Expertise and Scientific Thinking

What we tell children is as important as what they observe.

Posted Aug 30, 2009

Sadly, the summer is coming to an end. On Monday, my wife goes back to work (she's also a professor and has to teach full time in the Fall). I'm not teaching in the Fall, but I knew that I would have some work responsibilities and time commitments, so we decided to hire a nanny to help out with Paulina a few hours a week.

I have to admit that the process of hiring a nanny was a little strange. We used some websites to post a job ad, as well as contacted potential nannies (on some of the same sites). Because most of this was done over the internet, I got a chance to observe how people communicate (particularly when they want a job). This certainly played a role in our decision making. It was important to both my wife and I that our nanny had good communication skills. For example, we chose not to interview the woman who mentioned that she had a lot of experience with children with Asperger's Syndrome, but spelled it "Assburgers." Beyond lapses in spelling, however, we were looking for someone who would understand our goals and views about parenting.

We hired someone last week, and so far so good. But the experience got me thinking. In my last entry, I talked about children's ability to trust others as sources of information when learning the meaning of words. I also mentioned that children can easily recognize when someone is a reliable or unreliable source of knowledge, and integrate that information into their reasoning. Further, children recognize their parents as reliable, based on the nature of the relationship they have with them. But what about other people? And what about learning information other than the meaning of words?

In a 2006 article in Child Development, Paul Harris and Melissa Koenig point out that trust in others is important for learning about domains beyond words - they focus on a few different kinds of socially constructed information. My favorite example from their paper is science and scientific entities. We never directly observe germs - we're just told (and we tell our kids!) to wash our hands and trust that doing so will eliminate germs. In general, scientific entities are pretty interesting from the point of view of developmental and educational psychology. Most (all?) of us never actually see a germ, or an atom, or a quark (we may see representations of them, but that's different). We rely on other people to tell us that they're there, and what role they play in causal relations (e.g., germs make us sick, washing hands eliminate the germs).

In a response to my last post, Sarah D. asked whether it matters that parents aren't always reliable sources of information. My favorite example of hers was "the rides are sleeping today" (presumably applicable in the circumstance where a child wants to go on a ride, which is closed, or more generally, when the child wants to go to the amusement park, but the parent doesn't). The short answer is that it does. Here's a case where the adult isn't technically "wrong" (like when the confederates in Koenig & Harris' experiments who label a shoe a "truck"). Rather, the parents are inventing explanations and rationales that suit their purposes (which they believe the child can't verify). I'd like to suggest that young children are often sensitive to this information as well.

To illustrate, consider an experiment that Jessica Sommerville and I ran (presented in the January, 2009, issue of Cognitive Development). We showed 4-year-olds a puzzle box. On it, there were different-colored lights, each of which was activated by a unique buttons, all in clear view of the child. In the puzzles, some lights made other lights go (so, for example, when you pressed the red button, the red and blue lights would illuminate, but when the blue button was pressed, only blue activated - thus, red made blue go). After we trained children about the nature of the box, we introduced them to a set of puzzles. In each puzzle, we first presented them with some ambiguous data. We pointed out the ambiguity, and then showed them the information that would resolve the ambiguity.

What we manipulated was what we said to the children when we showed them the critical information that disambiguated the puzzle. For one group of kids, we told them a fairly nondescript rationale for this action that was related to learning the puzzle. For another, we told them a rationale that was related to the experimenter's personal aesthetic (that he liked the color of one of the lights), which was unrelated to puzzle learning. Finally, in a third condition, we said nothing to the children. What we found was that children who heard the appropriate rationale could better reconstruct the way the puzzles worked than children in the other two groups (who showed equivalent levels of learning).

A good question is why this information helps children learn. One possibility is that we simply engaged the children more in this condition. We didn't think this was too likely, because that hypothesis would also suggest that an inappropriate rationale would hurt children's learning (it didn't). We discuss this more in the paper itself (I've linked to it below).

We were more convinced by the idea that appropriate rationales allow children to plan prospective events, and then evaluate whether what they observe was commiserate with what they thought would happen. This suggests that the same person could be reliable about one puzzle and unreliable elsewhere. We haven't investigated this, but it makes sense in light of the comment about parents not always being reliable. Parents don't have all the answers, and certainly when it comes to conflicting desires, unverifiable explanations might be treated by young children as reliable. The point is that when children can verify things, unreliable or irrelevant rationales might influence their learning and behavior.

What does this have to do with hiring a nanny? Well, Paulina's a little young now, but in a few years, I know that she'll be learning things from her nanny (or any adult for that matter). It makes being sure how well the nanny communicates might have been a good move.

A broader point of the research Sommerville and I did together was that the rationales that children hear for why they're seeing something matter. Other researchers, such as Patrick Shafto at the University of Louisville, have begun to write about children's "intuitive pedagogy" - that children are sensitive to why they are seeing particular material in learning environments. I agree with this hypothesis, and suggest that a real challenge in early science education classrooms and children's museums that foster scientific thinking is to provide children with the appropriate rationales when children need them the most. There's a bigger question here though - how exactly do we do this? I'll try writing about this in a later post.

About the Author

Dave Sobel

Dave Sobel is an Associate Professor at Brown University. He studies cognitive development in infants and preschoolers.

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