A lot of us will say or write things akin to “children are natural scientists”. (I haven’t done a search in my own blog, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I wrote something of that nature before.) What we really mean is that children are curious about the world and open to learning about it. So, when I saw the Scientific American article “More Than Child’s Play: Ability to Think Scientifically Declines as Kids Grow Up” by Sharon Begley, I was intrigued and a bit bothered. “Thinking like a researcher” is not the same thing as a natural curiosity and mental plasticity — scientific research is very much a learned skill, in my experience, but I admit to being entirely ignorant of child development, so maybe I was missing out on something.
However, the great thing about the internet is if you wait long enough (in this case, less than two days!), an expert will step up. Marie-Claire Shanahan in her essay “Students Don’t Lose Their Ability to Think Scientifically” points out that there are indeed two things going on: the specific idea of experimentation, which young children are pretty good at, and the more general, abstract idea of controlled research. As she writes,
It is one thing to measure the length of a particular piece of string, quite another to conceive of length as a general property that can be measured or manipulated in any object. This especially true because it is also somewhat arbitrary, requiring the person doing the experiment to choose an operational definition (e.g., by defining length as the measurement of the longest side). There is no concrete thing called length. It is an abstract word that describes a type of measurement.
I’m going to tentatively say that none of us are “born scientists”. We have the potential to become scientific thinkers and researchers, and some of us will have an easier go of it than others (for reasons springing both from nature and nurture). The job of an educator is to feed the curiosity, use the plasticity, and help the student build scientific intuition, to borrow a phrase my college advisor often used. It may seem paradoxical to talk about building intuition, but it seems to be a useful concept: we can learn to think in certain ways, especially if we start early. We humans aren’t naturally scientific or skeptical thinkers: we often get the wrong end of the stick on basic notions like correlation/causation, randomness, probability, and the like. This is as true for professional scientists as for non-scientists, but training can help. (Assuming that scientific training automatically makes you immune to woolly thinking is a common pitfall, alas.)
One of my favorite memories from my all-too-brief tenure as a planetarium director was the group of five or six young kids who came up to me after a show to ask, “Are you a scientist?” in an awed voice. Yes, I am. And they can be too. It’s something they can learn, and grow into, and flourish.