Active learning in a social world

Young children are incredible learners. By the time they are 5 years old they have mastered a language (or more than one!), and have abstract, coherent concepts about the physical world, the natural world, and about the social world. How is such learning possible? 

It feels like their is a simple answer to this question: much what children know comes from observing and interacting with other people. But a closer look suggests that it might be more complicated. For example, children watch and imitate people's actions on objects, but sometimes they explore objects on their own innovative ways.  Children listen to what we say, and sometimes believe it, but other times they are more skeptical. Young children can often state "the rules" with exact precision, but they don't always follow them.

In the Early Childhood Cognition Lab, we view these complications not as signals of chaos, but as signals of an active mind and work seeking to explain and evaluate new information through a lens of her own burgeoning knowledge of the world.  Some of our ongoing projects are described below. For links to past research organized chronologically or by topic, see our Publications page.

Imitation develops through the toddler years. Research has found developmental changes in children's imitative behavior from the toddler to preschool years. Toddlers are much more variable in how and when they imitate, but preschoolers are more faithful to adult demonstrations. In this longitudinal study, we examine developmental changes in imitation over this age range in individual children, and seek to understand how imitation changes are linked to other developmental changes during this time period.

Admitting ignorance is not the same as making factual errors. It is critical that children learn from what we say, because adult "testimony" opens up knowledge beyond what children can directly experience.  But there is no such thing as a perfectly reliable source - different people know different things, and sometimes even well meaning adults have to admit ignorance.  In this project, we look at how children protect themselves against learning from people who make factual errors, while still being open to learning from imperfectly knowledgeable sources, such as adults who are occasionally ignorant.    

Category learning when statistical and social evidence collide. There are at least two ways in which children can acquire information about a new category and its properties.  They can observe statistical information about the property from a sample of category members, and then infer from that the likelihood that other category members share the property.  They can also rely on testimony from a knowledgeable source who relays the property information in some general way. In this project, we are interested in how children combine information from both statistical and social sources in category learning.

The skills involved in collaborative problem solving. Collaborative learning has been studied in elementary and secondary school classrooms, but the ability to coordinate actions with others can be seen much earlier.  In In this project, we look at the determinants of successful collaborative problem solving in preschool-age children.  We are examining the cognitive and social-cognitive skills necessary to collaborate well with others, as well as the role of stress and reactivity during collaborative play.  We are also looking outside the child to see if social and physical environments in the home play contribute to collaborative success.

Rules are flexible and subject to change. In the preschool years children become very interested in cultural learning: learning about the norms, rules, and conventions of social behavior.  Puzzlingly, sometimes children at this age seem rigid about social norms, and other times they seem more flexible.  In this project, we seek to explain these seemingly contradictory findings by examining the conditions under which young children believe rules are subject to change, and how they reason about who has the authority to change them. 

Beliefs about free will are related to self control. As adults, we have various beliefs about which of our actions are freely chosen and which actions are not. In prior work we have shown that there are systematic changes in children’s conception of free will from preschool to middle childhood, particularly as it relates to difficult choices that require self control. These beliefs develop during a time in which there are also increases in children's executing functions.  In this project, we explore the links between children's beliefs in free will and their capacity for self control.

Explaining choice and constraint across ages cultures. Our beliefs in choice and free will are highly dependent on our experiences, and show significant individual and cultural variation. In this project, we explore developmental origins and changes in how children explain moral and social constraints on choice in three cultural contexts (US, Singapore, China) from preschool though middle childhood.