Tensions Between Science and Intuition in School-Age Children

AbstractAdults with extensive science education exhibit cognitive conflict when reasoning about counterintuitive scientific ideas, such as whether clouds have weight or whether bacteria need nutrients. Here, we investigated whether elementary-school-aged children show the same conflict and whether that conflict can be reduced by targeted instruction. Seventy-eight 5- to 12-year-olds verified, as quickly as possible, statements about life and matter before and after a tutorial on the scientific properties of life or matter. Half the statements were consistent with intuitive theories of the domain (e.g., “frogs reproduce”) and half were inconsistent (e.g., “cactuses reproduce”). Participants verified the latter less accurately and more slowly than the former, both before instruction and after. Instruction increased the accuracy of participants’ verifications for counterintuitive statements within the domain of instruction but not their speed. These results indicate that children experience conflict between scientific and intuitive conceptions of a domain in the earliest stages of acquiring scientific knowledge but can learn to resolve that conflict in favor of scientific conceptions.

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