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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Young children learn equally from real and thought experiments


As the history of science has documented, there is an important role for thought experiments in scientific progress. Yet, there is very little empirical research about whether and how children learn from thought experiments. Here, we asked that question in the context of 6-year-olds’ developing theory of matter. At the outset of the study, over half of the children claimed that small pieces of matter weigh nothing at all. Children were randomly assigned to a Real (RE) and a Thought Experiment (TE) condition. The goal of each condition was to show – via demonstration in the RE and via mental simulation in the TE – that the weight of a single grain of rice can cause a card resting on a fulcrum to topple. We found that children simulated accurately in the TE, and they changed their judgments and justifications concerning the weight of small pieces equally from the TE and RE.

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