Sense of place Down Under

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
AUSTRALIA. Australia may be "the land down under" to the English but, when it comes to geography, Australian children are on top, according to researchers at Sussex and Queensland universities.

In a survey of groups of children in Newhaven and Brisbane, the researchers found the Australian children to be more advanced than their English classmates, at least with regard to geographical and astronomical information. They attributed the difference to Australia's immigrant culture.

Almost all of the Australian children thought the world was round, whereas one in five of the English four to eight-year-olds believed it was flat.

Many of the English children also believed you would "fall off" if you lived on the other side of the world while only the youngest of the Australian sample thought this could happen.

The Australian children also had a better understanding of the day night cycle: if it was dark on one side of the world, it was light on the other. Similarly, most of the Australian children knew that the Earth moved around the Sun rather than vice versa.

And while eight-year-olds in both cities could roughly locate the position of their own country in the northern or southern hemisphere on a featureless globe, the young Australians were generally more accurate. Neither group, though, was particularly adept at finding the other country.

Professor George Butterworth, from the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex, and associate professor Michael Siegal, who lectures in psychology at the University of Queensland, conducted the comparative survey. They said the aim was to see how children living in Australia, geographically remote but culturally connected to those in the northern hemisphere, compared with their counterparts in England.

The researchers matched 72 randomly-chosen, middle-class children in Newhaven, near the University of Sussex, with a similar group of 60 children living close to the University of Queensland.

Dr Siegal said he believed the groups, all aged between four and eight, were "fairly representative" of the general population of children of that age range in both countries.

Professor Butterworth said the difference in results between the two groups suggested that geographical and astronomical knowledge was a form of "situated cognition" - it depended on the context in which it was acquired.

"At an early age, Australian children are exposed to a great deal of information about their geographical situation and this exposure accelerates the process whereby their intuitive grasp of geography and astronomy is replaced by conventional scientific wisdom," he said.

However, the study found that the differences between Australian and English children are eliminated by age eight. This suggested that Australian children were acquiring the information earlier, probably from their parents.

"Hence the hunch that the immigrant culture of Australia may be responsible, " Professor Butterworth said.

At the same time, Australian children were found to be no better at spatial reasoning than English children in problems where they had to judge whether people at the bottom of the Earth were "upside down" or the "right way up".

This was despite exposure to "down under" jokes within Australian culture.

Dr Siegal said he believed the superior knowledge of the Brisbane children was linked to the ties that Australians have with other parts of the world.

Culture exerted an important influence on children's understanding of science so the differences between the two groups' knowledge could stem from Australia's immigrant history.

"Our remoteness from big population centres in the northern hemisphere might contribute to the need to comprehend elementary geography. Children are exposed to more maps and globes in the Australian media for example," he said.

Similarly, many Australian families retained strong connections to the northern hemisphere and tried to inform their children about these links from an early age.

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council with support from the Anglo-Australian Scientific Exchange Scheme of the Royal Society of London. While the first stage examined children's grasp of scientific concepts, the study has recently been extended to include children from Norway and immigrant Indian families in England.

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