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Conservation (concept)

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Conservation refers to an ability in logical thinking according to the psychologist Jean Piaget who developed four stages in cognitive development. By the third stage, the Concrete operational stage, the child of age 7-11 has mastered this ability, to logically determine that a certain quantity will remain the same despite adjustment of the container, shape, or apparent size.

Piaget's tests with young children analysing their ability to conserve were criticised by Samuel and Bryant, who performed a partial replication of his original experiment in order to test the reliability of the results. They found that Piaget's methodology may well have produced some of the results he stated, but also that cognitive development is in fact age related.

Conservation earned its name thanks to Jean Piaget, the psychologist responsible for the stages of development. The preoperational stage lasts from about two to seven years old. Preoperational children have an inability to conserve liquid volume. If you give a preoperational child a glass of milk in a tall, thin glass, they will think they have more milk than if it were in a short, fat glass. The child will focus only on the dimensions of the glass, not on the volume of the liquid inside. This is in contrast to the concrete operational child who will be able to take into account the content of the glass as well as its dimensions. Conservation tasks test a child’s ability to see that some properties are conserved or invariant after an object undergoes physical transformation. Conservation itself is defined as the ability to keep in mind what stays the same and what changes in an object after it has changed aesthetically. One who can conserve is able to reverse the transformation mentally and understand compensation.

Piaget’s task included showing a child two beakers, one tall and thin, the other short and fat. The tall and thin would be empty; the short full. He would pour water from the short to the tall, asking the child if the quantity of water was the same. In accordance with Piaget’s ideas, the children replied ‘there is more’, because the appearance of the tall made it look as if it were bigger. This concluded that Piaget was correct, and the children did not have the ability to conserve. In his words, ‘children who are unable to conserve believe a perceptual change means a quantitative change.’

He furthered the conclusion to suggest that this confusion was born from a pre-operational child’s inability to understand the notion of reversibility; the ability to see the reversal of a physical transformation as well as the transformation itself. These ideas were used to create the ‘Principle of Invariance’.

Samuel and Bryant’s (1984) study into conservation challenged Piaget’s, by slightly adapting the procedure. They thought the structure of the questions asked by Piaget was too difficult for the children to understand, and could have hindered the validity of the experiment. So whereas Piaget asked two post-transformation questions, Samuel and Bryant only asked one. They felt this confused the children to a lesser extent, increasing the validity of their findings.

Another study into conservation was conducted by Kriel, in 1989, as a criticism to the complexity of Piaget’s work. Kriel adapted Piaget’s task by making the materials used more familiar to the children, allowing them to better understand what they were being asked to do. Kriel used animals – a horse and a zebra, concluding that a lower 65% of preoperational children had an inability to conserve.


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