Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 5, Issue 3, Article 8 (Dec., 2004)
Yeung Chung LEE and Pun Hon NG
Hong Kong primary pupils' cognitive understanding and reasoning in conducting science investigation: A pilot study on the topic of "Keeping Warm"
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Children's cognitive development in relation to their ability to investigate

Before reviewing previous researches on how this kind of cognitive understanding progresses across different grades, it is useful to revisit theories of cognitive development relevant to science learning as a background for discussing how pupils' understanding may progress. Our understanding of children's cognitive development is contributed by researchers like Piaget, Bruner, Gagne, Ausubel, and more recently by the theory of constructivism. Piaget's work on genetic epistemology theorizes that cognitive development of humans takes place through a series of continuous and progressive stages, namely preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational stages (Inhelder and Piaget 1958). As the child grows, his or her mental structure develops as a result of interactions with the environment by the processes of assimilation and accommodation. These stages are sequential and age-related and do not seem to vary much across individuals.

Piaget's work has considerable impact on the design of science curriculum whose nature fits closely with his conjectures. His stage theory implies that the curriculum should be matched to the stages of cognitive development of children so that children could benefit more from the curriculum. Lawton (1978) maintained that Piaget's influence was more on discouraging teachers to include something in the curriculum at too early a stage in children's development rather than on encouraging them to introduce curriculum contents at the most appropriate stage. Since the cognitive structure characteristic of a stage will become integrated into that of the following stage, if the child is denied the experiences required for the development of a particular stage, the development of the stage that follows may be hampered. Some earlier curriculum projects, for example, the Science 5/13 of the U.K. and Australian Science Education Project were structured on the basis of Piagetian stages. A more recent attempt to apply Piagetian stages in the curriculum is the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education Project (CASE), which aims to accelerate pupils' cognitive development (Adey 1998). It claims to achieve considerable successes in elevating pupils' levels of attainment by designing instructions ahead of the cognitive development of children (Adey, Shayer et al. 2001).

In addition to Piagetian theory, Bruner's ideas of cognitive development also recognize the progressive development of children through a sequence of stages. He believed that a child could learn if the material presented and the process through which it was presented corresponds to his stage of development (Bruner 1960). He advocated that the curriculum of a subject should be organized in such a way that pupils learned the basic principles and fundamental structures before specific topics were taught. He argued that children could grasp science at a very early stage and curricula should be designed to teach pupils in an appropriate way and built on children's experiences in increasingly abstract ways as education progresses.

Deviating from genetic epistemology, the theories of Gagne and Ausubel focus mainly on the process of learning by children. Gagne argued that what a person could learn depended on what he or she had already known. He explained that many topics learned in school were sets of concepts organized in hierarchies. The learning of the concepts at the lower levels of the hierarchies is pre-requisite to the learning of more complex ideas at higher levels (Gagne 1985). In other words, pupils have to learn simple ideas before they can make sense of more complicated ones. Ausubel shared a rather similar line of thought as Gagne. He proposed that learning was possible only when students could make sense of new ideas with the structure of thought established by previous learning. Whether learning is meaningful depends on how well these new ideas fit into the existing structure (Ausubel 1968). His arguments imply that learning is basically a constructive activity and a gradual process in which new ideas are built on previous structures.

Another challenge to the stage theory of cognitive development comes from the social constructivists. One major criticism against Piagetian view is that the context in which development of knowledge takes place is ignored. The constructivists see the social context as a very important factor influencing learning since a decontextualized learning environment rarely exists (O'Loughlin 1992). The social constructivist view of learning in the context of science implies that there is a much more important role to play by social interactions in the development of knowledge apart from genetic maturation.

Two views of cognitive development appear to exist: one based mainly on genetic maturation as a result of the individual interacting with the world, which is chiefly determined by age; and the other premised mainly on the learning experiences presented to the learner taking into account all the social and contextual variables. It seems highly likely that both age-related maturation and enculturation are important in influencing cognitive development in a child. No matter which view one tends to adopt, it seems essential for the teacher to have a good understanding of pupils' existing structure in order to design a curriculum that could further enhance their ability to investigate.


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