Elementary school children can learn concepts that stump adults:  University of Toronto study

Story time took on a new twist in a recent study by Samuel Ronfard, a researcher at University of Toronto Mississauga.

Ronfard and his collaborators at Boston University – Sarah Brown, Erin Doncaster and Deborah Kelemen – used storybooks to teach elementary school children how new species evolve and then examined whether children could learn, apply and retain that understanding over time.

The study, “Inhibiting intuition: Scaffolding children’s theory construction about species evolution in the face of competing explanations,” was published in the journal Cognition and is part of Boston University’s Evolving Minds Project, which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.


“Our research project examined children’s ability to construct an accurate account of natural selection at the between-species level – that is, in relation to the evolution of new species,” says Ronfard, an assistant professor of psychology who is the lab director at U of T Mississauga’s Childhood Learning and Development Lab. 

“This is a really hard concept to learn. Even adults struggle with learning it because it goes against our intuitions about species – the idea that species members possess a special unchanging essence that makes them what they are.”

Although concepts like natural selection aren’t introduced until high school, Ronfard and his colleagues showed that elementary school children – the study participants were seven- and eight-year-old children – can overcome their intuitions about species and learn an accurate explanation for the process of speciation that focusses on variability within a species over time.

“When we embarked on this study, we could not find trade books that provided an accurate description of the process of adaptation and speciation at the elementary school level,” says Ronfard. “By designing our own books about novel animals, we could create storybooks that built on one another and continued the evolutionary story of one species.

“We were also able to keep the illustrations simple to support the explanations described in the narrative text and control children’s knowledge about the animals.”

The findings demonstrated that even young children can engage in challenging and complex conceptual change when it is presented in this format.

“Our work suggests that instruction on certain hard-to-learn concepts like the evolution of new species should start earlier than it currently does because earlier instruction allows children to construct a scientifically accurate understanding of complex scientific processes before intuitive but incorrect explanations take root and entrench themselves,” Ronfard says.

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