Naive theory

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Naive theory describes a central developmental and psychological concept that goes back to the work of Jean Piaget (1896–1980).

Naive theories are models of thought that children form on the basis of individual scientific or humanistic experiences to explain phenomena or facts . In doing so, naive theories often deviate considerably from the standard of scientifically correct theories. However, they follow a logic that is sound from the child's perspective. In this they are comparable to everyday theories . In contrast to these, however, they have a "naive" character, as they are shaped by the child's learning history . This is what the term "naive" refers to, which in this context is not to be understood as "simple-minded" or "ignorant", but rather in the sense of "original".

Origin: Jean Piaget's cognitive schemata

Piaget did not see child consciousness as a blank sheet of paper that can be written on with any text. Instead, he adopts complex, partially autonomously developing thought structures. Even in the first days of a person, the perception of the environment takes place through connections with what has already been experienced. In order to adequately describe the structures that determine thinking , Jean Piaget assumed a semi-autonomous development of cognitive abilities that build on one another, the individual stages of which can be separated from one another as stages. According to this, age-typical thought patterns determine how children explain the world to themselves: For example, if a child sucks on its mother's breast, it learns that liquid is coming. It forms a scheme: "suck - drink".

In the process of identity formation, an imbalance in the infant's perception of the world that arises from new experience , maturation or impulses from upbringing is balanced out. According to Piaget, this happens with the help of assimilation (the child sucks on the water bottle, the pattern “suck - drink” is transferred to other objects) and accommodation (sucks on a building block, the pattern is changed: “suck - drink, if not green und hart ”), which act as a motor in the process of identity formation. As a result, a stage lying on the next higher level, such as z. B. that of egocentrism can be achieved. Explanatory models deviating from the scientific norm cannot therefore be condemned as "thinking errors", but can be explained from developmental psychological maturation.

Piaget saw the underlying structures of children's thinking as content-independent and cross-functional.

Modification of the schemes in naive theories

Empirical studies that have followed Piaget's ideas since the 1980s show that cognitive developments are area-specific and content-dependent. With the habitat method it has been proven that the cognitive development of children begins from birth. In so-called gaze time experiments, researchers measure how long an infant looks at a certain stimulus. If the child finds the stimulus interesting, they look elsewhere. In a scientific study by György Gergely and John Watson from 1995, for example, the duration of the fixation of a stimulus revealed that babies perceived a detour of a real object rolling from A to B to be more unusual and looked at it longer. This means that the normal route from A to B is understood by them and seems less interesting. Similarly, a 2008 study by US developmental psychologist Amanda Woodward showed that six-month-old babies look at a change in an action longer than a mere change in the position of an object. From this it can be concluded that infants can classify simple actions and associate them with certain actors.

Further studies have shown that babies can distinguish their mother's voice from others from birth and form preferences in faces from the earliest stages of life. Furthermore, a certain core knowledge can be assumed even in newborns, from which the first experiences can be linked. The developmental psychological findings of the last few years thus show that children have experiences with their environment from birth and can understand individual connections, which can be seen as the first steps towards area-specific theories. This is a clear distinction from Piaget's developmental psychological model. As a result, children are initially laypeople in almost all areas and develop over time, depending on the different individually shaped influences from the environment, area-specific naive theories with the help of which phenomena can be related, explained, predicted and generalized.

One can speak of a naive theory if the following criteria are met: there is a coherent knowledge in a content area, here key terms are available with the help of which ontological determinations can be made. In addition, the phenomena associated with the knowledge domain can be explained, generalized and predicted using these valid principles.

With regard to the structures of knowledge in children's thinking, the following question can therefore be asked: Does the intuitive knowledge of children already have structures of an area-specific theory? And what does that tell us about learning new skills?

In developmental psychology research, three main areas are identified in which the knowledge of children corresponds to the criteria of a "naive theory":

  • naive physics
  • naive biology
  • naive psychology

Since there is also a humanities access to knowledge in addition to the natural science, naive theories can also develop in children outside of the three categories mentioned. For example, through the incomplete understanding of a text, through the erroneous interpretation of actions or simply through a lack of knowledge.

The area of ​​naive physics

Especially with regard to naive physics, beginnings of theorizing could be discovered in children's thinking much earlier than was still assumed by Piaget . Empirical studies have shown that even babies can distinguish between themselves and an object. In addition, it was shown that kindergarten children already have essential concepts in the object world, but a concept comparable to that of adults under the term " matter " can only develop from the age of approx. 12 years.

Everyday experience turned out to be an important factor in incorporating physical theories; the more strange the phenomenon of the child's immediate environment was, the more fantastic their explanations became. Preschoolers already cite naturalistic explanations as the cause of movement of a bicycle (“because the wheels turn”) than with unfamiliar physical phenomena (“the wind blows because it wants to”).

The field of naive biology

In the field of biology, small children can already distinguish between living and non-living objects, for example what the difference is between birds and airplanes. Using gaze time experiments with babies, it can be shown that they only expect movement from living objects and are surprised when inanimate objects move. However, their naive biology is not yet entirely conclusive, because up to elementary school many children attribute their dolls or teddies to liveliness.

Developmental psychologists were barely able to discover theoretical knowledge about internal organs in children; according to studies by Springer and Keil (1989, 1991), Carey & Spelke (1995) and Gelman and Wellman (1991), infants everywhere have a vague idea of ​​inheritance and determinations that cannot be intentionally changed, such as the heartbeat, the color of the eyes or the skin color of the person.

The field of naive psychology

In this area, developmental research over the past three decades has discovered that children develop a naive understanding of psychological processes very early on. You can classify thoughts, feelings, intentions and beliefs early on, if not yet systematically and steadily. In studies by Wellman (1990) and Perner (1988), three- to four-year-olds show an initial understanding of mental processes, the so-called " Theory of Mind ". Even at the age of two, toddlers can distinguish between reality and fiction . In studies by Fein (1981) and Leslie (1987), for example, the subjects in “pretend play” understood that they could play the phone with a banana without mistaking it for a real listener. They could just as easily imagine drinking from an empty cup and knew that it was actually empty. So they manage the mental leap from reality to fantasy and back.

The experiment “Maxi and Chocolate” by Wimmer and Perner (1983) shows that a change can be observed in four-year-olds from passively perceiving to reflective individuals. The three- and four-year-old test subjects should take the perspective of a person who has less information than they do. What was difficult for the three-year-olds, the four-year-olds succeeded for the most part. Another study by Shatz, Wellman & Silber (1983) also shows that three-year-olds begin to use mental verbs to describe their internal states. According to current knowledge, complex interpretations of mental processes can only be accomplished at a young age.

It should be noted that children very early on have coherent, naive theories that are not “wrong”, but simply incommensurable with the scientific standard . These can be divided into subject-specific areas, are independent of one another and depend on individual experience. Concepts that have been developed to different degrees can thus correlate in one age group.

In school lessons, the children acquire new knowledge that can conflict with their previous theories. It is therefore the teacher's task to use suitable methods to induce the student to change the concept.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. Prof. Dr. Beate Sodian: Lecture "The Child as Scientist", in: LMU Lecture Series: Education? Education !, available online at:
  2. ^ Mähler, Claudia (1999), Naive Theorien im Kindlichen Thinking, in: Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie, 31, pp. 191–206, pp. 53f.
  3. ^ Mähler, Claudia (1999), Naive Theorien im Kindlichen Thinking, in: Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie, 31, pp. 191–206, pp. 53f.
  4. See for example Baillargeon, R. (1987): Object permanence in 3.5- and 4.5-month-old infants. Developmental Psychology , 23, pp. 655-664
  5. ^ Carey, S. (1991): Knowledge acquisition: Enrichment or conceptual change ?, in: S. Carey / R. Gelman (eds.): The epigenesis of mind: Essays on biology and cognition, Hillsdale, pp. 257-291
  6. Berzonsky, MD (1971): The role of familiarity in children's explanation of physical causality. Child Development , 42, pp. 705-715
  7. ^ Mähler, Claudia (1999), Naive Theorien im Kindlichen Thinking, in: Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie, 31, pp. 56–58
  8. Mähler, Claudia (1999), Naive Theorien im Kindlichen Thinking, in: Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie, 13, pp. 58–61