time material was the most frequent one and was mentioned 7 times; Mass, having water inside, being natural, having holes and shape were all cited as explanations once; Having air inside, density, solidity and size were all used 2 times and weight was used 3 times.
Results obtained in this experiment certainly demand a lot of interpretation and involve many different factors. To start, it is crucial to mention that both of the children had some instruction in the domain of physics covered by the experiment.
This fact is relevant because children obviously tried to rely on the knowledge they had. Surprisingly, Daniel, even though he was younger, adhered much more firmly to the theoretical concepts he had acquired and constantly repeated that there were two features that make things float: light weight and being shaped like a boat.
Judging from Selley’s (1993) gradation of scientific hypotheses, he was somewhere at the beginning of the scale since he knew that weight and shape, that is the distribution of weight, have something to do with whether the object in question will float.
On the other hand, Jessica at one point almost gave Selley’s third hypothesis word for word. She said that things floated if they are less dense than water.
It is obvious that she had an explicit knowledge of the physical law; however, she later confessed that she did not know what density is, so her knowledge was of no use and she basically roamed through different explanations without a firm theoretical background.
Daniel evidently adhered firmly to his theory even though it was proven to be insufficient by Professor Nunez.
Another thing that has to be mentioned is that both of the children had a significant number of correct predictions despite their obvious lack of theoretical knowledge.
This fact is compatible with the claim that intuition plays significant role in our functioning in the physical world and can be much more powerful than our theoretical knowledge, provided that we have little education in concepts of physics (Lakoff & Nunez, 2000, p. 281).
We can also notice that both subjects introduced new themes in explaining why their initial predictions failed. It is interesting to note that the older girl introduced only 4 new explanations while the boy introduced 6 new themes.
As a predominant impression, one can single out the fact that a girl always seemed to be on the verge of making a discovery and on several occasions even said that an item sank if there was more of it in less space which is quite close to the definition of density.
On the other hand, even though he exhibited consistency in his claims about the relation between floating and weight, material and shape, Daniel was by all means less scientific in his way of thinking.
He would often say contradicting things and he even used explanations like a thing floated when placed in a certain way because it liked to float that way and that otherwise it sank, which is a very unscientific mode of reasoning.
Even though the results presented here are far from conclusive, I am tempted to claim that they are, nonetheless, leaning towards Piaget’s view.
First off, even though the conditions were the same the older child performed a lot better as she was at the end quite close to giving the exact definition of the physical law governing sinking and floating of objects. However, she was not able to give an explicit formulation.
This suggests that it is, in fact, the age of the child that plays a decisive role in their ability to solve scientific problems. Furthermore, according to some authors who support Vygotsky’s theory children develop their logic in a dialogue with an adult who talks in a systematic and logical way (Santrock, 2008, pp. 226-230).
The data from this research prove that this is not a sufficient explanation since the older subject was much more logical in her thinking both at the beginning and at the end of the interview.
Finally, Scaffolding as an important technique in Vygotsky’s theory is supported by some researchers who claim that the quality of the instructions given to the children can be crucial for their learning process (Landry et al., 2002).
These data undermine this assumption as well, since Professor Nunez gave instructions in an informative and very patient way, with a lot of useful hints.
Nonetheless, none of the children was able to give the necessary and complete formulation. This is also suggestive of the possibility that children simply were not at the necessary level of development.
As a closing remark, it is worth mentioning that Piaget did not address the problem of transition between stages. Some scholars, who are now referred to as post-Piagetian, have worked on this issue and proposed their solutions.
Pascual-Leone (1970) has suggested that the increase in the number of items that the human working memory can process resulted in the ability to resolve problems of growing complexity.
Case (1985), on the other hand, suggests that the processing capacity in each individual changes its structure in between two stages so the individual becomes able to resolve more complicated tasks.
In conclusion, despite the fact that the results obtained in the study are not decisive it can be said that they are better captured on Piaget’s view. This is based on two main grounds.
First, the older student showed stronger abilities at problem solving which conforms to Piaget’s theory of development preceding learning.
Secondly, even though the older child was approximately at the age where scaffolding could help her to give the correct answer, that did not happen. Finally, it should be stated that Piaget’s theory is not without gaps and proposed alternatives have to be considered.
Case, R 1985, Intellectual development. Birth to adulthood, Academic Press, New York.
Lakoff, G & Núñez, R E 2000, Where mathematics comes from: how the embodied mind brings mathematics into being, Basic Books, New York, NY.
Landry, S H, Miller-Loncar, S L, Smith, K E, & Swank, P R 2002, ‘The role of early parenting in children’s development of executive processes’, Developmental Neuropsychology, vol. 21, pp. 15-41.
Pascual-Leone, J 1970,’ A mathematical model for the transition rule in Piaget’s developmental stages’, Acta Psychologica, vol. 32, pp. 301-345.
Piaget, J, Gruber, H E & Vonèche, J J 1977, The essential Piaget, Basic Books, New York.
Santrock, J W 2008, Life span development: a topical approach to (4th ed.), McGraw-Hill, New York.
Selley, N 1993, ‘Why Do Things Float?’, School Science Review, vol. 74, pp. 55-60.
Vygotsky, L. S & Cole, M 1978, Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.