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Conservation of Number Piaget

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Conservation of Number Piaget

Do children understand the world the same way adults do? According to Piaget, children develop their understanding of the physical properties of objects and the ability to reason about them in stages. Piaget observed that before the age of seven, children struggle to recognise that objects can change in how they appear but remain the same object, he called this phenomena conservation error. Let's take a closer look at how the conservation of number Piaget proposed was investigated and what it tells us about cognitive development.

  • In this topic, we will cover the study investigating the conservation of number Piaget designed; which is known as the Piaget conservation of number experiment.
  • Within this topic, we will discuss the Piaget conservation task used in the experiment and evaluate the study.
  • Examples of conservations in Piaget's theory will be discussed throughout to help you understand this topic.

Conservation of number Piaget, Three images of the same child first confused then thinking and finally understanding, StudySmarterAt the beginning of the preoperational stage, children do not understand the concept of conservation but by the end of the stage they are able to understand it, freepik.com/colorfuelstudio

What is Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development?

Piaget's observations started with his own children, he noticed that children of different ages make specific mistakes that reflect their level of cognitive development. Piaget outlined four stages of cognitive development, universal for every child. Based on the theory of conservation we will focus on the first two stages:

  • First is the sensorimotor stage which lasts until 2 years of age, in this stage children learn about the world through senses and interactions and develop the ability to mentally represent objects, which are not around them.

For example, children in the first stage of cognitive development (before eight months) have not developed an understanding of object permanence and believe that objects stop existing when they are out of sight.

  • And, the second is the pre-operational stage which lasts until the age of 7. In this stage, children are overcoming egocentrism and begin to have more centric thinking.

Egocentrism is the tendency to consider reality only from one's own point of view

Piaget's study of conservation of number gives us a particular insight into an error typical for children in the second stage, the pre-operational stage of cognitive development known as the conservation error.

The conservation error

Children make the conservation error when they fail to recognise that an object can conserve its main qualities despite a change in its appearance.

Piaget observed that in the pre-operational stage children tend to assume that if one aspect of the object changes it must mean that the object is different now.

If a squishy ball gets flattened and asked if the ball is bigger, the same size or smaller, a child in the pre-operational stage will likely respond that it is smaller.

Why does the conservation error occur?

Piaget suggested that the conservation error occurs because of centration.

Centration refers to a tendency to focus on one aspect of the object while ignoring all the other aspects.

When one aspect of how an object appears changes children in the pre-operational stage conclude that the object's main qualities have changed (eg. it got bigger or smaller).

For example, focusing on the fact that a flattened plasticine ball appears shorter, without considering that it also got wider, makes children conclude the flattened ball has now less playdough than it did a few seconds ago when it looked differently.

Piaget's Conservation Task

Piaget investigated when children make the conservation error using conservation tasks. Conservation tasks help us understand how children understand the qualities of objects. During the task, the experimenter changes the appearance of an object, by for example moving it, and asks children whether that affected object's volume, length or number.

Examples of Conservation in Piaget's Theory

We discussed an example of understanding conservation of solid objects based on a play dough ball. Even though it is flattened it is still made of the same amount of material as it was before. According to Piaget children in the pre-operational stage consistently state that changing the shape of the ball changes its mass.

To investigate children's understanding of the conservation of liquid the experimenter first presents a child with the same volume of liquid in two identical glasses. After children are asked to state whether both glasses have the same amount of liquid. The experimenter then pours coloured water from one of the wider glasses to a taller, narrower glass in front of a child. Children in the pre-operational stage tend to say the taller glass now contains more liquid than the wider glass, despite them seeing previously that the same amount of water was poured.

Conservation of Number Piaget, Illustration showing how Piaget measured conservation in children, StudySmarterA demonstration of conservation of liquid task can show that children in the pre-operational stage have difficulties understanding conservation, StudySmarter Originals, Alicja Blaszkiewicz

Children focus on the fact that the level that the liquid reaches changes when the liquid was transferred and disregard the smaller width of the tall glass. Children in the pre-operational stage are then likely to conclude that there must be more liquid in the narrow glass than there was in the wider glass.

Conservation of number refers to an understanding that the number of objects doesn't change even if they appear to occupy more space because they were spread out.

To investigate the conservation of number, an experimenter puts 2 rows of coins of equal lengths, in front of a child. The child is asked whether row 1 has more coins, row 2 has more coins or whether they are the same. After the child agrees that the two rows are the same, the experimenter spreads out the distance between coins in one of the rows and asks the child again which row has more coins.

Conservation of Number Piaget, Two images with one showing coins equally spaced and the second with coins spread at wider distances then the first, StudySmarterChildren under the age of seven are unable to understand that there are equal amounts of coins in both rows in the Piaget conservation of number experiment, StudySmarter Originals, Alicja Blaszkiewicz

Children below the age of 7 tend to inaccurately answer that the spread out row has more coins.

Piaget Conservation of Number Experiment

The aim of Piaget's experiment was to investigate children's understanding of the conservation of number and how it changes with age.

Method

He conducted cross-sectional studies to compare the performance of children at different ages on the conservation task.

Procedure

  1. Children were shown two rows consisting of an equal number of counters.
  2. The experimenter asked children whether the first row had more counters, the second row had more counters or whether they were the same.
  3. After the child confirmed that the rows were the same, the experimenter made changes to one of the rows - they spread the objects further apart from each other. Children observed the action.
  4. Children were asked again which row has more counters or whether they are the same.

Results

Piaget found that children below the age of seven stated that the rearranged row had more counters because it was longer. When the appearance of the row changed children assumed the number of counters also changed. By the age of seven children understood number conservation and didn't make conservation errors.

Conclusion

Piaget concluded children in the pre-operational stage do not understand that when a row changes in length it doesn't impact the number of counters. This is because they focus on the length of the two rows and ignore the density of rows. Thus, children in and before the pre-operational stage are not able to understand the concepts of conservation.

Piaget's Study into the Conservation of Number Evaluation

Piaget's experiments have made a significant contribution to psychology, he pioneered the study of the development of children's cognitive abilities and his findings have been widely replicated. However, his experiments, including the conservation of number experiment, remain heavily criticised.

Interpreting adult intention

It's been argued that the conservation of number Piaget used is confusing for young children, because of how they interpret the adult's intentions. When children see the adult performing an intentional action like changing an aspect of the stimulus, children can think that the action was related to the question and should affect their answer.

As the child sees the researcher change the length the child may think that they are expected to answer that the number of coins changes.

McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) replicated the Piagetian conservation of number task with four to six-year-old children. In one experimental condition, the stimulus was changed as a result of the experimenter's action, in the second condition, the change was accidental and performed by a "naughty teddy bear".

Results of the McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) study revealed:

  • 63% of children showed the ability to conserve when the change was made accidentally by the teddy bear.
  • In the standard Piagetian condition only 16% of children showed the ability to conserve.

It was concluded that after witnessing an adult intentionally move or change stimuli, children get confused about how they should report what they see. From the results of the McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) study, we can see that the conservation of number may not reflect children's true abilities.

Conservation of Number Piaget, Child with speech bubble around head showing confusion, StudySmarterArtificial experiments like the Piagetian conservation of number task can be confusing to young children, freepik.com

Asking children the question twice

Rose and Blank (1974) recognised that when children are asked the question twice, it can make them think that their first answer was incorrect. In real life adults often repeat questions that children answer wrong to encourage them to rethink their answer. Therefore asking the question twice in the experiment might affect children's answers.

Rose and Blank (1974) conducted Piaget's conservation studies but only asked the question once after the changes to the stimuli were made. In their study, six-year-olds often did not make the conservation error. These findings suggest that asking two questions can make the task more confusing for children. Perhaps children's understanding of the conservation of number may be younger than what Piaget estimated.

Sample limitations

Piaget concluded that conservation error is universal for children below the age of seven. However, he was criticised for concluding that based on his limited sample. He primarily studied his children and didn't report his experiments in a standard way. In the report, he describes his observations but doesn't inform us about the number of participants he tested or their specific characteristics. Therefore, it is difficult to generalise the findings to the general population.

Conservation of Number Piaget - Key Takeaways

  • Children in the pre-operational stage fail to recognise that an object can conserve its main qualities despite a change in its appearance, which Piaget called the conservation error.
  • The conservation error is made because of centration, which refers to a tendency to focus on one aspect of the object while ignoring all the other aspects.
  • Examples of conservation in Piaget's theory include conservation of solid, liquid, length and number.

  • Conservation of number task tests if children recognise that the number of counters in a row remains the same even after the length of the row changes.

  • In his study of conservation of number Piaget found that children below the age of seven fail to conserve numbers.

  • Replications and adaptations of Piaget's original study of conservation of number (1952) found that some children below the age of seven are capable of conserving numbers.

Frequently Asked Questions about Conservation of Number Piaget

Piaget's theory of conservation claims that children below the age of seven fail to recognise that an object can conserve its main qualities despite a change in its appearance. 

Conservation is the ability to understand that an object can remain the same even if its appearance changes.

In the intuitive phase, the late part of the pre-operational stage, conservation is defined as the ability to understand that an object can remain the same even if its appearance changes.

Put an equal amount of coins in two rows of equal length in front of a child and ask them whether one row has more coins or whether they are the same. Next, spread one row out so it looks longer and repeat the question.

Final Conservation of Number Piaget Quiz

Question

What is Piaget's theory of conservation?

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Answer

Piaget's theory of conservation claims that children below the age of seven fail to recognise that an object can conserve its main qualities despite a change in its appearance. 

Show question

Question

At which stage of cognitive development do children make the conservation error?

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Answer

The pre-operational stage (ages two to seven)

Show question

Question

What is an example of the conservation error?

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Answer

If a plasticine ball gets flattened children conclude that now it has less plasticine than it had when it looked taller.

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Question

Why does the conservation error occur?


Show answer

Answer

Centration

Show question

Question

What is a conservation error?

Show answer

Answer

Failure to recognise that an object can conserve its main qualities despite a change in its appearance.  

Show question

Question

What is centration?

Show answer

Answer

Centration refers to a tendency to focus on one aspect of the object while ignoring all the other aspects. 


When one aspect of how an object appears changes children in the pre-operational stage conclude that the object's main qualities have changed.

Show question

Question

What forms of conservation did Piaget describe?

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Answer

  • Conservation of liquid
  • Conservation of number
  • Conservation of solid
  • Conservation of length

Show question

Question

How can Piaget's conservation test be replicated?

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Answer

  1. Put an equal amount of coins in two rows of equal length in front of a child.
  2. Ask them whether one row has more coins or whether they are the same. 
  3. Next, spread one row out so it looks longer.
  4. Repeat the question.

Show question

Question

Describe the conservation of number task.

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Answer

  • An experimenter puts two rows of counters, which are of equal length, in front of a child. 
  • The experimenter asks the child whether row one has more counters, row two has more counters or whether they are the same.
  • After the child agrees that the two rows are the same, the experimenter spreads out one of the rows.
  • The child is asked again which row has more counters.  

Show question

Question

What was the aim of Piaget's study of conservation of number (1952)?

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Answer

To investigate children's understanding of the conservation of number and how it changes with age.

Show question

Question

What were the results of Piaget's study of conservation of number (1952)? 

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Answer

Piaget found that children below the age of seven stated that the rearranged row had more counters because it was longer, despite both rows having an equal amount of counters. By the age of seven children no longer made these conservation errors.

Show question

Question

How did Piaget interpret the results of his conservation of number study? 

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Answer

Piaget concluded that children in the pre-operational stage don't yet understand that when a row changes in length it doesn't impact the number of counters. This is because they focus on the length of the two rows and ignore the density of rows. 


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Question

What are the main criticisms of Piaget's study of conservation of number experiment (1952)?  

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Answer

  • When children see the adult performing an intentional action like changing an aspect of the stimulus, children can think that the action was related to the question and should affect their answer.  
  • When children are asked the question twice, it can make them think that their first answer was incorrect 
  • It's difficult to establish how generalisable Piaget's theory is. 

Show question

Question

What were the findings of the McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) replication of Piaget's conservation of number study? 

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Answer

McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974)  found that most children (age four to six) didn't make conservation errors if the stimulus was changed by accident by the "naughty teddy bear" and not intentionally by the researcher.

Show question

Question

What were the findings of the Rose and Blank (1974) replication of Piaget's conservation of number study?  

Show answer

Answer

Rose and Blank (1974) conducted Piaget's conservation studies but only asked the question once after the changes to the stimuli were made. In their study, six-year-olds often did not make the conservation error.

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