Thought-Experiments About Gravity in the History of Science and in Research into Children’s Thinking

Abstract

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 KolmogorovSmirnov Two-Sample Tests and Spearman r s coefficients. It was hypothesised and confirmed (at KS alpha levels .05; r s : 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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We take children to be young people up to and including 18 years of age (see Convention on the Rights of the Child 1990).

  2. 2.

    See Abell (1969), Hawking (1987), Meli (2008) and Ridpath (2007).

  3. 3.

    See Nussbaum and Novak (1976), Nussbaum (1979), Nussbaum and Sharoni-Dagan (1983), Sneider (1986), Sneider and Ohadi (1998) and Sneider and Pulos (1983).

  4. 4.

    See Nussbaum and Sharoni-Dagan (1983), Sharp (1995, 1996, 1999) and Sharp and Sharp (2007).

  5. 5.

    See Clement et al. (1989), Gilbert and Reiner (2000), Matthews (1994), Nussbaum and Novick (1982), Reiner and Burko (2003), Reiner and Gilbert (2004) and Velentzas and Halkia (2011, 2012).

  6. 6.

    See Champagne et al. (1980), Clement (1982), Finegold and Pundak (1991), Gould (1991), McCloskey (1983), Piaget and Garcia (1983/1989) and Spelke (1991).

  7. 7.

    By ‘an intuitive sense of gravity’ we mean an awareness that objects such as balls which are dropped or thrown, fall downwards. This is one of five physical laws or constraints governing the behaviour of physical objects recognised by Piaget and reported by Spelke (1991) as follows: continuity, solidity, no action at a distance, gravity and inertia (p. 136).

  8. 8.

    See Agan and Sneider (2004), Brewer and Samarapungavan (1991), Hayes et al. (2003) and Sneider and Ohadi (1998).

  9. 9.

    See Nussbaum and Novak (1976), Nussbaum (1979), Nussbaum and Sharoni-Dagan (1983) and Sneider and Pulos (1983).

  10. 10.

    See Hannust and Kikas (2007, 2010), Lidar et al. (2010), Nobes et al. (2003, 2005), Panagiotaki et al. (2006a, b), Panagiotaki et al. (2009), Schoultz et al. (2001), Straatemeier et al. (2008) and Troadec et al. (2009).

  11. 11.

    See Bryce and Blown (2006, 2007, 2012), Blown and Bryce (2006, 2010), Baxter (1989), Sharp (1995, 1996, 1999), Sharp and Sharp (2007), and Vosniadou and Brewer (1992).

  12. 12.

    See Borghi et al. (2005), Clement et al. (1989), Gilbert and Reiner (2000), Matthews (1994), Nussbaum and Novick (1982), Reiner (1998), Reiner and Burko (2003), Reiner and Gilbert (2004) and Velentzas and Halkia (2011, 2012).

  13. 13.

    See Sneider (1986), Sneider and Ohadi (1998), Sneider and Pulos (1983) and Sneider et al. (1986).

  14. 14.

    See Nussbaum and Sharoni-Dagan (1983), Sharp (1995, 1996, 1999), Sharp and Sharp (2007).

  15. 15.

    See Blown and Bryce (2010), Barsalou (2003), Cromer (1987) and Kuhl (2000).

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Appendix: Interview Guide for Kindergarten & Junior School Children (Abridged)

Appendix: Interview Guide for Kindergarten & Junior School Children (Abridged)

Motion Study

Questions about the Motion of the Sun, Earth and Moon

Outdoors in sunshine observing the divergence of shadows of a shadow-stick and a pencil

  1. 1.

    Tell me about the Sun?

  2. 2.

    Where is the Sun?

  3. 3.

    Take care that children do not look directly at the Sun.

  4. 4.

    Has what is happening to the ruler shadow got anything to do with the Sun?

  5. 5.

    Is the Sun moving?

  6. 6.

    How is the Sun moving?

  7. 7.

    Why is the Sun moving?

  8. 8.

    Tell me about the Earth?

  9. 9.

    Where is the Earth?

  10. 10.

    Has what is happening to the ruler shadow got anything to do with the Earth?

  11. 11.

    Is the Earth moving?

  12. 12.

    How is the Earth moving?

  13. 13.

    Why is the Earth moving?

  14. 14.

    Tell me about the Moon?

  15. 15.

    Where is the Moon?

  16. 16.

    Has what is happening to the ruler shadow got anything to do with the Moon?

  17. 17.

    Is the Moon moving?

  18. 18.

    How is the Moon moving?

  19. 19.

    Why is the Moon moving?

Draw how the Earth moves.

If child indicates that the Earth rotates (spins), ask:

3. How long does it take for the Earth to rotate (spin) once?

If child indicates that the Earth revolves (orbits) something, ask:

4. What does the Earth revolve around?

5. How long does it take for the Earth to revolve around (orbit) the (Sun, Moon) once?

Note:

Children drew the motion of the Sun and Moon in similar manner

Shape Study

Questions about the Shape, Nature and Structure of the Earth, Ground and Sky

Venue: A small room or library with a view of the Ground and Sky

  1. 1.

    Tell me about the Earth?

  2. 2.

    What is the Earth made of?

  3. 3.

    Where is the Earth?

  4. 4.

    Can you point to where the Earth is?

  5. 5.

    What Shape is the Earth?

  6. 6.

    If response is “Round” ask, What do you mean by “round?”

Round like a disc or round like a ball or round in some other way?

Do this in each case where the child responds “Round”.

Draw the Earth.

Note Children also drew the shape of the Sun and Moon.

Modelling the Shape, Nature and Structure of the Earth with Play-dough (Video)

Introduce play-dough for modelling. Give child a lump about 40 mm in diameter

Make the shape of the Earth (using play-dough)

1. What shape is your (model of the) Earth?

Note:

Children modelled the shape of the Sun and Moon in similar fashion.

Modelling the Motion of the Earth, Sun, and Moon with play-dough Models (Video)

Ask child to show the motion of the Earth, Sun and Moon using their play - dough Models

  1. 1.

    Does the Earth move?

  2. 2.

    Show me how the Earth moves?

  3. 3.

    How long does it take to do that? (once)

  4. 4.

    Does the Sun move?

  5. 5.

    Show me how the Sun moves?

  6. 6.

    How long does it take to do that? (once)

  7. 7.

    Does the Moon move?

  8. 8.

    Show me how the Moon moves?

  9. 9.

    How long does it take to do that (once)

Habitation and Identity Studies

Questions about Life on Earth

  1. 1.

    Is there anything on the Earth?

  2. 2.

    What is on the Earth?

  3. 3.

    Tell me about what is on the Earth?

  4. 4.

    Is (Kindy, School) on the Earth?

  5. 5.

    If not, where is (Kindy, School)?

  6. 6.

    Are there people on the Earth?

  7. 7.

    Where are people?

  8. 8.

    Are we on the Earth?

  9. 9.

    If not, where are we?

  10. 10.

    Where are we on the Earth?

  11. 11.

    Where are we now?

  12. 12.

    Where do people live on the Earth?

  13. 13.

    If not on Earth, where do people live?

  14. 14.

    If on Earth, do people live all over the Earth?

  15. 15.

    Or do people live only on parts of the Earth?

  16. 16.

    Which parts of the Earth do people live on?

  17. 17.

    Why do people live there?

  18. 18.

    Are you on (in) the Earth?

  19. 19.

    If not, where are you then?

  20. 20.

    If you are on the Earth, where are you on the Earth?

Identifying “Self” with the Earth

Make a drawing of yourself where you are (on the Earth)

Make a little self, a little drawing of yourself. Label yourself as “Me”.

  1. 21.

    Where have you drawn yourself?

  2. 22.

    Why have you drawn yourself there?

  3. 23.

    What are you standing on?

  4. 24.

    How are you able to stand there?

Introduce child’s Play-dough model of the Earth from the Shape Study. Introduce model person representing the child.

This is a model of yourself. Place the model of yourself where you think you would be on the play - dough Earth.

  1. 25.

    Where have you placed the model of yourself?

  2. 26.

    Why have you placed the model of yourself there?

  3. 27.

    What are you standing on?

  4. 28.

    How are you able to stand there?

Questions about Friends who live a long way away

  1. 1.

    Do you know someone who lives a long way away?

  2. 2.

    So far away that it would take a whole day in a jet airliner to visit them?

  3. 3.

    Who do you know that lives a long way away?

  4. 4.

    Have you been in an airliner or aeroplane (train, bus) before?

  5. 5.

    If so, where did you go?

  6. 6.

    How long did it take you to go there?

If you have never been in an aeroplane, think of someone who lives so far away that it would take more than four weeks in a train to go to see them.

Questions about Countries that are a long way away

  1. 1.

    Do you know a country that is a long way away?

  2. 2.

    So far away that it would take a whole day in a jet aircraft to go there?

  3. 3.

    Or more than four weeks in a train?

Introduce dolls or models of Kangaroo, to talk about Australia; Kiwi, to talk about New Zealand; and Panda, to talk about China

  1. 4.

    Have you ever seen animals like these before?

  2. 5.

    Do you know the names of these animals?

  3. 6.

    Do you know where these animals live?

  4. 7.

    Do you know where China (Australia or New Zealand) is?

Many people think that China (Australia or New Zealand) is on the other side of the Earth from where we live in New Zealand (China).

Questions about a Friend who lives on the other side of the Earth

Imagine that you have a new friend, a friend that you have never met before, imagine that your new friend lives a long way away in another country like China (Australia or New Zealand) on the other side of the Earth. So far away that it would take a whole day in an aeroplane or over four weeks in a train to visit them.

Identifying “Friend” with the other side of the Earth

Just as you have drawn yourself where you thought you would be on the Earth, so I would like you to draw your friend where you think they would be in China (Australia or New Zealand) on the other side of the Earth, as far away from you as they could possibly be.

Draw your friend on your drawing

Label your friend as “My friend”.

  1. 1.

    Where have you drawn your friend?

  2. 2.

    Why have you drawn your friend there?

  3. 3.

    What is your friend standing on?

Introduce a model person representing their friend.

This is a model of your friend. You will see that your friend is also playing ball. Place the model of your friend on your play dough model of the Earth where you think that your friend should be.

  1. 4.

    Where have you placed the model of your friend?

  2. 5.

    Why have you placed the model of your friend there?

  3. 6.

    What is your friend standing on?

  4. 7.

    How is your friend able to stand there?

Gravity Study

Questions about Throwing and Dropping Balls

As you can see (from the model people) you and your friend have a ball each

  1. 1.

    If you throw your ball up, where will it go?

  2. 2.

    Why will it go there?

  3. 3.

    If your friend throws their ball up, where will it go?

  4. 4.

    Why will it go there?

  5. 5.

    If you drop the ball, where will it go?

  6. 6.

    Why will it go there?

  7. 7.

    If your friend drops their ball, where will it go?

  8. 8.

    Why will it go there?

Draw yourself and your friend throwing and dropping balls

Note:

Young children were given the opportunity to throw and drop a tennis ball.

Questions about Drink Bottles

Imagine that you have a drink of orange juice from a bottle. You don’t drink all of it, there is some left. Imagine that you put the bottle down on the ground carefully with the top off.

  1. 1.

    Will the orange stay in the bottle?

  2. 2.

    Why? Why not?

  3. 3.

    If not, what will happen to your orange?

  4. 4.

    Where will your orange go to?

Imagine that your friend also has a drink of orange juice from a bottle. He or she does not drink all of it, there is some left. Imagine that your friend puts their bottle down on the ground carefully with the top off.

  1. 5.

    Will the orange stay in your friend’s bottle?

  2. 6.

    Why? Why not?

  3. 7.

    If not, what will happen to your friend’s orange?

  4. 8.

    Where will your friend’s orange go to?

Draw yourself and your friend on the Earth with your drink bottles standing on the ground

Questions about a deep well-hole (only for children who hold a spherical Earth concept)

  1. 1.

    Do you know what a well-hole is?

  2. 2.

    Tell me about well-holes?

Imagine that there is a well - hole in your garden that is very, very deep. So deep in fact that it goes through the centre of the Earth to the other side. Imagine that you dropped a ball into the well - hole. I got this idea from a book called “Alice in Wonderland”.

Introduce Book. (Carroll 2003). Alice in wonderland. [Illustrated Pop-Up Storybook]).

  1. 3.

    Have you ever heard the story of Alice?

  2. 4.

    Do you know what a rabbit hole is?

(Introduce rabbit prop). A rabbit is a small animal that lives in a hole. Alice fell down a rabbit hole in England, and wondered, as she fell, where she would end up. She thought that she might end up in New Zealand (which Alice had been told was on the opposite side of the world to England)! Although scientists believe that the centre of the Earth is very hot, imagine that the ball will not melt or get stuck. Imagine that it could go right through the Earth to another country just like Alice thought as she fell down the rabbit hole.

  1. 5.

    What would happen to the ball?

  2. 6.

    Where would the ball go to?

  3. 7.

    Why would it go there?

Draw the Earth, well - hole, yourself, and the ball, showing where the ball goes.

Note:

Children in both New Zealand and China were familiar with Alice in Wonderland.

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Blown, E.J., Bryce, T.G.K. Thought-Experiments About Gravity in the History of Science and in Research into Children’s Thinking. Sci & Educ 22, 419–481 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-012-9548-3

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Keywords

  • Thought Experiment
  • Concept Category
  • Earth Motion
  • Drink Bottle
  • Control Group Design