Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Reasoning relates how we generate one idea from other(s).  We reason when we:
  • brainstorm, 
  • consider and explain cause and effect,
  • compare and contrast, 
  • problem solve, 
  • figure out how to best relate our ideas and opinions to others, 
  • or even when conducting a witch trail (like Monty Python in the video attached).
Philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato, Descartes, Hobbes, Maimonides, Locke, Hume Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche have all contributed to the discussion of  reason. I, however, approach it from a developmental psychology perspective, specifically from that of Swills psychologist, Jean Piaget.

While Piaget is more well known for his stages of cognitive development, what most appeals to me is his theory of how kids begin to reason and construct levels of understanding:

According to Piaget, reasoning involves "assimilating" (or incorporating) new information into our existing 'schema' (or rules of understanding).  When we face something we can't define, predict, or understand, we enter an (uncomfortable) state of "disequilibrium".  When in this state we try to tweak and work out inconsistencies until they make sense.  Piaget termed this process reflexive abstraction as we reflect, compare, contrast, reason rehearse, and rearrange facts and observations to reach a more comfortable level of understanding. 

As we reason and build understanding we will either:
  • ignore what we can't understand, OR 
  • construct newer levels of understanding, incorporating more aspects of the problem we face to accommodate the conflicting information. 
Sometimes this new understanding will hold over time, sometimes it won't.  These states of disequilibrium are where effective learning, reasoning, and constructing understanding take place.
Piaget provides a famous "conservation" experiment to show how kids construct knowledge.  This is best done with kids ages 5-8 who are beginning to go beyond the obvious or "concrete" and begin to "abstract," factoring a variety of aspects including those which are so obvious. 
From: sciencebuddies.org

WE BEGINS WITH A QUESTION:  In front of your child, measure a given amount of liquid, say 1/2 cup of water (using measuring cup  "B") and pour the liquid into a tall narrow glass "A" and another 1/2 cup into short wide glass "C".  Ask your child which has more - glass "A" or glass "C"

[Sound familiar:? How many times have siblings argued because you poured "more" lemonade or milk shake for one and not the other because you had different sized glasses?]

A young child (typically below the age of 7) will tell you that glass "A" has more because it is "taller" or "higher" or "more."  This is because younger kids will focus on one aspect of the problem, typically what they see.  In this case it is the height.  They do not look at volume.

So, to help them reason and grasp the concept of volume, Piaget would then have the child pour 1/2 cup of liquid from "B" into "A" and that same amount again from "B" into "C" asking again which has more, "A" or "C"?  If child still said "A" - because it is higher,  have the child write down the exact amount going into "A" and then "C" pointing out that it is the same amount.  Then ask why "A" still looks like more. 

Piaget might also play around with different glasses.  He might, for example add glass"D" (the same size as "C") and have the child pour the same amount that is in "C" into "D" - asking which has 'more" (with the child answering 'they're the same'). Piaget would then have the child pour the liquid from "D" into "A" and ask again which has more.  The point is to create a state of disequilibrium where the child begins to recognize that maybe "A" (for some reason) doesn't have more.  Through questioning and experimenting adults can help their child reason that it is not just the height of the glass but its width as well.

HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR CHILD LEARN TO REASON?  PRACTICE!  Talk and ask questions about the world around you:
  • When walking outside ask why some robins have bright read breasts and others don't.  Why some mallard ducks have bright green or blue on their necks and others don't.
  • Why do some birds have long beaks and others short ones?
  • Ask why some streets have stop signs or lights and others don't.
  • Ask them to predict things, ask why people they see in a movie or read about in a book do something unusual or silly.
  • When driving in a car at night, ask them if they think the moon is following them?  Why?  How? What if one of you want in one direction, and your friend in another - would the moon follow both of you?  How?
You get the idea.  The trick, is to ask the questions and let your child think of the answers.  If their answers are not quite right, ask more questions to help them recognize other aspects of the problem.  Let them wrestle, reason, problem solve and brainstorm.

  • Please let me know if you'd like me to pursue this further, or if you have any other questions.
  • In your comments, Please share the types of questions you ask your kids and please share their wonderfully funny responses.  Here are a few Art Linkletter collected over his career.

For further reading, here are some related blogs I've posted:


  1. Fascinating. I suspect we all process information in different ways from each other. Otherwise I don't see how two people could see the same event and come up with different explanations of what occurred.

  2. You always make good use of videos.

    In my daughter's 1st grade class at school this calendar month, they were addressing that very issue re the volume of liquid in glasses!

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  3. I will never forget my Critical Thinking class in college. The philosophy professor I adored was charged with teaching the class and he absolutely hated it because it was so challenging for some students. The year I took it, I was one of the ones who came every third class because I quickly determined that there was a large population of students that just did not get it, no matter how hard the prof tried. So he would take three days to explain something that some of us got instantly, never really having much success. I finally came to the conclusion (perhaps entirely erroneously, but...) that you either get it or you don't. For the students who didn't understand: A=B, B=C, therefore, A=C, the class was torture. I wonder if this had to do with the way they were taught as young children or if it was just simply the way their brains worked. Thoughts?

  4. You give good examples of how kids can learn to reason naturally in their everyday surroundings.

    I “tweaked” my thoughts and rationalized after arriving one-hour late to an event because I forgot to change the clock during a Daylight Saving Time change. I was positive I was there at the right time. So when I saw women picking up their purses, I assumed they were getting ready to settle into their seats. It was only after they started to walk out the room that I realized they weren’t going to powder their noses … they were leaving the building.

    Critical thinking seems to require a dash of creative thinking. Piaget also suggested kids have an opportunity to freely explore their surroundings to broaden their imagination. He seemed to think that being introduced too soon to a structured school environment stifles creativity. It makes me wonder if learning to color inside the lines needs more focus on what is going on outside the lines.

  5. Thank you for your comments.

    Kario - You are right that at times some people just 'get' things and others don't, but a good teacher can make the content more meaningful to the students, present the topic from different perspectives, give more hands on experience and that all helps.

    It kind of ties in with aka Penelope - who is right that for certain concepts you have to have an experience base and thinking base to grasp concepts. Culture, cognitive development, exposure and experience all play factors.

    aka Penelope - thank you too for your comments. creative exploration is REALLY important, and I agree that sometimes we are so concerned about coloring in the lines and taking the tests that we lose track of 'what's going on outside the lines.

    Thank for your comments!

  6. I love being part of ABC, it enRiches my vocabulaRy. You choice of R is teRRific!

    Would you mind to visit my R post, please?

  7. Great post! Love the video's you have, too! I'm laughing because every parent must hear that the other kid got more.

  8. I use the same Monty Python clip when I cover syllogism in my Research Methods class. It always makes the students laugh -- and think!

  9. That is why I like those glasses with a half pint lines. Interesting.

  10. I've book marked your blog and will return this summer, once school is out and I can have time to study it!

    Thanks for visiting Greensboro Daily Photo

  11. I loved that video. I forgot all about Art L.

    My husband is the question man in our house. I don't know how he does it but each night at dinner, he usually comes up with some "deep thinking" questions for our kids, i.e. why aren't robots considered human? It makes for an entertaining dinner.

  12. It sounds like he asks great questions!

  13. However much children may see conservation of volume demonstrated they will not accept it until they are mature enough. 'Taller' and 'higher' and 'bigger' are other concepts that are difficult for some.

  14. Absolutely. But, by providing some dissonance they will think about it a bit more, experiment a bit more. And one day the light bulb will go off!

  15. Meryl, my little Valedictorian had a hard time in school because she grasped these concepts but, because of undiagnosed Asperger's, could not explain how she arrived at them. Talk about wishing I could have homeschooled her, had I not been a single mother, because she's brilliant in her own, singular, quirky way. Thanks so much for this, Amy

  16. Very interesting post. I read Piaget when my daughter was growing up and found it very helpful in understanding different stages.

  17. This is great advice. I will think more about asking me kids comparison questions while we are riding in the car.
    My Blog

  18. i had to watch your video of kids say the darndest things with art linklater. it was hysterical and now i'm having trouble remembering the rest of your post. ;)

  19. I love your blog. Need more coffee and time to sit down and explore. Anyone who will make me watch M.Phython before 9AM deserves my full attention. Off to try the glass experiment with my sassy 3 year old son.

  20. What a very informative blog you have. No, the Bonsai are not mine but oh, so lovely. Underneath the photos, I wrote a little blurb about seeing them at the Wild Animal Park. Thanks so much for stopping by today.