A typology of child knowledge
The study authors identified four developmental types, differentiated according to their understanding of scientific knowledge. Children of primary-school age tend to have an absolutist understanding. “For these pupils, knowledge is something immutable – either true or false, to be taken at face value from books or from teachers,” explains Edelsbrunner, who works at the ETH Chair for Research on Learning and Instruction, which is currently held by Professor Elsbeth Stern.
For many children – though not for all – this picture alters with increasing age. Between an absolutist understanding of knowledge and a realistic one, two transitional types emerge. Some children and adolescents begin to see themselves as a source of knowledge and to regard knowledge as being the same thing as opinion. In this phase, knowledge is no longer something that must be either true or false, which opens up room for a multitude of positions. These, however, are usually held to possess equal validity. “In this phase, children and adolescents still lack the ability to distinguish between well-founded and less well-founded statements,” Edelsbrunner explains. “A friend’s opinion is regarded as just as valid as that of a teacher.”
By contrast, another group sees knowledge as something purely objective and empirical that arises when scientists collect data and carry out experiments. Children and adolescents in this group have a blind faith in science and a high opinion of their own scientific competence. What they lack, however, is an appreciation of the fact that researchers, too, may disagree about the significance of data and the importance of their findings.
A more realistic understanding of science with increasing age
According to the study, these two transitional types decline with increasing age as more and more children and adolescents develop a more realistic understanding of scientific knowledge. They now see knowledge as something complex that advances and evolves and that has to be actively acquired. In other words, they come to understand that scientists, like people in everyday life, may hold different opinions, and that the weight and relevance of these opinions depend on how well they are supported by evidence from a variety of sources.
Children and adolescents in this group also find it easier to acquire knowledge themselves. They do not feel threatened by contradictory information; instead, they see this is as a challenge to be resolved. At the same time, they are able to evaluate which information they can trust, and they know how to handle opinions that do not fit their own convictions.
Each child progresses at their own pace
“The data clearly shows that progression is age-dependent, but children still pass through these phases at their own pace,” Edelsbrunner says. Although one-third of the 680 children in the survey who completed a special science course at primary school already have a highly realistic understanding of science, a significant proportion never reach this point.
The study found that even in high school around one-third of the 800 or so 14- to 16-year-olds surveyed have an absolutist understanding of the natural sciences. Given that these pupils have all made it to the final stages of high school, this shows that it is quite possible to master the more academic subject matter at this level without having understood how knowledge as such is constituted.
To ensure that pupils acquire a more realistic picture of the natural sciences, the study authors recommend the use of classroom techniques to better illustrate how knowledge is produced and advanced. One way of achieving this is to have pupils carry out their own experiments and thereby learn how to handle contradictory results in a productive way. Similarly, teachers might use the example of famous scientists such as Charles Darwin, Marie Curie or Albert Einstein to explain how new knowledge emerged on the basis of observation, seemingly contradictory evidence and anomaly.
Parent’s educational level more important than a pupil’s intelligence
The researchers found little evidence of a connection between the intelligence of children and adolescents – in other words, their ability to recognise patterns and correlations in new information – and their understanding of science. Instead, they found that children and adolescents from better-educated families acquire a better understanding, at an earlier age, of how knowledge is constituted.
In such families, scientific topics are generally discussed at an earlier age and in greater depth. Moreover, parents with a higher level of education tend to encourage their children more to think about scientific topics on their own, which is more likely to lead them to adopt a realistic picture of science.
Survey of 11,000 pupils
The study is based on new surveys and a meta-analysis of existing ones. Children and adolescents from a number of German states were surveyed. All were in either primary or secondary education, the latter comprising both more academically focused high schools and schools of a more vocational orientation. They were asked to evaluate statements of the type “Whatever scientists discover must be true” or “A scientific question can have one, and only one, answer”.
Given the representative character of the survey, Edelsbrunner and his co-authors are confident they would achieve similar findings in Switzerland. Presumably, the only difference would be a greater gap between pupils at academic high schools and those at other types of secondary school, since in Switzerland it is mainly children from well-educated households who go on to attend academic high schools.
This is a cause of concern for Edelsbrunner: by the same token, he would then expect a high proportion of the pupils at other types of secondary and purely vocational schools to have a less developed understanding of science. However, the authors have been unable to find any suitable data from Switzerland on this topic. It will therefore be down to future studies to address this gap in research.