Error Matters: An Initial Exploration of Elementary School Children's Understanding of Experimental Error

Date of Original Version




Abstract or Description

Error is a pervasive and inescapable aspect of empirical science, and it often plays a causal role in experimental outcomes. But little is known about children's understanding of the causes and consequences of experimental error. In this article, we propose a new framework for characterizing experimental error and we use that framework to guide an empirical assessment of elementary school children's understanding of error, their use of theory and evidence in guiding this understanding, and the role of context in reasoning about error. We found that 2nd- and 4th-grade children could both propose and recognize potential sources of error before they could design unconfounded experiments. They used evidence to guide their reasoning, making predictions and drawing conclusions based on the design of their experiments, and they were sensitive to the context of reasoning: They differentiated the role of error in relative and absolute measurements. Long before children have acquired the formal procedures necessary to control error, they have a surprisingly rich-albeit unsystematic-understanding of its various sources.




Published In

Journal of Cognition and Development, 4, 1.