Interaction and instruction in the conservation experiment

  • Ed Elbers


Though there has been considerable research in recent years into the ways in which children’s performance in conservation experiments is affected by the context of interaction, this has so far lacked a coherent theoretical basis. In this article, concepts from communication theory are applied to the behaviour of experimenter and subject in the experimental situation. It is argued that the child behaves according to the «metacontract» of a teacher-pupil interaction, i.e. he or she expects to receive instruction. In the classical conservation experiment of Piaget, these expectations are thwarted, because the experimenter does not conform to the rules of a teacher-pupil relationship. Instead, the experimenter follows the rules of a different metacontract—that of examination. In experiments where conservation abilities are taught, and in group interactions where conserving children cooperate with non-conserving children, the participants do behave according to the same metacontract. But the value of these studies is reduced by the exclusive attention paid to the eventual achievements of the child, instead of the cognitive processes during the learning phase.

Key words

Adult-child interaction Communication theory Conservation Instruction 

Le «métacontrat» de communication dans l’expérience de conservation: interaction et instruction


Bon nombre de recherches étudient l’influence du contexte interactionnel sur les performances de jeunes enfants dans l’expérience de conservation de type Piaget, mais jusqu’à maintenant ces recherches ne reposent guère sur un fondement théorique. Dans cet article, des conceptions empruntées à la théorie de la communication sont utilisées pour analyser les conduites de l’expérimentateur et de l’enfant dans la situation expérimentale. L’auteur avance que l’enfant se comporte dans cette situation selon le «métacontrat» de l’interaction entre professeur et élève; c’est-à-dire que l’enfant s’attend à se trouver en face d’un adulte enseignant. Dans l’expérience classique de conservation de Piaget les attentes de l’enfant sont déçues, parce que l’expérimentateur ne se conforme pas aux règles de l’interaction entre professeur et élève. L’expérimentateur se comporic selon un autre métacontrat, celui de l’examen. Dans les situations expérimentales où l’on tente d’enseigner le principe de conservation et dans les interactions de groupe dans lesquelles il y a coopération d’enfants conservants et non-conservants, les participants se comportent selon un type unique de métacontrat. Mais la signification de ces expériences reste limitée puisque l’attention porte uniquement sur les performances finales des enfants sans tenir compte de l’ensemble des processus cognitifs pendant l’apprentissage.


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Copyright information

© I.S.P.A. 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ed Elbers
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of Social Science, Department of PsychonomicsUniversity of UtrechtUtrechtThe Netherlands

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