out how early understanding is extended and revised. In the second half of the chapter, we describe the process of conceptual change, considering the various ways changes can occur and how they can be facilitated.
There is no magic line that divides children’s cognitive development before entering elementary school from their cognitive development after the onset of formal schooling. Children continue to refine their abilities to use information at various levels of abstraction and become ever more sophisticated at understanding the nature of good explanations, methods of inquiry, and the role of evidence. They also show substantial increases in the ability to explicitly talk about patterns and principles and realize their relevance across a wider and wider range of settings. In addition, they greatly expand their understandings of pathways to knowledge and how to navigate pathways in ways that exploit the greater expertise of specialists in various areas. All of these patterns of change during the elementary school years have their roots in preschool and earlier, but in many cases the changes greatly accelerate in older children. Explicit instruction and educational experiences in school and other settings clearly help foster many of these changes, but others should be understood as the continuation of processes that started long before school and that now also interact with those of formal education.
In this section we very briefly provide examples of how children’s knowledge changes over the K-8 years, building on the knowledge they develop prior to school. We highlight three main ideas. First, there are some (positive) improvements in children’s understanding (e.g., increased knowledge, increased understanding of some mechanisms, increased understanding of relations among variables). Second, not all changes necessarily bring children closer to canonical scientific views. For example, children bring naïve conceptions about the natural world that differ from accepted scientific explanation (often referred to as misconceptions). Some of the naïve concepts are persistent and difficult to change. Others are transitory and appear to resolve themselves with time and experience. Third, there is considerable variability in the changes that occur. An individual’s understanding can vary across contexts. There is also variation among children when they attain certain understandings. This variation is likely to reflect differences in the kinds of previous educational opportunities or experiences they have had. The latter findings underscore that these changes do not just come for free with increasing age.
It is important to emphasize that changes in knowledge during this period do not necessarily follow a pattern of linear improvement across