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Children’s Why-Questions – Epistemic Emotions in Explanatory Reasoning

Children around the age of three enter a so-called “a-ha-phase”, in which they ask why-questions about almost everything. A closer look at children’s why-questions shows that many of them require quite sophisticated answers, e.g. „Why doesn’t the ink run out when you hold up a fountain pen?“, or „Why don’t we milk pigs?“. Contrary to common belief, younger children constantly ask “why?” not just for the sake of asking or in order to get attention. Rather, they seek causal explanations and prefer them over circular or other non-explanatory answers.

Indeed, we have shown via logico-semantic analysis that the why-questions of children have a certain meaning that is different from the ordinary meaning of why-questions in adults’ everyday life but is very similar to the meaning of scientific why-questions. Accordingly, the explanatory answers to this sophisticated type of why-question hold universally, they are “lawlike” and the whole question and answer sequence follows a deductive structure. This is in contrast to ordinary why-questions where the explanatory answer is only locally relevant and cites merely singular causal conditions. Moreover, it turns out that the propositional structure of those higher-level why-questions corresponds to a certain epistemic state, which can be described as epistemic curiosity, a “state of wonder”, or “cognitive dissonance”. An analysis of this epistemic state reveals that it corresponds to the properties of many of our scientific theories and models.

This suggests that our scientific knowledge of the world, our notion of causality as well as our everyday intuitive logic are grounded in this epistemic state and in the collective endeavor of addressing epistemic curiosity in a meaningful way. Thus, understanding the act of posing higher level why-questions seems far more important for our understanding of human cognition than previously thought. These considerations also have implications for our pedagogical practice: Within the framework of “shared thinking”, the spontaneous questions or “spontaneous wonderings” of children seem to offer excellent occasions to engage in meaningful dialogue with children and thereby foster their reasoning skills.

Prof. Dr. Alexander Scheidt
Children’s Why-Questions
Prof. Dr. Kristina Musholt
Children’s Why-Questions