Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Children are better Scientists than Adults

The Scientific American has just posted an item More than Child's Play: Ability to think Scientifically Declines as Kids Grow Up describing research on 4 and 5 year old children at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

In 1980 I had a problem. The university where I worked had just installed their first fully interactive computer service and I had the task of introducing 125 first year undergraduates (mainly about 18 years old) to the joys of computing. Many had never used a keyboard of any kind, some had studied computer science at school and a small number had their own home computers. Could I set an introductory piece of coursework which would not allow the budding computer geeks to show off in front of the others and scare off those who were nervous of the technology.

About a year earlier I had prepared a small demonstration package for a TV programme called Jim'll Fix It where children wrote to ask Jimmy Saville to help them to do something - and one eleven year old child had asked that a computer could help him do his homework.

I adapted and extended the package (which was written in CODIL) two include a number of additional games and data bases and the course work was:
FIXIT is a package designed for an eleven year old but it has some problems. Try it out and write a two page account of what you found.
Psychologically this worked well.  Even novices did not want to be beaten by a package for an eleven year old, while the need to write a critical account in English gave some of the budding computer whiz-kids a bit of a headache - as they had come convinced that computing was all about writing programs in BASIC.

Afterwards I gave a debriefing session to explain the significance of different "games" in the package to different sections of their future studies - and I also discussed some of the limitations of the package - especially the ones none of them had spotted. For instance FIXIT contained information on a number of British Birds and if you typed in the name of a bird it came up with some information about it. Not one of them discovered what happened if you typed in the name of a different kind of bird - i.e. a girl's name! The KINGS section asked you to type in a date and it told you the English King at the time and a number complained that they would have liked to be able to type in the name of the king and be told his dates.  Of course any eleven year old would have tried it, rather than complain, and would have found that it worked!

To me it is obvious that as we get older we organize our knowledge into mental boxes and the more we cram in the more reluctant we are to ask questions which fail to conform to our mental models. 

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