Children’s understanding of scientific concepts : a developmental study


Combining theory-oriented inquiry and research that aims to improve instruction is a major goal of neo-Piagetian theory. Within this tradition, Case's (1992) developmental model enables educational researchers to conduct a detailed analysis of the structural and conceptual changes that occur in children's representation of knowledge in different domains at various points in their development. In so doing, it is now possible for educators to first assess children's "entering competence" in a specific subject and then set developmentally realistic instructional goals. Using Case's (1992) model as a theoretical framework, a developmental study was conducted investigating children's understanding of scientific phenomena, specifically buoyancy, at the ages of 6, 8, and 10 years. The main goal was to determine whether or not children's conceptual levels of understanding change systematically with age in a progressive manner consistent with neo-Piagetian stages of development hypothesized by Case. Participants attended one elementary school in a suburban school district near Vancouver, B.C. Sixty children were individually administered a set of five buoyancy tasks that varied in level of difficulty and involved objects of different weights, shapes and sizes. Each student was asked to predict whether an object would float or sink in different liquids and to support their prediction with an explanation. Analyses using the neo-Piagetian approach of articulating the semantic and syntactic nature of children's mental structures were conducted on the students' responses. Shape, size, weight and substance were identified as the semantic components of buoyancy which are syntactically related. Using Case's dimensional metric for classifying different levels of conceptual understanding of buoyancy, the results of the study confirmed that children's understanding of buoyancy did progress through the developmental sequence as hypothesized. The structural progression from predimensional through to integrated bidimensional reasoning captured the general developmental pattern of children's understanding of buoyancy from the ages of 6 to 10 years. A statistical analysis of the responses showed significant differences between each age group. In summary, the results of the study suggested an age-related and hierarchical progression in conceptual understanding that was consistent with the age-level postulates of Case's (1992) developmental model.Education, Faculty ofEducational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education (ECPS), Department ofGraduat

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