If the apple stings, is it a bee?

(Svln4821 via Wikimedia Commons)
(Svln4821 via Wikimedia Commons)

Media and Communication Service

Prof. Sara Greco, Faculty of Communication Sciences

If you offered a pre-school child an apple from the stalk side, he might say that there is a bee in it that stings: this syllogism – everything that stings is a bee, if an apple stings then it is a bee, could be considered to be the fruit of the child’s ingeniousness or, worse, his error in logic. In fact the child’s observation is in itself an argumentation (if an elementary one) demonstrating children’s desire to understand things and the reasons for them, even when their command of a language is still not complete.

A study supported by the Swiss National Foundation (SNFS) and managed by the Institute of Argumentation, Linguistics and Semiotics (IALS, Sara Greco and Andrea Rocci), in cooperation with the Institute of Psychology and Education of the University of Neuchâtel (Anne-Nelly Perret-Clermont, main applicant of the project, and Antonio Iannaccone), sets out to call into question a reductive and negative interpretation of children’s interventions in dialogical interactions, showing that their “errors” are actually the result of discrepancies between a view of the world taken for granted by adults and the chilren’s view of the world. The latter may sometimes be different, perhaps partial, as it is natural at least in a phase of development; but this does not necessarily mean that the child is committing a reasoning mistake. In addition to these misunderstandings, sometimes adults also struggle to understand the children’s interest, because their perceptions of what is problematic or worthy of interest at any given moment do not necessarily coincide.

This research project analyses the spontaneous reasoning of children in their interactions with adults, in particular in the family context and in that of the kindergarten. It starts from the premise that intelligence develops through human relationships and within dialogic interactions; and, therefore, it calls into question the assumption that reasoning skills are a given, independent of context.

In this framework, the analysis of argumentation counts as a methodological instrument useful in understanding how differences between the adult’s reasoning and that of the child depend on discrepancies in implicit premises and not on the oddities of childhood. Notably, the connection from “sting” to “bee”, i.e. from an effect to its cause, is not a logical mistake; the child’s argument reveals a specific interpretation of reality (“everything that stings is a bee”). Therefore, challenging the widespread opinion that children and young people lack argumentative skills, the research team (which includes the four applicants mentioned above as well as two PhD students: Josephine Convertini and Rebecca Schär) is carrying out an empirical investigation of what actually happens when children try to engage in argumentation.

The project is now in the phase of data analysis (it will be concluded in February 2018), which is a qualitative analysis. The team is investigating two different samples: on the one hand, adult-children interactions in the family context (where asymmetries are mitigated by confidence), which have been recorded in several Swiss Cantons and in different languages; on the other hand, adult-children interactions at the kindergarten.