The Development of Children’s Scientific Thinking

This research aims to seek further into the concept of flotation and sinking surrounding two participants in varying age relating to the findings of Piaget, Vygotsky and Selley (1993). Piaget’s views are based on constructivism that we learn with age, and Vygotsky’s is based on social constructivism that social interaction is also needed. Selley states about a way of measuring how far learning has developed in relation to using hypotheses for flotation.

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Two participants were observed using a small-scale investigation and the information was recorded, collected, coded and compared accordingly to whether objects sink or float, and the reasoning why they do either. Constructivism, social constructivism and Selley’s hypotheses on “Why do things float?” were all taken into consideration, along with zone of proximal development, cognitive conflict and scaffolding.

My findings do ascent with Piaget, Vygotsky and Selley’s in that as we get older we come to realise that our scientific thinking is elaborated and enhanced so we have a better understanding of why items float or sink.


This study researches into assessing two participants understanding that objects either float or sink. Common sense tells us that objects sink because they are heavy for a given size, so therefore lighter objects must float. This is a general everyday life theory but science tells us that we should be more exact with our thinking, and how is it that we come to think like this.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) focused on understanding the development of cognitive functioning in the child in which children pass through a series of cognitive stages at varying ages. The development of intelligence is naturalistic and biological and the result of a dynamic interaction between the child and the environment. On the other hand, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) stresses the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition, as community and peers, especially teachers, play an important role in making sense of the world around us.

In contrast to Piaget, social learning tends to precede development, not just social but also culture needs to be taken into consideration. So, how do these theories differ in relation to thinking about items that sink or float? Piaget’s theory is that we should already know what floats or sinks depending at what stage we are cognitively, and as we get older we know more about what objects will do. Through cognitive conflict (what the child knows and what s/he experiences) is achieved through assimilation (similarity of objects) and accommodation (modification of internal schemas).

Vygotsky says that we will learn from others and enhance and develop our understanding through “zone of proximal development” which refers to the distance between what a child can do with assistance, e.g. teacher or skilled partner, and what the child can accomplish without assistance. So, the teacher, in this case Professor Nunes can guide the two participants to gain more knowledge and develop higher mental reasoning providing explanations of floating and sinking objects. This also relates to “scaffolding”, in that it is a teaching strategy that provides individualised support to learners/participants. The scaffold facilitates the learner/participants ability to build on their own prior knowledge and use new information. The scaffolding is only temporary as the learners/participants abilities increase and the scaffolding is then no longer needed.

Nicholas Selley (1993) “Why do things float” also is taken into consideration for this research who came up with several different hypotheses, firstly, Hypothesis 1 – things float if they contain air; Hypothesis 1A – things float if they contain enough air; Hypothesis 2 – things float if they are light for their size; Hypothesis 3 – things float if their density is less than the density of fluid, and Hypothesis 4 – equilibrium where objects have buoyancy partly in and partly out of water. This is a progression of intelligence of floating and sinking through increased knowledge.

To investigate further into these findings an observation was carried out to attain information from two participants. The answers were then put into data sheets, which has proven difficult to do, especially as some answers could go into several of the codes, i.e. what I have placed into one code could have gone into a different one quite easily. Moreover, another person may also interpret the answers differently and put them into a contrasting code as well. Furthermore, older children may give a false answer to a question so that it might make them look better, and they may deduce the answer that they feel the observer is looking for. The hypothesis is to establish if a younger child will think differently compared to older children who will have more scientific knowledge and concept of flotation and sinking.



The study is aimed at showing how our scientific thinking changes as we get older, in relation to floating and sinking objects. The observations were designed and carried out by The Open University in conjunction with Professor Terezinha Nunes in March 2005. Firstly, the two participants were informed of what was going to happen (de-briefed). They were then shown some varying objects and asked to separate them on the table into two piles of objects that would float or sink, and asked why they thought that would happen. Professor Nunes then got the aquarium and put it on the table, and in turn put each of the objects in it to find out whether the objects floated or sunk. The participants were asked for a second time why they thought the objects floated or sank. They were then given another pile of objects, asked again whether they would float or sink and the reasoning why, then put the objects in the water, and asked why they floated or sank. Professor Nunes then asked general open-ended questions about flotation and sinking objects in general to find out more detailed information and then used some scales to weigh two tins with lentils in them before immersing them in the aquarium as well, and continued with some more questions to ascertain about why the participants thought some items sunk and some floated.


Two people took part in the study, both were female. The researcher did not know either of them. One female is 8 years old and the other is 12 years old. The observations were carried out on an individual and confidential basis and were based in a primary school in Oxford, and only their first names have been used.


Both participants were given the same objects to use and also hand paper was used to wipe up water spills, and an identical see-through box with water in it (i.e. aquarium) to put the objects in. Plastic scales were also used to weigh objects. Also, the observation was filmed by a film producer, two camera operators, a sound recordist and a member of the course team.


The participants were informed that they do must be as honest as possible, and that there were no right or wrong answers and that they were not being tested as it is for research purposes only. The participants were made to feel at ease and as comfortable as could be throughout the observation. The observation was recorded, and they were asked questions throughout the observation by Professor Nunes.


The observations were carried out in accordance with The British Psychological Society’s code of conduct for psychologists. Consent was obtained from the children’s parents and they were debriefed before the observations took place, and advised that they could stop, pause or leave at any time if they were not happy. All the information maintains confidential and other than their first names used, no further personal information is used. Professor Nunes did also not know any of the participants personally. The observation was conducted in a professional manner. Although there were quite a few adults in the room, care was taken not to put the participants under any unnecessary pressure and to make them feel at ease.

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The results for both participants were put into data sheets for stage 1 (floaters and sinkers), stage 2 initial explanation of what each object would do and causal codes and stage 5 what new objects would do and why and stage 6/7 explanations of what happened (see Appendix A and B), and then a table showing the frequency of causal themes identified for both participants and the statistics of correct predictions. There is only a 4 year age gap between both participants, but the scores for stage 2 were both higher predictions than for stage 5. The older child shows signs of predicting more items that will float or sink in stage 5 than the younger child.

The trend towards the older participant does show that on average they can predict the objects for both stage 2 and 5 more equally than the younger child. Both participants could predict the items that were more likely to sink in stage 2 (both scored 100%). Also there were more causal codes for Jessica, the older participant as she knew more about the objects, although weight was still the main reason for deciding whether objects should float or sink. These results do substantiate that the older the child, the more scientific knowledge they have for both Piaget and Vygotsky’s views, and also higher the hypothesis number for Selley’s research, on the elaborate objects that could sink or float.


The investigation shows that both participants chose descriptions more towards the weight of the objects to determine whether or not the items would sink or float, although it did decrease slightly with age as the participant used other reasoning. This however is a very over-generalised and simplistic set of findings, as only two participants were studied. Also, as people get older people have more knowledge anyway. The younger child still did exceptional to get 100% correct predictions on stage 2 and this was better than the older participant who scored 88%, and in stage 5 the younger participant only scored 36% compared to the other older participant who scored 82% of correct predictions. The statistics varied greatly though between stage 5 predicted floaters and sinkers, although they both predicted more floaters than sinkers. Also when the Professor continued to probe more into why items float and sink the older child knew far more about density/mass than just weight, but the younger participant did try to explain about gravity and texture/material of objects. When scales were used the younger participant started to question whether items sunk because they were heavier so scaffolding and zone of proximal development took hold. The older participant also started to question their own knowledge when in conversation with Professor Nunes, but not as much, so teacher influence appeared to be quite high. Although, after Professor Nunes tried to find out from the participants more reasoning behind why items sink or float and used the tins with lentils in them, the younger participant predicted the outcome wrongly by saying that both large and small tins would sink, and the older participant was also incorrect in saying that both tins would float. Also, in relation to Selleys hypotheses, Remy the younger participant, seems to be at Hypotheses 1/1A and Jessica the older participant, is at Hypothesis 2, so with age comes more scientific knowledge and understanding.

The main concern I associated with this study is coding the children’s explanations, more so as sometimes they gave more than one answer. It might have been more productive and valid if the coding had been done by two different people, and then got together to see what was put where and the reasoning behind the chosen codes. This procedure may well have diminished the margin of error and biased results from the researcher, as the researcher can influence the result by trying to place explanations into certain codes to achieve a desired and more favourable result, so the results cannot be completely deemed to be realistic given these circumstances. Also, this is not real world, and the participants (there were only two of them as well) might have said what they thought the Professor wanted them to say as there were far more adults than children in the room as well.


To conclude, the results from this particular piece of research show that older children through presumably more scientific knowledge, can predict more intricate shaped items (stage 5) whether they will either float or sink and use far more reasoning. Whether this is from Piaget’s constructivism or Vygostsky’s social constructivism is less known. I concur that younger children do have a tendency to describe items more based on weight as a determining factor for whether items will sink or float, but there is no set proof. Therefore, in retrospect Piaget’s and Vygotskys’s views are still relevant even nowadays. But, it is still onerous to measure and explore the concept of using scientific thinking and the concept of items that float or sink just from these results. Far more research is needed to explore this idea.



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