This project focuses on how children learn to reason about three aspects of complex causality; probabilistic causation; action at a distance; and distributed causality;and how to best support the development of this reasoning in classrooms. Through microgenetic study across the school year with small numbers of students in grades K-6, the study will characterize children's reasoning at different ages and how it shifts over time and with different learning supports.
Dealing with the world's most pressing problems requires an ability to understand and reason about causal complexity. For instance, understanding topics such as ecosystems and global warming involves reasoning about non-obvious causes, spatial gaps, temporal delays, cyclic causality, and distributed causality where the agency/intentionality of one's actions is on a different level than those of the emergent outcomes. The focus of this project is on how children learn to reason about complex causality and how that reasoning can be stimulated and taught in classrooms. The literature on child development suggests that children are capable of understanding complex causal concepts to a greater extent than earlier research suggested. Yet, paradoxically, students' misconceptions in science have been linked to students' difficulties reasoning about complex causality. This study explores how children learn to reason when provided with activities and materials that support three types of reasoning: distributed causality, probabilistic causality, and action at a distance. By conducting and videotaping close interviews at multiple points in the school year with small numbers of students in grades K-6 (the microgenetic phase), the study will characterize children's reasoning at different ages and how it shifts over time and with different learning supports. It will consider the contexts of biology, mechanical reasoning, social reasoning, and games. Classroom-level interventions will then be introduced and studied. In the last year of the project, using what was learned about children's reasoning and how to support it, ecosystems and global warming curriculum units will be designed and tested in middle school classrooms.