Young Schoolchildren’s Epistemic Development: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study

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How children seek knowledge and evaluate claims may depend on their understanding of the source of knowledge. What shifts in their understandings about why scientists might disagree and how claims about the state of the world are justified? Until about the age of 41/2, knowledge is seen as self-evident. Children believe that knowledge of reality comes directly through our senses and what others tell us. They appeal to these external sources in order to know. The attainment of Theory of Mind (ToM) at this age is commonly seen as the significant shift in development in understanding disagreements in knowledge claims. Children attaining ToM understand that someone exposed to incorrect or incomplete information might have false beliefs. Disagreement, then, is still attributed to objective sources of knowledge. The current study examines the later developing Interpretive Theory of Mind (iToM) as the basis for children’s understanding of how people with access to the same information might disagree and what this means for how to provide justification for a knowledge claim. Fourteen 2nd graders with the most iToM responses to four tasks and 14 with the fewest iToM responses were selected from a larger sample of 91. In analyses of interviews about a story in which two experts make different claims about a scientific phenomenon, those in the high iToM group noted subjective perspective and processes as the source of disagreement and suggested the need for investigation as the means to knowing. In contrast, those in the low iToM group mostly could not explain the source of disagreement and held that knowledge is acquired from external sources. A comparison of the interviews regarding the science story 2 years later allows for a qualitative description of the development. Those in the low iToM group showed more general recognition of subjective and constructive processes in knowing whereas those in the high iToM group identified interpretive processes and the relativity of perspectives with implications for how observations were conducted and interpreted. Only those in the high iToM group referred to the importance of evidence as a basis for knowledge claims at either point in the study.
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Archival date: 2020-07-09
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