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Children's understanding of the earth in a multicultural community: mental models or fragments of knowledge?


Address for correspondence: Gavin Nobes, School of Psychology, University of East London, Romford Road, London E15 4LZ, UK; e-mail:


Children's understanding of properties of the earth was investigated by interviewing Asian and white British classmates aged 4−8 years (N = 167). Two issues were explored: whether they held mental models of the earth (Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992) or instead had fragmented knowledge (di Sessa, 1988); and the influence of the children's different cultural backgrounds. Children selected from a set of plastic models and answered forced-choice questions. Using this methodology, there were no significant differences in the overall performance of Asian and white children after language skills were partialled out. Even young children showed an emerging knowledge of some properties of the earth, but the distributions of their combinations of responses provided no evidence that they had mental models. Instead, these distributions closely resembled those that would be expected if children's knowledge in this domain were fragmented. Possible reasons for the differences between these findings and those of previous research are discussed.