Attending to Relations: Proportional Reasoning in 3- to 6-Year-Old Children

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Abstract

When proportional information is pit against whole number numerical information, children often attend to the whole number information at the expense of proportional information (e.g., indicating 4/9 is greater than 3/5 because 4 > 3). In the current study, we presented younger (3- to 4-year-olds) and older (5- to 6-year-olds) children a task in which the proportional information was presented either continuously (units cannot be counted) or discretely (countable units; numerical information available). In the discrete conditions, older children showed numerical interference—responding based on the number of pieces instead of the proportion of pieces. However, older children easily overcame this poor strategy selection on discrete trials if they first had some experience with continuous, proportional strategies, suggesting this prevalent reliance on numerical information may be malleable. Younger children, on the other hand, showed difficulty with the proportion task, but showed evidence of proportional reasoning in a simplified estimation-style task, suggesting that younger children may still be developing their proportional and numerical skills in task-dependent ways. Lastly, across both age groups, performance on the proportional reasoning task in continuous contexts, but not discrete contexts, was related to more general analogical reasoning skills. Findings suggest that children’s proportional reasoning abilities are actively developing between the ages of 3 and 6 and may depend on domain general reasoning skills. We discuss the implications for this work for both cognitive development and education.

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