Kids Scientific Method Is Just Like Researchers
September 28, 2012

Study Shows Kids Use Scientific Method Just Like The Pros

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Though their actions look suspiciously like play, a new study performed by  University of California at Berkeley psychology professor and affiliate professor of philosophy Alison Gopnik shows that children approach problems in need of solutions in much the same manner as scientists. Her findings are published in today´s issue of the journal Science.

By utilizing more precise advanced research methods and mathematical models that are able to provide insight into children´s learning mechanisms, Gopnik and her colleagues learned that young children are able to naturally learn from statistics, experiments and by observing the actions of others. The results, says Gopnik´s team, are strikingly similar to how researchers use the scientific method to get to the bottom of complex questions.

The scientific method consists of five distinct steps — observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation and conclusion — and is the core technique that essentially all scientists employ in their attempts to answer questions of all types. In this most recent study, it was shown that children as young as infants utilize these same core principles to learn about their environment.

"The way we determine how they're learning is that we give them, say, a pattern of data, a pattern of probabilities or statistics about the world and then we see what they do," said Gopnik.

One of the experiments in the study used machines that were able to stimulate the auditory and visual senses by lighting up and playing music. Researchers, after presenting the capabilities of the machine would then ask the young children to ℠make them go.´ "We found that like scientists, they tested hypotheses about the machines and determined which one was more likely," said Gopnik.

But before we rush to put toddlers on an earlier academic track, Gopnik's research shows that encouraging play, presenting anomalies and asking for explanations prompts scientific thinking more effectively than direct instruction.

In an NSF webcast interview, Gopnik explains: “One of the things that we´ve also discovered in the course of this research is some of the differences and relationships between the ways that children learn when someone´s explicitly teaching them and the ways that they learn when they are exploring.”

“Now, it´s certainly true, and in fact, it´s very striking that even very young children can learn from teachers. They recognize when someone´s teaching them. But they learn in a different way. They draw different conclusions when someone´s teaching them than when they´re just discovering a hypothesis themselves.”

"Everyday playing is a kind of experimentation — it's a way of experimenting with the world, getting data the way that scientists do and then using that data to draw new conclusions," said Gopnik.

"What we need to do to encourage these children to learn is not to put them in the equivalent of school, tell them things, or give them reading drills or flash cards or so forth. What we need to do is put them in a safe, rich environment where these natural capacities for exploration, for testing, for science, can get free rein."

Gopnik's research was supported by the National Science Foundation´s (NSF) Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. In her paper, Gopnik described the work of Laura Schulz of MIT, also supported by NSF through the Education and Human Resources directorate. Schulz's studies show that children's play involves a kind of intuitive experimentation where they examine things and events to discover the cause and effect underlying them.

A video showing some of her experiments is attached. It was part of a paper she published in Science last year, 16-Month-Olds Rationally Infer Causes of Failed Actions.

More details about Gopnik's work are available in a TED talk she gave last year.