Astronomers’ representations of the earth and day/night cycle: Implications for children’s acquisition of scientific concepts

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Previous researchers (e.g., Vosniadou and Brewer, Cognitive Psychology 24:535–585, 1992) have claimed that children have naïve, but coherent, mental models of the earth, such as the flat earth and the hollow sphere. Recent studies have challenged this view, focusing on the original researchers’ methods of testing (drawing and open questions) and coding. In this study we tested the construct validity of these methods by asking expert astronomers to complete the same test originally used with 5-year-olds. Many astronomers gave responses that, if given by young children, would have been considered non-scientific and as evidence of naïve mental models. Many gave two or more seemingly contradictory answers to the same questions and, even when only their ‘most scientific’ responses were considered, fewer than 50% of these expert scientists were classified as having coherent scientific mental models. Comparison with children’s responses to a rephrased and disambiguated task indicated that even 6–7-year-olds gave more scientific answers. The astronomers’ comments revealed the main reasons why the original task lacks validity: they found many questions confusing and ambiguous. This may well explain many children’s responses, too. Since the task incorrectly indicates that experts in the field have fundamental misconceptions, it is likely also to have led to substantial underestimates of children’s scientific understanding.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17612–17631
Number of pages20
JournalCurrent Psychology
Issue number21
Early online date11 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • Astronomy
  • Scientific expertise
  • Earth
  • Children's mental models
  • Conceptual development
  • Children’s mental models

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