Thought-experiments about gravity in the history of science and in research into children’s thinking

Blown, Eric and Bryce, Thomas (2012) Thought-experiments about gravity in the history of science and in research into children’s thinking. Science and Education, 22 (3). pp. 419-483. ISSN 0926-7220

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This article examines the main strands of thinking about gravity through the ages and the continuity of thought-experiments, from the early Greeks, through medieval times, to Galileo, Newton and Einstein. The key ideas are used to contextualise an empirical study of 247 children’s ideas about falling objects carried out in China and New Zealand, including the use of scenarios involving thrown and dropped items, and objects falling down deep well holes (as in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland). The sample included 68 pre-school pupils, 68 primary school pupils, 56 middle school students, and 55 high school students; with approximately equal numbers in each group and of boys and girls in each group in each culture. The methodology utilised Piagetian interviews with three media (verbal language, drawing, and play-dough), a shadow stick; and everyday items including model people and soft model animals. The data from each group was categorised and analysed with Kolmogorov–Smirnov Two-Sample Tests and Spearman rs coefficients. It was hypothesised and confirmed (at K–S alpha levels .05; rs: p\.001) that cross-age and cross-cultural research and analysis would reveal that (a) an intuitive sense of gravity is present from an early age and develops in association with concepts like Earth shape and motion; (b) the development of concepts of gravity is similar in cultures such as China and New Zealand where teachers hold a scientific world view; and (c) children’s concepts of Earth motion, Earth shape, and gravity are coherent rather than fragmented. It was also demonstrated that multi-media interviews together with concrete experiences and thought-experiments afforded children the opportunity to share their emerging concepts of gravity. The findings provide information that teachers might use for lessons at an appropriate level.