Academic journal article International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education

Elementary Children's Retrodictive Reasoning about Earth Science

Academic journal article International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education

Elementary Children's Retrodictive Reasoning about Earth Science

Article excerpt

Received: 2 September 2012 / Revised: 10 November 2012 / Accepted: 10 November 2012


We report on interviews conducted with twenty-one elementary school children (grades 1-5) about a number of Earth science concepts. These interviews were undertaken as part of a teacher training video series designed specifically to assist elementary teachers in learning essential ideas in Earth science. As such, children were interviewed about a wide array of earth science concepts, from rock formation to the Earth's interior. We analyzed interview data primarily to determine whether or not young children are capable of inferring understanding of the past based on present-day observation (retrodictive reasoning) in the context of Earth science. This work provides a basis from which curricula for teaching earth and environmental sciences can emerge, and suggests that new studies into the retrodictive reasoning abilities of young children are needed, including curricula that encourage inference of the past from modern observations.

Keywords: Earth Science, Reasoning, Retrodiction.


This paper discusses the nature of children's reasoning about earth phenomena and processes, and specifically the extent to which retrodictive reasoning is evident in their discourse. We utilize a set of twenty-one interviews with elementary-aged children as the data set from which evidence of retrodictive reasoning emerged. We also documented the presence of alternative conceptions about the earth and considered the extent to which these alternative conceptions interfered with reasoning.

Retrodictive Reasoning in Earth Science

Retrodiction, the interpretation of present-day evidence to infer ancient processes, lies at the heart of much of earth science (e.g., Ault, 1998). While prediction has a role in earth science (e.g., for forecasting natural hazards or extrapolating the impact of human actions on natural systems), retrodiction lies at the heart of all fields associated with paleo-processes, including geology, evolutionary biology, and cosmology. Interestingly, the concept of retrodiction is not commonly found in discourse about scientific reasoning that emerges from the science education community (Sibley, 2009), perhaps because predictive domains of science dominate the field. At the same time, retrodictive reasoning is of vital importance because of the role it plays in public debate about topics such as evolution, the creation of the universe, and the age of the Earth.

What are the unique characteristics of retrodictive reasoning? Retrodictive reasoning requires the understanding that patterns present in the modern world are the imprints of processes that have already occurred. As a consequence of this recognition, retrodictive reasoners must be able to extrapolate possible causes for these patterns, balance the probability of one specific cause against the likelihood of another, and rationalize a preference for one particular event resulting in an observed pattern. In this way, retrodictive reasoners recognize the role of causation in the production of patterns; interestingly, not all people are able to link processes and patterns together (Libarkin & Kurdziel, 2006). Within this ontology also lies the need for using narrative to explain phenomena (Norris et al., 2005) as well as reasoning about time.

Retrodictive reasoning about earth systems is inherently connected to systems thinking (Kali et al., 2003; Lawton, 2001). Systems thinkers must recognize that processes, the events that result in observable patterns, often interact to produce surprising results. Recognizing not only singular events but also the confluence of events is the hallmark of an effective systems thinker. Systems thinking also requires an understanding that processes, particularly within complex system like the Earth, do not always interact in linear ways. Non-linear processes, including negative and positive feedback loops, are important components of Earth systems thinking for both modern and ancient Earth. …

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