Lesson of the Day: ‘Mind Games: The Conservation Test’

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Mind Games: The Conservation Test’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 2021.

Featured Article: “Mind Games: The Conservation Test” by Erik Vance

What’s happening in the wonderful, hectic little heads of small children? This is the question Mr. Vance seeks to answer by inviting experts in cognitive development to demonstrate a few classic experiments designed to observe exactly how young brains develop.

In this lesson, you will explore the science of how children understand the world. In the Going Further activity, you will design and conduct your own cognitive experiment to illuminate the mysteries of the human mind.

Are you fascinated by the human mind? Have you ever wondered how children see the world?

Before reading the article, watch the two-minute video below of a 4-year-old taking the “conservation test.” Then respond to the prompts.

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. The article begins: “The mind of a small child is, in turn, inspiring, fascinating, confusing and supremely frustrating.” Have you spent much time around small children? Can you remember when you were much younger? Does the author’s statement resonate with your experiences? Can you think of a time when a child’s mind inspired, fascinated, confused or frustrated you?

2. How would you explain the concept of “conservation” in your own words? Why is it important in the development of a child?

3. Who was Jean Piaget? What was he interested in finding out about children? Why does the author consider him to be the “Albert Einstein of child psychology”?

4. Why shouldn’t parents worry if their children “fail” the conservation test, according to Stephanie Sitnick, an associate professor of psychology? How does she explain the results of the test?

5. The video you watched in the warm-up ends with a quotation from Dr. Sitnick:

Kids are very much constructing their own learning and their own world, and they’re trying to figure things out. And part of that is paying attention to particular aspects of various objects when they’re comparing them.

What is the larger significance of the test? What does Dr. Sitnick mean by the phrase “constructing their own learning”? What are the implications for parents, teachers and educators?

6. What aspects of the human mind fascinate you most? What other questions about a child’s mind, or the human mind in general, would you like to explore further, and why?

Option 1: Recreate

Now it’s your turn: Conduct the conservation test with a young child you know between the ages of 2 and 7.

You can choose your materials (bath bubbles, pennies, Legos or anything else around your house that can be molded or put into containers), but follow the five steps described in the article.

If you don’t have young children in your family, you might consider conducting the experiment on Zoom or other digital platform with a child of someone you know, as long as it’s OK with his or her parent. If possible, make a recording of the test, with the child and parent’s permission, so you can rewatch and take careful notes on what you observed.

Afterward, analyze and interpret the results. Use the questions from the warm-up: What did you notice? What did you wonder? Then dig deeper and ask: How do your results and findings compare with those from the video? Did it confirm or challenge the previous ideas of child development? What further questions emerged from the process?

Option 2: Research

The Swiss-born psychologist Jean Piaget, one of the founding fathers of developmental psychology, spent hours each day observing his children as they grew. His contention that children are not “empty vessels to be filled with knowledge” but are “active builders of knowledge — little scientists who construct their own theories of the world” revolutionized the world of early childhood education.

Research more about Piaget’s life and ideas: What were his theories on cognitive development? What role did experiments and observation play in the evolution of these ideas? Why were his theories so revolutionary? What impact did they have on the fields of psychology and education? How do his ideas relate to your own learning?

Piaget wrote over 50 books and contributed to hundreds of other works, many published after his death. A good place to start your research is by visiting the Jean Piaget Society website or reading these two summaries of his work. Or read his New York Times obituary.

You can also learn more about the dozens of experiments he designed to illuminate the creative and complicated minds of young children, including the test you observed in the video, here and here.

Option 3: Create

Still excited about the human mind? Try conducting another one of Piaget’s experiments for young children. Or try one of the cognitive experiments designed for people of all ages found here and here.

You might also consider exploring one of the questions about the human mind you wrote about in the “Questions for Writing and Discussion” section above, and design your own original experiment.

Keep in mind, if you are designing an experiment, it should be replicable, observable and relatively simple to perform — especially if it is intended for young children. (You can find some tips on designing a psychological experiment here.) And be sure to get consent from your participants.

Afterward, analyze and reflect on your latest experiment: What did you learn? What surprises did you encounter? How did it expand what you have already learned about the human mind from the previous experiment?


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