By Michael Edmonds 28/04/2016 16


Earlier in the week I attended the New Zealand Association of Scientists conference in Wellington. The theme of the conference was “The Future for Scientists in New Zealand”. It was a very interesting conference with a diverse range of thoughtful and thought-provoking talks.

During the conference the idea that young children are natural scientists was mentioned several times – an idea that bothered me a bit at the time but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Children are certainly very curious, in the same way many researchers are curious – about how and why things work.

It later occurred to me that the answer is obvious; science is more than curiosity – it imposes specific frameworks on what we observe around us so that we can make better sense of what we are seeing – so that we can find sensible answers to our questions. So we understand the difference between correlation and causation, and are able to connect new observations with reliable observations that have already been made.

And perhaps this is where some students start to lose interest in science (at least as a career)? When it becomes obvious that there is work involved as well as fun.

Of course similar claims can and have been made about children and other subjects – e.g. all children are natural dancers/athletes etc (For which I was and am the perfect example that neither of these is true).

The suggestion that children are natural ………(insert type of scientist here) is often used as a critique of the education system, but it is seldom accompanied by any reasonable solutions on how all these “natural” interests can be encouraged and maintained into their teenage years and beyond. In my opinion it overlooks the variety of interests and talents that children have. In my opinion the best way to serve children is to give them the opportunity to experience as many interests and activities as possible and to support them when they find what they are interested in whether it is science or sports, the arts or something else – wherever their curiosity takes them.

 

Featured image: CC flickr Philippe Put


16 Responses to “Are children natural scientists?”

  • Children are curious, present, full of wonder and don’t think they know everything .
    It bothers some scientists to think children are thought of as “natural scientists” if they have a inferiority complex ( manifesting as a feeling of superiority because they are a “scientist” ). As though being a “scientist” is by academic qualification only, a title they do not want to be given to a natural scientist/child learning about the world.
    Curiosity gets conditioned out of the child replaced by a web of programmed /learned ” cause and effect” many scientists are not curious, become arrogant and competitive. Children are thought of as inferior ( based on intellect) .

  • @Helen S That is a bit harsh! However, if I too may vent my own frustrations on the matter, I would say that there is nothing worse than a professional scientist who has lost the curiosity often found in children. I know too many examples of such people, and they are all too often problematic in various ways.

  • Sorry but there was no other way explain why the mind( ego) would not like children being called natural scientists( open minded, curious, present and naturally great learners) as is a but reaction of ego.

    Agree, it is very sad when adult scientist think they know everything, are not curious, are closed minded and are more concerned about funding than science.

    • Helen S,
      You have completely misunderstood my post. I do not consider scientists as “superior” or children as “inferior”.
      What I was trying to point out is that there is more to being a scientist than curiosity – it also involves interpreting what we observe in a particular way using the scientific method. Some children certainly seem to understand the scientific method naturally (as do some adults) but I think it is a lazy way of thinking to automatically assume that curiosity = “natural scientist”.
      The curiosity that children have is fantastic and if educators can harness and guide this to encourage an interest in science then that is great.
      I’m not sure why you have interpreted what I wrote in such a negative light. I would suggest that it is quite presumptuous of you to assume you understand my motives/reasons for writing this is down to ego, and you might want to reread what I have written a bit more objectively.

  • To be fair, Michael, you may be misinterpreting what people mean when they say that children are “natural scientists”. They may not intend to mean that children actually are scientists doing science, just that they have a natural affinity with science, which, if nurtured appropriately, could result in them becoming a good scientist some day. Do you always choose the most literal and simplistic interpretation of what people say?

    • Stephen Thorpe,
      An interesting thought, however, I am talking about scientists referring to children as natural scientists, and I guess I expect scientists might have chosen a better analogy, for example saying that children have a natural curiosity which lends itself towards appreciating science.
      It concerns me that if we assume that just by allowing children to be curious they will understand and enjoy science, we will not succeed. Rather we need to consciously expose them to the scientific method while still nurturing that sense of curiosity.
      It is interesting that you suggest that I am taking a simplistic interpretation of the term “natural scientist” when my point is that using this term is too simplistic.
      I think precision and clarity are important in communication although I appear to be struggling with getting my point across in this case 🙂

    • Michael I did not misunderstand your post which was how you did not like it at a conference when children were being called “natural scientists”. As Stephen pointed out it was your misunderstanding.
      The speaker at the conference did not say children are “professional scientists” “public funded scientists” or members of a “consensus cult group” just that children have the abilities required to be good scientists often lost in adults (to be free from their own concepts, are open minded, curious and fully present).
      Science is open to all, children are indeed natural scientists.

  • Well, your point is still rather vague and unclear (at least to me). If scientists are referring to children as “natural scientists”, then surely scientists know what science is, and aren’t so out of touch with reality to think that children are doing that too! One has to assume a rational interpretation of what scientists are saying. I have suggested that what they really mean is that (some) children have a natural affinity with science, which, if nurtured appropriately, could result in them becoming a good scientist some day. So, is your point that there is a danger that the general public will think that scientists are saying that (some) children are effectively scientists doing science?

  • Stephen Thorpe,
    “…then surely scientists know what science is, and aren’t so out of touch with reality…”
    This sounds like an appeal to authority, and I am talking about some scientists, not all, using the phrase “natural scientists”. Perhaps I am being overly pedantic about this term?
    My point is not what you have translated it to as follows
    “So, is your point that there is a danger that the general public will think that scientists are saying that (some) children are effectively scientists doing science?”
    Rather, my point is that using the term “natural scientist” implies that science = curiosity. There is more to science than curiosity.

  • Michael,

    “Rather, my point is that using the term “natural scientist” implies that science = curiosity. There is more to science than curiosity”

    No, you are being overly pedantic! Maybe strictly speaking, using the term “natural scientist” implies that science = curiosity. However, maybe not, and certainly not in the appropriate context whereby people are speaking with some understood level of looseness. Yes, there is more to science than curiosity. For a start, there is funding, politics, peer reviewed published outputs, etc. But I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say that, STRICTLY SPEAKING, children are little scientists doing science! So, the point you are making is right, but kinda not worth making, because it is obvious, particularly to anyone who is a scientist!

  • Stephen Thorpe,
    Well, this exchange has certainly been enlightening with regards to the challenges of information, however, can I ask that you reflect on your communication skills?
    You keep implying that I am saying that when people say that “children are natural scientists” that I am accusing them of implying that “children are little scientists doing science” At no point have I said that. Rather than listening to what I have to say you continue to impose your interpretation of what I have said.
    Also I strongly disagree with you that science includes “funding, politics” . These may be unfortunate aspects of working in academia or industry, but they are not part of science itself which is simply a way of observing and interpreting the world around us.

  • Michael,

    Please don’t blame the limitations of natural languages like English on “my communication skills”!

    “You keep implying that I am saying that when people say that “children are natural scientists” that I am accusing them of implying that “children are little scientists doing science” At no point have I said that. ”

    Given an appropriate level of looseness to what you actually said (which was very vague and open to interpretation anyway), that is what you implied! Of course, the children aren’t going around publishing in peer reviewed journals, applying for funding, etc., that would be absurd, but it is bad form to attribute an absurd interpretation to what I said!

    So, you seem to think that when people (specifically scientists) say that “children are natural scientists”, they mean only that children are curious, with the incorrect implication that science is no more than curiosity. But for a scientist to think like this would be absurd! So, for goodness sake, stop attributing absurd interpretations to people just so you can write a blog post criticising them! As I said, it is very plausible that what they mean is just that (some) children have a natural affinity for science, which, if nurtured appropriately, could result in them becoming a good scientist some day. Anybody who takes this to mean rather that children are in some sense already scientists just isn’t worth arguing with, because they are unlikely to grasp the issue or be capable of much in the way of rational debate!

    PS: Funding and politics may not be “part of science itself”, but they certainly are part of being a scientist, which is really what the issue is about, i.e. are children “natural scientists”?

  • Stephen Thorpe,
    “So, for goodness sake, stop attributing absurd interpretations to people just so you can write a blog post criticising them!”

    The blog post was not a criticism of anyone, rather it is was supposed to be a discussion of the topic.
    That you have interpreted it as criticism, and continue to misunderstand what I was saying, and create absurdities that I did not claim, shows we are communicating at cross purposes so now is probably a good time to end this conversation.

  • Well, it is a tad ironic that your post seems to be, in some way, a criticism of poor communication (i.e., use of the term “natural scientist”), while at the same time your post is almost impossible to interpret in anything but the most vague terms!

  • As a former science teacher I find your article relates well to my own concern. There is a real disconnect between the language of the science community and the general public. A case in point is with my grand-daughter’s pre-school which utilises an online reporting website to keep us informed with what our little prodigies are up to. Recent posts have purported to describe them “doing science today.” What is being presented to the children are opportunities to use their “natural curiosity” to explore a range of experiences – colour is a good one – dyes in oil, different paint media, lights, etc. The activities are then written up with what I consider pseudo-scientific aims, objectives etc which the pedagogue in me would reject, and the scientist in me shudder. The age-related educationalist in me can’t for the life of me see how the pre-concrete thinking of my grand-daughter can understand the abstract reasoning needed for the deductions the child-care workers are making for them. My fear is that when she gets to school and is presented with a good environment for doing science, the fun factor will kick in – because we’ve done that!

  • As a former science teacher I find your article relates well to my own concern. There is a real disconnect between the language of the science community and the general public. A case in point is with my grand-daughter’s pre-school which utilises an online reporting website to keep us informed with what our little prodigies are up to. Recent posts have purported to describe them “doing science today.” What is being presented to the children are opportunities to use their “natural curiosity” to explore a range of experiences – colour is a good one – dyes in oil, different paint media, lights, etc. The activities are then written up with what I consider pseudo-scientific aims, objectives etc which the pedagogue in me would reject, and the scientist in me shudder. The age-related educationalist in me can’t for the life of me see how the pre-concrete thinking of my grand-daughter can understand the abstract reasoning needed for the deductions the child-care workers are making for them. My fear is that when she gets to school and is presented with a good environment for doing science, the fun factor will kick in – because we’ve done that! Wonder and curiosity are good starting points, but they do not necessarily led to science, they can just as easily lead into the fine arts, or heaven forbid my own fields of theology and philosophy.

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