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The Nature of Conceptual Change

As described in the preceding chapter, one of the surprising discoveries of the past few decades of research in developmental psychology is the tendency for children to search for mechanisms and the important ways ideas about mechanisms inform their reasoning and inference in everyday life. As we've said, children are by no means the blank slates or concrete, atheoretical reasoners that previous theorists have claimed. Instead, they have some existing concepts, constrained by either framework theories, modes of construal (phenomena in a domain are assumed to correspond to certain causal patterns; Keil, 2003), or skeletal principles (innate, abstract guidelines; Gelman and Lucariello, 2002), that help them carve the world up into different domains and organize their expectations about how different types of things should behave. These concepts help them organize and make sense of the world, support categorization, inductive and deductive inference, problem solving, explanation, as well as language learning and comprehension.

The research of the past few decades has thus revealed greater similarities between the concepts of children and those of scientists, avoiding simplistic dichotomies in which the concepts of the two are seen to he fundamentally different types. Not only is there now greater recognition of the implicit explanatory and systematic constraints on children's concepts (Carey, 1999; Gelman and Lucariello, 2002; Keil and Lockhart, 1999; Wellman and Gelman, 1992) but also of the implicit, informal aspects of scientific concepts (see the pioneering work of Clement, 1991, 1993, and Nersessian, 1992, in this regard). In addition, philosophers and historians of science have long recognized the role of guiding paradigms and frameworks, in which many deeply entrenched assumptions are not consciously emphasized or subjected to investigation, just assumed.

Greater awareness of the similarities between children's and scientists' concepts also allows one to consider the differences between them. Some researchers suggest that children's concepts may differ from those of scientists because they are embedded in different theories or constrained by somewhat different assumptions about the origins of the natural world and the nature of knowledge. Clearly, the current theories of science are immense intellectual achievements that are the products of centuries of investigation and testing carried out by entire communities of adult experts. Furthermore, the history of scientific ideas documents the profound changes in proposed theories and explanatory ideas that have occurred as scientists have struggled to develop, test, and refine their theories. Many of the concepts in these theories are counterintuitive, far removed from the first guesses one would have made about what the world is like and how it functions. In this view, learning science is difficult not because of what children don't have or lack, but because of what they do have: some initial commitments and ideas that will need to be revised and changed.
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