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Understanding of Object Motion


Aims and Objectives:

  • To document primary schools children's tacit and explicit knowledge of object motion using computer-simulated scenarios.
  • To incorporate the scenarios into teaching software, and to evaluate the software's effectiveness in promoting understanding.

Project Summary:

When children reason about object motion, they display significant misconceptions. However, reasoning requires explicit engagement with conceptual understanding; research indicates that sometimes even infants differentiate between natural and non-natural motion, suggesting tacit understanding that is considerably in advance of explicit. The project’s main aims were to document explicit and tacit understanding during middle childhood, and to develop and evaluate teaching software that utilizes tacit awareness to promote understanding at the explicit (i.e. school relevant) level.

Documentation involved four studies, all using computer-simulated scenarios and conducted with 6- to 11-year-old children. Two studies addressed horizontal motion via billiards scenarios where a cue ball rolled and struck another ball, and two studies addressed object fall via scenarios where balls were dropped from hot air balloons. To examine explicit understanding, the scenarios froze at the point of ball impact (billiards) and ball release (balloon). The task was to predict subsequent direction or speed. To examine tacit understanding, the motion continued after impact/release, sometimes naturally and sometimes non-naturally. The task was to judge whether direction or speed was correct. Tacit understanding invariably surpassed explicit, but (more surprisingly) qualitative differences also emerged. For instance, the children reasoned that cue balls bounce backwards after on-centre impact with stationary balls, that balls decelerate as they fall through air, and (increasingly with age) that balls fall backwards from moving carriers.

Teaching software was developed for two further studies (billiards and hot air balloons), where natural and non-natural motion (tacit engagement) was used as feedback on predictions (explicit engagement). 8- to 12-year-old children used the software in one-to-one sessions with adults, or as a collaborative task with a classmate. In both cases, the children surpassed control children over the progress in explicit understanding made from pre-tests prior to software usage to post-tests a few weeks afterwards. In particular, the children who worked with the software made more accurate predictions about the direction and speed of motion, and showed greater understanding of the contributory factors.

Classroom Use

The teaching software can be downloaded for use in classrooms, you will also find brief instructions about how to download and some tips for using as a teaching resource.


Principal Investigator:

Professor Christine Howe
E-mail: []

Research Associate:

Joana Taylor Tavares
E-mail: []

Research Assistant:

Amy Devine
E-mail: []

Project address:

Professor Christine Howe
Faculty of Education

University of Cambridge
184 Hills Road
Cambridge CB2 8PQ
Phone: +44 (0)1223 767724