Jul 25, 2022
I stumbled across a fascinating paper looking into how children conceptualise the world around them. Mental Models of the Earth: A Study of Conceptual Change in Childhood shares an experiment where children were asked questions about the shape of the Earth, and the authors found six (!) different mental models that the children had: rectangular, disc-shaped, spherical, flattened sphere, hollow sphere, and the bizarre "dual Earth" model.
There are important theoretical and pedagogical implications of an enquiry like this. Cognitive scientists argue about the right way to think about novices' preconceptions - do they have small, fragmented pieces of knowledge with no consistency on further probing; or self-consistent "alternative theories" that can generate answers to novel questions, albeit wrong answers? The answer to that theoretical question leads to different implications about teaching - are we aiming to provide knowledge where there is very little, and consolidate the little bits of correct thinking into a larger whole; or are we looking to change children's theories of how the world works, which would generate some resistance from the children, and would require careful targeting of the weak points of their existing models?
In the case of basic astronomy, this paper supports the latter view, that children construct self-consistent "alternative theories" that make sense as a whole, given the constraints on their thinking based on their everyday experiences. There are some fascinating examples of children making up imaginative models to accord with what they've been told and what they have experienced, and overall it offers a window into the way that children think.
Enjoy the episode.
Mental Models of the Earth: a Study of Conceptual Change in Childhood by Vosniadou & Brewer (1992)
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