Michael Thomas answered on 16 Apr 2015:
From the point of view of the brain, ‘physics’ comprises a large set of tasks, some of them sensory, some of them motor, some of them language related, some of them ‘reasoning’ – mapping between different mental representations of the world before generating some language-based or other motor response. These tasks will involve different combinations of brain areas, so asking when the (whole) brain is ready for (the whole of) physics won’t have a straightforward answer.
Part of your question is about the plasticity of the brain and its readiness to learn different skills at different ages. I won’t focus on that part here (here are some articles on brain plasticity and education: http://www.psyc.bbk.ac.uk/research/DNL/personalpages/Thomas_Knowland_PlasticEd.pdf, http://www.psyc.bbk.ac.uk/research/DNL/personalpages/bjep001.pdf, http://www.psyc.bbk.ac.uk/research/DNL/personalpages/Knowland_and_Thomas_2014.pdf)
With respect to physics, our perceptual and motor systems develop pretty sophisticated internal models of how the physical system works in the first few years. Children can catch objects, track the pathways of objects under the influence of gravity or other forces, and show surprise when objects violate the laws of physics (e.g., pass through each other or disappear).
The challenge of teaching physics is making connections between this intuitive knowledge and explicit understanding of physical systems. To begin with, the two may indeed be at odds. What happens when someone runs off a cliff? Based on cartoons, children sometimes answer that the person will move out horizontally, come to a stop, and then drop vertically. However, if you roll a ball off the edge of a table and ask the child to catch the ball as it falls, they can do this: their sensori-motor systems can predict the parabolic trajectory. So their brains both do and don’t know the answer!
How can we connect these two types of knowledge?
Here are a couple of interesting findings emerging from research. First, the processes of linking explicit understanding with intuitive knowledge seems to rely on students being able to talk to each other about the physical systems they are studying. Being able to think about other people’s opinions and views of what may be happening (the forces at play, the underlying principles) seems instrumental in driving the development of hypothesis formation and hypothesis testing skills, allowing construction of explicit understanding.
Second, research in neuroscience suggests that one important neural process involved in utilising abstract principles and knowledge to reason about physical systems is the inhibition of familiar everyday knowledge of those systems. Even in experts (in one experiment, undergraduate physics students reasoning about electrical circuits), when they carry out this type of reasoning (here, which bulb will light up), inhibitory processing can be observed in their brains. That is, part of expertise appears to be the ability to suppress information that is irrelevant to the problem at hand.
In fact, this finding has inspired one of the current projects in the London Centre for Educational Neuroscience and funded by Wellcome Trust and the Educational Endowment Foundation, where we will explore whether training these kinds of inhibitory skills can help primary age children acquire counter-intuitive concepts in maths and science.
Lastly, if you are interested in more of the recent neuroscience about how the brain carries out scientific reasoning, I can recommend chapter 12 of our recent book on educational neuroscience: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Educational-Neuroscience-Denis-Mareschal/dp/1118725891
Andy Tolmie answered on 19 Apr 2015:
Very little to add to Michael’s very full answer! There is good evidence that before they go to school children have a well-developed intuitive understanding of many aspects of physics from their encounters with them in everyday settings – but also that their more explicit knowledge commonly derives from mistaken explanations by parents and others. The big issue therefore is how to build on the intuitive understanding and use it as the resource it is, whilst inhibiting mistaken ideas. Collaborative group work provides one effective strategy, provided it focuses on making accurate observations, and trying to actually explain these rather than simply repeating fixed ideas. Getting this right means teachers need to think about the actual tasks involved, building children’s skills in assessing evidence, and providing them with some of the vocabulary necessary to capture their thinking in words. Building better inhibitory control is also a key part of that – how best to do that is what we’re working on right now!
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