Psychological Science

Relational Scaffolding Enhances Children’s Understanding of Scientific Models


Models are central to the practice and teaching of science. Yet people often fail to grasp how scientific models explain their observations of the world. Realizing the explanatory power of a model may require aligning its relational structure to that of the observable phenomena. In the present study, we tested whether relational scaffolding—guided comparisons between observable and modeled events—enhances children’s understanding of scientific models. We tested relational scaffolding during instruction of third graders about the day/night cycle, a topic that involves relating Earth-based observations to a space-based model of Earth’s rotation. Experiment 1 found that participants ( N = 108) learned more from instruction that incorporated relational scaffolding. Experiment 2 ( N = 99) found that guided comparison—not merely viewing observable and modeled events—is a critical component of relational scaffolding, especially for children with low initial knowledge. Relational scaffolding could be applied broadly to assist the many students who struggle with science.