Child Understanding of Floating and Sinking Theory

Gemma L Sobah

Practical Report

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Word count: 2006

An investigation into the way of children’s scientific thinking: concepts of floating and sinking

Abstract

This is a study on the nature of children’s logical understanding of the theory of floating and sinking, and the cognitive challenge and scaffolding in supporting theoretical change. The study involved two video based interviews with two female participants of different ages, one aged 6 and the other aged 11. The videos were later analyzed for the purpose of the research. It was shown from the results that, while the younger participant’s way of thinking was restricted to her existing experiences, the oldest participant reached a more complex understanding of scientific concepts. Furthermore, the older participant showed theoretical change when confronted with contradictory evidence, and the scaffolding discussion supported her development. On the contrary, the cognitive challenge did not encourage a real qualitative change of thinking in the younger participant. Moreover, she appeared to gain less from adult direction and showed an unclear progress in her logic, which was in difference with Wood and Vygotsky’s predictions.

Introduction

To be able to think about the world and try and generate an understanding of it is an essential requirement for being able to understand mathematical and scientific principles. Inhelder and Piaget (1958), believe it is only in the later stage of a child/ adolescents cognitive development, (formal operation stage), that they start abstract thinking and the way they understand the world around them becomes less controlled by their existing experience of the world. Piaget argues that scientific thinking is connected to development of associated cognitive structures and theoretical change starts when a child has an internal struggle with their current thoughts and ideas and the actual evidence. A process called equilibration, then compels the child to change their way of thinking. Shelley (1993) agreed with the idea that a child’s understanding of scientific concepts grows through various stages, and argued that teachers ought to support children in creating their own reasons and explanations with the available evidence they have. While far-fetched explanations should be disputed, he states, teachers should not push hypothesis on children that are too hard from them to be able to properly understand at their current cognitive stage, as their abilities to grasp such concepts will advance in time as they grow and mature: as their understanding of the world expands with age, all children will become more likely “to adopt a new explanatory model” (Shelley, 1993). Vygotsky (1978) concentrated more on the social role of cognitive development instead of its structures and there so, argued that social contact was useful to the formation of an area of proximal development; that is, the difference between the cognitive progress of an individual and cognitive progress by working alongside others. In this circumstance, adults peers can help cognitive development with what Wood (1988) termed as “scaffolding”. The aim of the present study was to explore how children understand and explain scientific processes focusing on the understanding of the idea of floating and sinking, and part of cognitive challenge and scaffolding discussion in supporting theoretical change. The investigation was carried out by analyzing and coding children’s responses during two semi-structured interviews.

Method

Design The current study involves a compared analysis of the thoughts and ideas given by two female participants during semi-structured interviews and practical tasks. Participants There were two female participants, Emily (aged 6 years 6 months,) and Sian (female, aged 11 years 10 months), were volunteered for this study from a bigger sample of children, aged from 6–12 years from a primary school in Milton Keynes. Material The material included two semi-structured interviews that were recorded and provided by The Open University and dated July 2012. There was technical apparatus involved, including cameras, lights, and a microphone boom. During the floating task, a big plastic tank with water in and 18 different objects were used, these were classified into the following categories: light floaters, heavy sinkers, light sinkers, heavy floaters. Detailed object list can be found in Appendix 1. A pair of scales were also used to compare weights in the last section of the practical task. Procedure The interviews were conducted by a doctoral student from the Open University, and the interviews took place in the library of the school. In the room with the interviewer and the participants (interviewed separately) were the film director, two camera operators, a sound recordist and an assistant. The interviewer had not met the participants prior to the interview and only had information on their first names and ages, this was to anonymity of the children. Before the study took place, the informed consent of the participant’s parents was gained. The participants were told of that they could leave the study and the recording at any moment, in line with the BPS ethical guidelines. For both interviews, the positioning of the extra personnel and equipment was placed to be as unobtrusive as possible and to help put the children at ease, this was also achieved by conducting the interview in a room that was familiar them. The details of the interview protocol, provided by The Open University (2013), have been included in Appendix 2. In both parts, the interviewer gave the children a set of objects and asked them if they thought the object would float or sink and why they thought this. The children then tested their predictions by placing each item into the tank of water, and then to form an explanation as to why the object floated or sank, and if it was different to what they predicted, why they thought that was. The interviews were transcribed and the responses the children gave were then coded and put into a table. This table can be seen in Appendix one. The number of coded stage was then counted and themes each child used as each put into a table that can be seen in Appendix 3

Results

Appendix shows the data sheets for the participants and also shows both predictions and explanations for all the object used. The percentage of accuracy for Emily’s prediction was 22.2% compared to 50% for Sian’s predictions. Most of the wrong answers seem to be with objects that weren’t dealing with day today such as (the small wood block, the spanner) or objects where the weight was used as the main factor when making a prediction over other characteristics such as material etc. (as for the tin lid, the white candle, the yogurt, the coin and needle)

Initial predictions and explanations. At stage 2, Sian used many causal themes, using Weight as the most frequent cause (37%) for objects to sink or float. By contrast, Emily explanations at Stage 2 were less diversified, explained sinking and floating mainly in terms of Weight (47%) and Material (42%). Sian’s made references to both Holes, Structure and Material, For example, while she realized that candles floats because of the wax they are made from and wax is light, she still assumed that the white heavier candle would sink, because it was heavier than the other candles. After the practical Task. In stage 6/7, the number of causal themes used decreased for both participants. The change in reasoning is particularly evident in Emily’s case, with a shift from 47% to 9% for Weight and an increase from 42% to 63% for Material. She also used the theme Holes to explain why objects sink or float. The patterns of Sian’s explanations at this stage varied slightly, covering a wide range of themes; Weight, Structure, Material and Holes.

Discussion

Piaget, had a theory on cognitive development and believed that if a child hasn’t yet reached the ‘formal operations stage they can only use their previous experience to understand how the world works and cannot yet formulate new ideas with no evidence. In this study, this theory has been seen within the responses of the participants, in the beginning of the study. Sian’s predictions quite varied and made new assumptions with little evidence to back them up, while Emily’s predictions were mainly based around her previous experience with certain items. I.e. their weight. Sian showed a more sophisticated way of thinking, and thus her predictions were a lot more accurate. Both Emily and Sian changed their theories once challenged. Emily dismissed her first idea against what Piaget described as cognitive conflict, and came up with a new theme, Holes. Although, if we was to take a closer look at her response she lacked real complex scientific understanding. She appeared to choose an explanation that matched the evidence, instead of making any change to her reasoning to explain the inconsistencies. Meanwhile, Sian used two new themes, structure and shape, which showed a change of thinking. Although it is still hard to say whether she actually understood the concepts she was applying (mainly that of structure- ‘hollow’), the Archimede’s principle and the boat effect are both shown by Shelley as a complex scientific way of thinking on why some objects float or sink.

Responses to scaffolded discussion. In this part of the study, both participants’ explanations began to change. Sian, maintained her themes such as weight and materials but then went for a new theme, shape, to further explain her thinking. For example, she hypothesized that the tin lid sank because it collected water and became heavy and sank. , while the black wood block floated because, while it was heavier than the eraser, it was hollow like a boat. To contrast, Emily, seemed to think systematically the idea that if an item “gets wet”, it will sink, while objects that were waterproof will float. Sian’s change of thinking shows strength towards the end of the interview: unlike Emily, she came up with reasoning by moving from explanations based solely on materials and then one aimed on the shape. For instance, while in stage 2 Sian argued that the tin lid would float because it was light, yet in stage 6/7 her reason altered slighted and she then considered that the fact that the tin lid was ‘boat like’ and hollow, allowed it to collect water and sink. Likewise, Emily tended to simplify the idea that if water couldn’t get into an item it would float. Even though these results showed that a child working together with an adult is very beneficial for their development in terms of cognition, Emily’s failure to move forward in her concepts and look beyond her concrete experience, in comparison, differed with the idea of zone and proximal development by Vygotsky. It was clear that Emily struggled to gain a greater understanding of why things float and sink regardless of having an adults help. Unlike Sian, she didn’t thrive with the assistance of the experimenter, and this shows a potential methodological issue with this research. The experiment demanded too much from Emily in terms of attention span, (the interview length), and the questions being asked may have been too much for her current cognitive stage. Further still, the fact that Emily had no much previous knowledge scientifically on the world may of affected her potential in the experiment. It could even be argued that her answers weren’t affected by the approach of the interviewer or the techniques used, but her responses were limited to her age and her current cognitive development. There are other problems to think about. The small sample used may affect the reliability of the study and would be hard to generalize on a broader scale. Further still only females was used and it would have maybe been better to use both genders as males and females have different levels of learning, and it may have shown more differential results. Future research is required in this area on scientific reasoning and cognitive development.

Conclusion

While a child’s way of thinking has many different aspects that cause it to advance or be limited there are some techniques that have been proven to help strengthen their understanding. The matter of floating and sinking requires a high demand of cognitive abilities, and can cause conflict within the child’s reasoning. This conflict helps promote change in reasoning and a more complex understanding like Piaget suggested. (2006 words)

References

Nunes, T. and Bryan, P. (2006) ‘Mathematical and scientific thinking’, in Oates, J. and Grayson, A. (eds) Cognitive and Language Development in Children. Milton Keynes. The Open University.

Grayson, A. Oat, and, J. (2006) ‘Introduction: perspectives on cognitive and language development’, in Oates, J. and Grayson, A. (eds) Cognitive and Language Development in Children.

The Open University, Milton Keynes. Shelley, N. (1993), cited in The Open University (2013) [online]

The Open University (2013), ED209 TMA 06 [online], available from https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=212250 [accessed 19 April 2015]

Appendices

Appendix 1: Data sheets Appendix 2: Interview protocol

Appendix 3: Table of Theme usable and percentages Appendix 1. Data sheets (including object list and accuracy of predictions)

Data sheet 01 – Participant: Sian aged 11

(SIAN)Object

Prediction

Initial Explanation

Causal Codes

Final Explanation

Causal Codes

Light floaters

Small wood block

Pencil

Small candle

Ball

NS

Sink

Sink

Float

Smooth, hollow

Not hollow, hard like can

Not hollow, heavy

Spongy, Absorbs water

St, M

St, M

St, W

M, OS

Heavy Sinkers

Spanner

Stone

Food tin

Tin lid

Sink

Sink

Sink

Float

Metal, Heavy

Heavy

Heavy

Light, Hollow

W, M

W

W

W, St

Shape collects water

Sh

Heavy Floaters

White candle

Red candle

Yogurt pot

Black wood block

Grapefruit

Sink

Float

Sink

Float

Sink

Heavy, smooth

Not as heavy

Heavy

Other block floated

Not hollow, Heavy

M, W

W

W

OS

St, W

It’s heavy, wax, hollow

It’s a candle, light hollow

Plastic and what’s inside it

Hollow, wood like a boat

W, M, St

St, OS, W

OS

M, Sh, St

Light Sinkers

Eraser

Needle

Coin

Button

Elastic band

Sink

Sink

Sink

Float

Float

Small, Metal sinks

Not plastic

Small with holes

Light, sit on top of water

M

S, W

M

S, H

W

Pure rubber

Made of metal

metal

Holes

M

M

M

H

M

Accuracy of predictions: 50% Legend: W (Weight), Sh (Shape), M (Material), St (Structure), H (Holes), DK (Don’t Know), OS (Object-Specific)

S (Size)

Data Sheet 02 – Participant: Emily

(EMILY)Object

Prediction

Initial Explanation

Causal Codes

Final Explanation

Causal Codes

Light floaters

Small wood block

Pencil

Small candle

Ball

Sink

Sink

Sink

Sink

Not water proof

Not waterproof

Made of wax

Squishy

M

M

M

OS

Heavy Sinkers

Spanner

Stone

Food tin

Tin lid

Float

Sink

Float

Float

Metal

Heavy

Metal

Metal, lighter than Stone

M

W

M

W, M

Heavy Floaters

White candle

Red candle

Yogurt pot

Black wood block

Grapefruit

Sink

Float

Sink

Float

Sink

Heavy

Light

Heavy

Light

Heavy

W

W

W

W

W

It’s made of wax

It’s made of wax

It has a lid… to keep it dry

Wood

Got skin so it don’t get wet

M

M

OS

M

OS

Light Sinkers

Eraser

Needle

Coin

Button

Elastic band

Sink

Float

Float

Float

Float

Waterproof

Light

Metal, Smooth

Light

M

W

M

W

Made of rubber, heavy

Made of metal

Made of metal

Water goes through the hole

Made of rubber

M,W

M

M

H

M

Accuracy of predictions: 22.2% Legend: W (Weight), Sh (Shape), M (Material), D (Density), H (Holes), DK (Don’t Know), OS (Object-Specific)

Appendix 2.

Interview protocol. * Stage 1: examining the objects. The child is presented with eight objects. * Stage 2: predicting what will happen and why. The child is asked to make a prediction about whether each object will float or sink. The researcher also asks them why they think the object will float or sink. * Stage 3: testing the predictions. One by one the objects are placed in a tank of water and the child is asked to comment on what has happened. * Stage 4: examining the objects. The child is presented with 11 objects. * Stage 5: predicting what will happen and why. The child is asked to make a prediction about whether each object will float or sink. They are also asks them why they think the object will float or sink. * Stage 6: testing the predictions. One by one the objects are placed in a tank of water and the child is asked to comment on what has happened. It is likely that some of the children’s predictions here will not be confirmed. They are asked to explain this result and may begin a ‘Stage 7’ type discussion for an object. * Stage 7: a Piagetian approach – inducing cognitive conflict. The researcher draws to the child’s attention examples where their explanations are inconsistent and demonstrate an incomplete understanding. For example, a child who states that ‘heavy things sink’ may be asked to consider the heavy wood block, which floats, and the light needle, which sinks. This stage finishes with the child identifying the objects that floated and being asked to explain why all the items in this group floated. This is repeated for the objects that sank. * Stage 8: scaffolding children’s thinking. They engage in a further discussion with the child (scales are used if the child has used the concept of weight in their explanations) in an attempt to help the child to take account of both size and weight, and to develop a more adequate (albeit incomplete) explanatory concept. * Stage 9: re-assessing the child’s understanding. Finally, the child is asked to explain why the objects that float and sink behave as they do.

Appendix 3: Table of Theme usage and percentages

Sian Emily

Code

Theme

Initial

Stage 6/7

Initial

Stage 6/7

W

Weight

10 (37%)

3 (18%)

9 (47%)

1 (9%)

M

Material

6 (22%)

8 (50%)

8 (42%)

7 (63%)

H

Holes

1 (1%)

1 (6%)

0 (0%)

1 (9%)

St

Structure

5 (18%)

1 (6%)

0 (0%)

0 (0%)

OS

Object-Specific

2 (7%)

1 (6%)

1 (5%)

2 (18%)

Sh

Shape

0 (0%)

1 (6%)

0 (0%)

0 (0%)

DK

Don’t know

1 (1%)

1 (6%)

1 (5%)

0 (0%)

S

Size

2 (7%)

0 (0%)

0 (0%)

0 (0%)

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