Preschoolers’ Induction of the Concept of Material Kind to Make Predictions: The Effects of Comparison and Linguistic Labels

Analogical reasoning by comparison is considered a special case of inductive reasoning, which is fundamental to the scientific method. By reasoning analogically, learners can abstract the underlying commonalities of several entities, thereby ignoring single objects’ superficial features. We tested whether different task environments designed to trigger analogical reasoning by comparison would support preschoolers’ induction of the concept of material kind to predict and explain objects’ floating or sinking as a central aspect of scientific reasoning. Specifically, in two experiments, we investigated whether the number of presented objects (one versus two standards), consisting of a specific material and the labeling of objects with the respective material name, would benefit preschoolers’ material-based inferences. For each item set used in both experiments, we asked the children (N = 59 in Experiment 1, N = 99 in Experiment 2) to predict an object’s floating or sinking by matching it to the standards and to verbally explain their selections. As expected, we found a significant effect for the number of standards in both experiments on the prediction task, suggesting that children successfully induced the relevance of material kind by comparison. However, labels did not increase the effect of the standards. In Experiment 2, we found that the children could transfer their conceptual knowledge on material kind but that transfer performance did not differ among the task environments. Our findings suggest that tasks inviting analogical reasoning by comparison with two standards are useful for promoting young children’s scientific reasoning.

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