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Order of conservation tasks in young children

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Piaget believed that there were four main stages in which children pass during cognitive development. The sensorimotor stage lasts for the first two years of a child’s life, and learning primarily occurs through their senses. The child will also develop object permanence. The pre-operational stage is where a child’s thinking becomes more dominated by observation and perception. In this stage, a child develops the ability to decentre, and conservation will follow this development. The concrete operational stage is where children develop full ability to conserve. In the formal operational stage, the child can think hypothetically, and decentration continues through this stage, allowing the child to display hypothetico-deductive reasoning.

Piaget focused on conservation in the pre-operational stage of development. Piaget stated that children in the pre-operational stage couldn’t conserve. He claimed this was due to centration. According to Piaget, the child fails conservation tests because “the child lacks crucial internalised cognitive operations”.

Others have criticised Piaget. McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) adapted the traditional conservation task and examined the conservation of number. They found that only 16% of children could conserve under the original method, but with the addition of a ‘Naughty Teddy’, it was found that 62% of the children showed conservation skills. The use of the ‘naughty teddy’ served to decrease demand characteristics in the children. This is because the transformation occurs accidentally. This shows that children in the pre-operational stage can conserve under the correct conditions.

Samuel and Bryant (1984) performed a conservation study where only one question was asked. The study showed there was a large discrepancy between competence and performance, as well as the conditions which the child was placed under affecting their performance. This dispelled any demand characteristics in the child. This study challenges Piaget’s view that children cannot properly conserve until the average age of 12. Since Piaget asked two questions, it was assumed that a different answer would be required, so a different answer was given, regardless of whether the child could conserve or not. The presence of demand characteristics can be used to explain why Piaget developed different results from other developmental psychologists.

Horizontal dĂ©calage is “the step by step acquisition of new operations in conservation”, and means the change in the level of the child’s performance at conserving mass, liquid, length and quantity. This states that some conservation of materials is mastered before others, and that the order is: Liquid (ages 6-7), quantity and length (ages 7-8), weight (ages 8-10) and volume (ages 11-12).

Rationale:From these experiments, it can be interpreted that conditions and the experimenter can affect the child’s competence at conservation tasks, in particular mass and volume. I will be emulating the Samuel and Bryant (1984) experiment, in order to find out which level of conservation is reached first. Therefore to investigate whether mass or water is conserved first within the age range 4.6-6.6, I will replicate the conditions from Samuel and Bryant’s experiment, in that I will only ask one question. I predict that more 5.6-6.6 year olds will be able to conserve both liquid and/or mass than 4.6-5.6 year olds.

Aim:To investigate whether children within the ages of 4.6-6.6 (4 years and 6 months – 6 years and 6 months) can conserve water and mass, and discover which level of conservation comes firstExperimental Hypothesis 1:Significantly more 5.6-6.6 year olds will be able to conserve both liquid and/or mass, than 4.6-5.6 year olds.

Experimental Hypothesis 2:More 4.6-6.6 year old children will be able to conserve liquid than mass.

Null Hypothesis:There will be no significant difference in the ages of the children that can conserve both liquid and mass, any differences will be due to chance.

There will also be no significant differences in which material can be conserved first due to age. Any differences will be due to chance.

ProceduresDesign:A repeated measures design was chosen as the participant variables are controlled and the experiment becomes more valid.

To minimise order effects I will counterbalance, by alternating the order of questioning.

A field experiment was chosen, enabling children to work in a natural setting. This is less distressing for the children as they are in a familiar environment.

Variables:Dependent Variable: Whether the participants have the ability to conserve mass and liquid, and which type of conservation comes first (at an earlier age). This will be operationalised by using two questions;1.When I ask the question “Is the water in this glass the same amount as the water in this glass?”, the children will reply affirmatively.

2.When I ask the question “Is this plasticine the same amount as this plasticine?”, the children will reply affirmatively.

Independent Variable: The independent variable is the conservation material. The children will be trying to conserve coloured water and plasticine.

Participants:34 participants were used, all of ages 4.6-6.6. This age was chosen as they had not yet learned how to conserve in school, yet the ability to conserve should be maturing during that age range. These children were chosen through random sampling of my target population; children ages 4.6-6.6 in Tanglin Trust School were all listed, their names were placed into a hat, and 60 names were drawn for the experiment. The children with parental consent participated in the experiment. Permission letters were necessary in order to make the experiment ethical; the children are minors, so it was important that the parents understood the experiment and agreed to have their child participate. (Appendix One)Apparatus:Conservation of water:•Two 250ml, transparent measuring cylinders•One 250ml, transparent beaker•Pink Water – this was easier to see then regular water.

•Recording TableNone of the measuring cylinders or beakers will have any volume indicators on, so that the children couldn’t be able to tell if the levels are the same or not through number.

Conservation of Plasticine:

•Plasticine – this material was familiar to the children so they were comfortable using it in an experiment.

•Recording TableProcedures:During both experiments, the child was tested in their normal classroom environment during a lesson.

Conservation of Water:Participants were tested individually. They were shown two measuring cylinders, each with 100ml of water in. They were asked to “look at the water for a moment”. The experimenter then poured the water from one cylinder into a shorter, wider beaker, resulting in the liquid being at a lower level. This was done in front of the participant. The standardized question was then asked.

“Is the water in this glass (pointed to cup B), the same amount as the water in this glass (pointed to cup C) or not?”The word ‘glass’ was used as it would be more familiar to the children then the word ‘beaker’ or ‘cylinder’ would be, and it negated the need for any explanation of the container to the children.

Figure One:Conservation of Mass:The same participants were again tested individually. They were shown two 100g balls of plasticine, and were asked to “look at them for a moment”. The experimenter then rolled one of the balls into a longer, cylindrical shape. This was done in front of the participants. The standardized question was then asked.

“Is this plasticine (pointed to ball A) the same amount as this plasticine (pointed to ball B) or not?”Figure Two:If the participants said that the plasticine/water amounts were different, then it was asked “which glass/ball has more water/plasticine?”Controls:To make my experiment fair and valid, I attempted to control the extraneous variables. I ensured a standardised question was asked, so consistency was maintained. I also had to take into account participant variables like hunger and fatigue and situational variables like background noise.

In order to stay within BPS guidelines, permission letters were sent out to all parents, detailing the experiment, so they could make an informed decision as to whether they wanted their children participating or not. The teacher was debriefed, and the results were made available to teachers and parents.

Results:The results (appendix two) were analysed. The type of data recorded was qualitative, and by analysing that data, quantitative data was found. The main findings showed:Table One: Table to show children who could and could not conserve liquid and massCould ConserveCould not conserveTotalMass161834Liquid132134Total293968Table Two: Mean ages of conservation of liquid and massCould ConserveCould not conserveMass5.65.0Liquid5.45.0Average5.55.0After analysing the results, (appendix 2), it can be seen that the average age of conservation of mass occurred at 5 years and 6 months, while the average age of conservation of liquid occurred at 5 years and 4 months. This shows that the conservation of liquid begins at a slightly earlier age then the conservation of mass.

This shows that in a range of children ages 4.6-6.6, 53% of children couldn’t conserve mass, and 62% of children couldn’t conserve liquid. While this shows that conservation of both liquid and mass begins around age 5, conservation skills are not complete before the age of 6.6. The mean age of children who could conserve liquid was less then the mean age of children who could conserve mass. The mean age of those who could not conserve liquid was the same age as those who could not conserve mass. 5 years old. This shows that conservation does not begin until after the child has turned 5.

Table Three: Frequencies of resultsMassLiquidAgeCould ConserveCould not ConserveCould ConserveCould not Conserve4.6-5.006245.0-5.655375.6-6.046376.0-6.67153This table shows that more children ages 6.0-6.6 can conserve both mass and liquid than cannot, which suggests that conservation skills become more prominent in this age. Since more children were able to conserve mass then liquid, this suggests that the conservation of mass comes before the conservation of liquid.

Figure Three:Figure Four:These results show that the hypothesis “significantly more 6 year olds will be able to conserve both liquid and/or mass, than 5 year olds” is true, as shown by table three. We can therefore accept experimental hypothesis one, and discard the null hypothesis.

DiscussionValidity:The ecological validity is high, as the participants were tested in a natural setting. This experiment also had experimental validity as the procedure was clearly followed each time, as well as the majority of extraneous variables were controlled. The experiment was valid because I operationalised my dependant variable, making the standardised questioned a closed question. I used repeated measures design, and removed any order effects through counterbalancing.

Improving Validity:If this experiment was conducted by someone used to working with the children, then this could improve the validity of results, as the children would be more comfortable with their teacher as the experimenter, and the results would be a more accurate measure of conservation.

Reliability:The reliability of this study is fairly high, as it was very controlled and the data collected was quantitative. I used a standardized question on the children, which can be easily replicated in another experiment. I used a random sample to select my participants, which decreases reliability, as another random sample wouldn’t select the same proportions as in mine, e.g. nationalities would be different. I used a field experiment, meaning that not all of the participant/situational variables were controlled, decreasing reliability.

Improving Reliability:To improve the reliability of this study more of the situational variables could be controlled in a laboratory experiment, which would improve the accuracy of the results. Using stratified sampling would improve reliability, as the sample ratios could be identically replicated.

Implications of Study:The results showed that five children ages 6.0-6.6 could conserve both mass and liquid, in comparison to only three children ages 5.0-5.6. This means that experimental hypothesis one was accepted. This links to Piaget’s stage theory, as well as the theory of horizontal dĂ©calage, in that liquid is conserved earlier then mass.

However, my findings do contrast with Piaget’s in that Piaget stated that children in the pre-operational stage, (ages 2-7) couldn’t conserve, when these results clearly show that some children ages 5-6.6 can conserve mass, and that some children ages 4.6-6.6 can conserve liquid. Piaget included a pre-transformation question, resulting in the majority of children being unable to conserve. My results show that with the removal of the pre-transformation questions, children below seven years old could conserve, proving that they don’t “lack the logical thinking or ‘operations’ required”.

Generalization of Findings:This study is generalizable, as all participants were taken from reception to year one from Tanglin Trust School, and was a typical sample. This means that these findings can only be generalized to children ages 4.6-6.6 in Tanglin, not to a general population of children ages 4.6-6.6. This is due to a wide variability in participant variables, e.g. upbringing and education.

Application to Everyday Life:Children in this study conserved the same things at different ages, with elder children conserving less well then younger children in some cases. This could help in education, where whole class teaching could be eradicated in place of individual or group teaching. Different levels of horizontal décalage could be understood, and teaching methods could be adjusted accordingly for each student.


1.’Psychology: A New Introduction for A-Level’ by Cole and Cole.

2.’Psychology: A Students Handbook’3.’AS Psychology: Approaches and Methods’ by Christine Brain.

4.’Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour’ by Richard GrossReferences:1.British Psychological Society (1978) – ‘Ethical Principles for Research with Human Subjects’. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society. Edition 39, pp 41-43.

2.McGarrigle, J. and Donaldson, M. (1974) – ‘Conservation accidents’. Cited in Gross, R., op. cit.

3.Piaget, J. (1928) – ‘Judgement and reasoning in the child.’ London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Cited in Brain, C., 2000, Advanced Subsidiary Psychology Approaches and Methods. London, Nelson Thornes.

4.Piaget, J. (1973) – ‘The Child’s Conception of the World.’ London: Paladin. Cited in Gross, R., op. cit.

5.Samuel, J. and Bryant, P. (1984) – Cognitive Development. Cited in M. Eysenck, 1998, Psychology: An integrated approach. Essex, Adison Wesley Longman Ltd.

Appendix One:12th March 2004Dear Parents,We would appreciate it if your child was able to participate in an A-level psychology study involving the conservation of liquid and mass, for an A-level piece of coursework. The study will only involve answering questions, in the form of a game.

This study will entail your child being shown two beakers of water, and watching one being poured into another beaker. They will then be asked “are the amounts the same”. Your child will then answer. The same thing will then be repeated, using plasticine. This is the basis of the study, and that is the only question which will be asked.

Your child is under no obligation to participate in this study, and if they wish to leave, then they may do so at any time. This will be told to your child before the study begins.

In agreement with the guideline of the British Psychology Society, the results of the study will be kept completely confidential, and no personal details will be required during the experiment, although the birthday and sex of your child will be recorded. The name of your child will be asked, but this will not be recorded, it is merely to establish a friendship between the experimenter and your child.

If you choose to allow your child to participate, please do not inform them of this experiment or ‘game’, as this may affect the outcome and therefore make the results unusable, as they will not be completely natural.

Please send back the permission slip to your child’s teacher by the 18th March. If you wish to see the results of the study then please contact Miss Kinslow, Psychology teacher, Tanglin Trust Senior School.

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