Another of Jean Piaget’s classic studies involved what he termed conservation.
This is the ability to understand that, when nothing is taken away or added, then even if the appearance of something changes, there is the same amount as before. Conservation tasks involve showing a child an amount of something, changing its shape in some way and then asking if the amount has changed or is the same.
Look at an example of this sort of task and see what happens:
Adult: Does this one have more play dough, does this one have more play dough, or do they have the same amount?
Child: They have the same.
Adult: They have the same amount? Right, okay now watch. If I do this, you leave that one. Now does this one have more play dough, does this one have more play dough, or do they have the same amount?
Child: This one has more play dough.
Adult: That one has more play dough. Now how do you know it’s got more play dough?
Child: Because it’s not like that one.
Adult: It’s not like that one. Yeah?
Piaget believed that difficulties with conservation are caused by children concentrating on only one of the dimensions (e.g. height) and failing to take account of the other dimension (e.g. width). However, there have been criticisms that the tasks Piaget used might have had what are termed demand characteristics, this is shown on the next page.
Conservation tasks involve asking a child two identical questions. Asking a child a second identical question usually implies that the first answer was incorrect. So it is a sensible strategy on the child’s (and on an adult’s) part to change the answer to this second question.
If there appears to be a good reason for asking the second question, then this demand to change an answer is reduced. See what happens when the task involves a chipped container which provides a reason for asking the second question about whether there is the same amount of rice in different shaped beakers
Adult: Does this one have more rice in, does this one have more rice in, or have they got the same amount?
Child: The same amount.
Adult: The same amount. Oh, hang on, this one’s chipped. Tell you what I’ll put this in … there. So, does this one have more rice, does this one have more rice , or do they have the same amount?
Child: That one has … they have the same amount
Adult: They have the same amount?
The first demonstration showed that young children appear unable to conserve when given a task very similar to that used by Piaget. The second demonstration showed that, when there is a good reason for the experimenter asking the second question, the same child now gives a correct answer and shows evidence of conservation; they did not in the previous task. This shows the difficulties of assessing what a child knows and there still continues to be a debate about how much children learn about the physical world and how much of this knowledge is innate.
Methods of studying children
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