Saturday, July 25, 2009

Young Children and Reasoning

The Drs. Eide have a recent post relating research results about young children, as young as 2 years old, and their ability to reason. For those of us who come through teacher training/certification programs, this cannot be! We are told that Jean Piaget found reasoning comes in developmentally at ages near 12-13 or so. But it appears Piaget was wrong on this one. I certainly recommend anyone in education to check out the article as well as second post by Dr. Peter Gray at Psychology Today about how young children are capable of reasoning in playful environments, where creativity is being encouraged and the experience of play allows children to reach conclusions that they typically would not if just being asked directly and more seriously as we may do in school. It appears children do not yet have abstract thinking or reasoning until they are closer to teenage years, but rather depend on experience to reason things out.

The research centers on how children answer syllogisms, introduced long ago by Aristotle, and more specifically, counterfactual syllogisms. The example provided is:

All cats bark (major premise)
Muffins is a cat (minor premise)
Does Muffins bark?

If a child is asked this in a straightforward, more direct or serious tone of voice as a teacher or other adult would likely do, they will not abstractly or logically see that Muffins will bark. Instead, young children will say no, that Muffins meows or purrs (as my own young children said just now when I asked this as a straight question as part of a normal conversation). This is their experience with our cat, so the notion they should answer that a cat barks does not make sense and they do not take it to mean anything in their answer. But when I presented the same syllogism (and others with a similar structure, such as: Penguins are black and white...some old TV shows are black and white...therefore some penguins are old TV shows) when we started playing a game we called 'Imagine That,' where snails move fast and cheetahs can't catch zebras any more since zebras could both fly and turn invisible (that was my 6 year old daughter's premise), my kids did indeed begin answering with the logically correct answers. It was interesting to do the experiment and see it happen first-hand.

The authors of the two posts wonder if we are underestimating children in school settings (which I would say, from my own experience, we certainly do fairly consistently! It is amazing what children can do when not restricted and put in a good frame of mind, and simply allowed to explore opportunities.), and how research that stems from this finding may lead to improvements in methodology in the classroom, from Pre-K through elementary and middle school. In fact, I found it interesting that, in the Gray article, developmental and cognitive psychologists now reject a distinction between concrete and abstract reasoning, since abstract concepts become interpretted and processed based on concrete experience. The argument is centered on the notion that imagination combined with your own daily experience can lead to the ability to think and reason abstractly.

What does this mean for educators and parents? I leave with a quote from the Dr. Gray article:

"My overriding point here is that play automatically induces hypothetical reasoning. It leads us to think about pretend worlds, where anything is possible, and to reason about those possibilities, rather than to limit our thoughts just to things that are true in the immediate here and now. In this way play promotes the kind of thought that is crucial not just to all of theoretical science but to all planning about the future, in which we must imagine possible events and think about how we might deal with those events.

Please do not draw the wrong conclusion from this little discussion. I am not arguing that it is a good idea, educationally, to induce playful states deliberately in children in order to improve their reasoning, as the researchers did in their experiment. Children play naturally, and it is through natural play that children practice reasoning. Children who are manipulated into play by teachers who think that this will improve their reasoning will soon learn to resist the manipulations. Play, in the long run, is only play if it is self-chosen and self-directed. Children practice reasoning in their own ways, through their own self-chosen play; we can't do it for them and shouldn't try. All we need to do, as I have argued in previous installments (e.g. Sept. 30, 2008, posting), is to provide places where children can play and explore safely and naturally, with others in age-mixed groups. They will take care of the rest."

Let children develop naturally, for their reasoning skills and abilities will develop...but we some times need to get out of their way and allow them to have some fun along the way in order for this to happen. :-)

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