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15. The Research Base

  1. The Role of Research
  2. The Nature of the Research Literature
  3. Research Findings By Chapter and Section
    1. The Nature of Science
    2. The Nature of Mathematics
    3. The Nature of Technology
    4. The Physical Setting
    5. The Living Environment
    6. The Human Organism
    7. Human Society
    8. The Designed World
    9. The Mathematical World
    10. Historical Perspectives
    11. Common Themes
    12. Habits of Mind
  4. References

The references that follow are organized to match chapters and sections of Benchmarks, which in turn mostly match those of Science for All Americans. The list is very selective and includes only those references that met two criteria. One was relevance—some excellent papers were not included because they did not bear on one of the Benchmarks topics. The other criterion was quality—papers, however relevant, were bypassed if they were seen to have design flaws or their evidence or argument was weak. Even then, however, not all relevant and good papers are included. In many cases, a single paper has been used as representative of a number of similar reports.

It will immediately be clear that mathematics and the physical sciences have had the benefit of many more studies than have other fields. Perhaps that is because the subject matter lends itself to research more easily; in the next few years, though, perhaps the attention to cognitive research will increase in all fields.

Research Findings for Chapter 7: Human Society

A number of studies have examined the spontaneous development of students' conceptions and thinking in the social sciences. In these studies, student thinking is usually described by a series of levels or stages similar to those described by Piaget. Although such stages have been identified, little is known about how student developmental characteristics affect or are affected by formal instruction. As a result, it is difficult to draw conclusions from the research base about when and how students can learn this material. Also, the published research is spotty. For some topics, for example, those related to Political and Economic Systems, there is a small but growing literature base. Research on learning related to Cultural Effects on Behavior, Group Behavior, Social Change, Social Trade-offs, Social Conflict, and Global Interdependence is limited. Literature reviews can be found in Atwood (1986) and Shaver (1991).

Although lower elementary-school children do not have the capacity to see social conventions from another point of view, they can learn about and enjoy many concrete manifestations of cultural diversity (Ramsey, 1986). Research also suggests that students under the age of ten may be more receptive than older students to learning about other people and more likely to develop a positive outlook toward people from other cultures and homelands (Stone, 1986).

Research into student thinking about people from the past indicates that students do not realize that values, beliefs, and attitudes may differ from culture to culture or that people from other cultures have different ideas because their situations are different. Before students can reason about different world views, they often have to abandon the belief that some human cultures are biologically subordinate (Shelmit, 1984). Another complication is that students tend to impose contemporary values and ideas from their own culture upon other cultures (Shelmit, 1984).

As children try to understand biological and social phenomena, they often overgeneralize information about racial and cultural differences. One must be cautious, however, not to assume that children are prejudiced or deliberately using stereotypes when they overgeneralize. They may simply be thinking typically for young children trying to make sense out of their limited experience with other groups (Ramsey, 1986). Research indicates that stereotypic attitudes begin to develop about 7th grade (Stone, 1986).

Research supports the view that lower elementary-school children are aware of some of the many ways in which rules vary. For example, children agree that some rules in their culture are more important than others and that some rules are more universally right than others. In addition, children are aware of the social function of different kinds of rules (Edwards, 1986). They may go through alternating developmental periods of "affirming" versus "negating" social conventions (Turiel, 1983). Only near the end of middle school and the beginning of high school do students start to accept the need for social conventions to facilitate social interactions in their groups (Mackey, 1991).

Some research has investigated student notions of laws. Findings indicate that elementary-school students mix legal and moral norms (Berti, 1988). In addition, students at that age often have an authoritarian view of laws. They believe that laws are automatically right and "are handed down from on high" (Moore et al., 1985).

Some research indicates that elementary-school children have difficulty with the concept of choice and the idea that whenever a choice is made, a cost is incurred (Schug & Birkey, 1985).

Much of the research related to Political and Economic Systems relies on samples of students outside the United States. These studies need to be replicated with U.S. students from different social backgrounds because research suggests that students' environments may influence their economic ideas.


Lower elementary-school students have already formed a fairly accurate concept of scarcity. However, the majority of children at that age may still reason in a superficial and literal manner about economic problems concerning choice and trade-offs (Schug & Birkey, 1985).

Money circulation

Elementary-school students know that workers are paid by bosses for the work done. They also know that consumers pay shopkeepers and that shopkeepers pay middlemen and producers in exchange for goods. However, until 4th or 5th grade they do not connect these two areas of experience. As a result, they may believe that the boss must have access to sources external to the factory or store to pay workers. Or they may think that prices remain the same or even decrease in the passage from producer to consumer (Berti & Bombi, 1988).


The concept of profit, which is a prerequisite idea to understanding the notion of a market economy, emerges naturally in children between the upper elementary and the early middle-school grades (Jahoda, 1979, 1981). By 4th grade, students can usually understand the notion of profit, after specially designed instruction. Students' ability to compare expenses (total costs) and revenue is a prerequisite to this understanding (Berti, 1992).


There are several student difficulties related to understanding the price mechanism in market economies. Even at the college level, students have difficulty understanding that price is not an inherent characteristic of goods but a function of demand and supply (Berti & Grivet, 1990; Marton, 1978). Students often fail to connect the different viewpoints of consumers and producers. For example, while believing that consumers buy less when prices increase, some students may also believe the reverse and that, if demand drops, producers can increase prices to earn the same amount of money as before (Berti & Grivet, 1990).

Source of goods and production

Lower elementary-school students do not have a notion of production based on the transformation of primary materials, for example, furniture from wood. In addition, students at this age have little knowledge about agricultural and industrial production. They believe that farmers themselves consume all the products from their crops and animals. It is only in 2nd grade that the majority of the children recognize the existence of a producer distinct from a shopkeeper (Berti & Bombi, 1988).

Political organization

Elementary-school children typically do not understand public institutions as institutions that provide collective services. For them, terms like "council," "state," or "government" do not specifically designate any particular body, nor do they use the terms in a sense that distinguishes them clearly from a private employer. The "state," the "council," or the "government" are perceived as important or wealthy persons who wield authority and pay people who work (Berti & Bombi, 1988). Whether young children can understand these concepts with adequate instruction needs further investigation. Research indicates students acquire the intellectual capacity to construct a political order in hierarchical form at around 5th grade (Connell, 1971). From this age on, various authorities are no longer thought to have power over only a few persons close to them, but over whole populations through the enactment of laws and the control of power. By this age, students also know that political parties exist and their activities affect elections (Mackey, 1991).

Studies on young children's recognition of conflict indicate that from age six on, children are able to recognize that a child's desires may conflict with those of his parents or friends (Berti, 1988; Damon, 1977), but it is not clear whether children at this age can also recognize conflict among adults. Upper elementary-school students may not recognize that making laws (to settle conflicts) is the job of the whole community as well as political leaders (Berti, 1988). Middle-school students may not recognize conflict involving social groups (Berti, 1988; Connell, 1971). Middle-school students do not recognize the role of debate, disagreement, and conflict in the operation of the democratic political system (Hess & Torney, 1968).

Some research suggests that middle-school and high-school students have an understanding of the global nature of trade, although they have only limited understanding about reciprocal benefits from trade (Schug & Lephardt, 1992).

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