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PhD ceremony Ms. S. van der Steen: “How does it work?” A longitudinal microgenetic study on the development of young children’s understanding of scientific concepts

When:Th 08-05-2014 at 11:00
Where:Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen

PhD ceremony: Ms. S. van der Steen

Dissertation: “How does it work?” A longitudinal microgenetic study on the development of young children’s understanding of scientific concepts

Promotor(s): prof. P.L.C. van Geert

Faculty: Behavioural and Social Sciences

What do we notice when 32 young children (age 3-5) work, with a researcher, on hands-on scientific tasks about air pressure and gravity? An ordinary teaching situation was simulated in which the child could discover the task while the researcher asked questions. Follow-up questions and encouragement were allowed. The child’s understanding (in verbal expressions) was measured from moment to moment during 5 of these visits (over the course of 1.5 years).

Focusing on one child-researcher pair, we see that the child follows the complexity level of the questions during the first task. Over time, the child takes more initiative and the researcher subsequently adapts the level of the (follow-up) questions to the level of the child. Around the same time, the complexity of the child’s understanding increases.

Does the understanding of special needs children (with behavioral problems) develop in the same manner? Earlier studies showed that they perform worse on academic tests compared to their peers in regular schools. In this study we found almost no difference with regard to the development of their understanding. This is remarkable, because we did find a difference with regard to their scores on standardized tests of math and language. We argue that special needs children have better academic capabilities than previously assumed, if we measure these under the right circumstances.

How can we characterize the development of children’s understanding of gravity and air pressure over the course of 1.5 years? We found 3 trajectories: a group children performing well, a group that is highly variable, and a group that makes less progress. The trajectories are, remarkably, not associated with academic test scores of math and language, the type of school (special vs regular) or parents’ educational level. Variables that are associated with the development over time are related to the interaction between child and researcher during the task and the interactions with their parents at home.

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