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  • Cited by 3
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: November 2009

16 - The science of childhood


One has all the goodness and the other all the appearance of it.

(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

A fundamental aspect of children's scientific understanding concerns their ability to distinguish between reality and the phenomenal world of appearances. If children are to understand the nature of scientific phenomena, they need to recognize the workings of invisible causal mechanisms. In this chapter, I address research on the issue of conceptual change in children's scientific understanding, notably in the case of their understanding of biological causality.

The Piagetian view of cognitive development and scientific understanding – and beyond

The traditional Piagetian position is based on the notion that the thinking of young children is egocentric and limited by a realism in which they cannot accurately consider the underlying causes of effects. As children under the age of about seven years are restricted to focusing on only one visual aspect of a problem, they cannot see how processes that are invisible or microscopic create events. For example, Piaget (1929) asked children questions such as, ‘Can a bench feel anything if someone burnt it?’ or, ‘Are bicycles alive?’ He interpreted their answers to indicate that young children assign internal states and motives to inanimate objects. Children believe that any object may possess consciousness at a particular moment, especially a thing that moves like a bicycle. In other words, they do not easily distinguish between reality and the phenomenal world of appearances.