Supporting primary children's understanding of physics

January 24, 2012

New software has significant benefits for primary school children and their understanding of elementary physics, research shows. Studies funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) focused on what primary school children know when they begin studying physics, and how much they still have to learn. The studies looked at how much children understand about the movement of objects such as direction and speed.

The studies show that the tasks used in schools to assess how children understand the movement of objects seriously underestimate how much they know already. Professor Christine Howe from the University of Cambridge carried out the research along with Amy Devine, Pepi Savary and Joana Taylor Tavares. The research team developed teaching software to highlight any between different types of . The research also evaluated the effectiveness of this software in promoting performance on school tasks.

"This research suggests there's very little improvement with school tasks between the age of six and 11, and that children aren't being taught in the most effective way. The software we developed would certainly enhance the knowledge that the children already have, and help them perform better in school", states Professor Howe.

Their findings were based on the results of six studies where children were asked to predict outcomes using computer-simulated scenarios. These scenarios included a billiard ball being rolled and striking another ball to address horizontal motion. Other scenarios involved balls being dropped from hot air balloons to investigate 'how' objects fall.

The key findings include:

  • A child's reasoning about horizontal motion and object fall is limited. It also changes little during the years despite relevant teaching.
  • Children using the teaching software made substantial progress in reasoning.
  • Children find object fall especially challenging. The understanding of accelerating speed as objects fall through air was virtually non-existent.
  • Children may benefit from using the teaching software with a classmate when their understanding is limited.
  • Misconceptions about object motion are hard to dispel through existing teaching methods.
  • Alternative resources are needed to overcome these misconceptions.
Professor Howe says: "The project has helped bridge the gap between research into 'thought' development and science education research. The software can be used by teachers and children anywhere in the world. The central message of the research is that this free software has significant benefits for primary and their understanding of object motion."

Explore further: Study: Preschool kids have math skills

Related Stories

Study: Preschool kids have math skills

September 20, 2005

Harvard psychologists in Cambridge, Mass., say 5-year-olds are able to grasp numeric abstractions and arithmetic concepts even without formal education.

Good pre-school and home-learning boosts academic development

December 1, 2008

Attending a high quality pre-school followed by an academically effective primary school gives a significant boost to children's development. These are the findings of a new study which shows that a stimulating early years ...

Study looks at how children learn new words

November 15, 2007

Is it a plane? Is it a car? Is it a thingywhatsit? A new research project at the University of Sussex (UK) aims to find out more about how children acquire language.

The kids are alright

May 26, 2011

Children should be seen and not heard... who says? A Philosophy academic at The University of Nottingham is challenging the adage by teaching primary school children to argue properly.

Recommended for you

The oldest plesiosaur was a strong swimmer

December 14, 2017

Plesiosaurs were especially effective swimmers. These long extinct "paddle saurians" propelled themselves through the oceans by employing "underwater flight"—similar to sea turtles and penguins. Paleontologist from the ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.