April 23, 2013

Studying Childhood Learning

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“Children are like little scientists,” according to Prof. Tamar Kushnir, human development, who studies the emergence of knowledge in young children in the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory. Her research investigates how children develop a variety of cognitive abilities, ranging from their understanding of cause and effect to how they choose reliable sources of information.

Kushnir’s research functions in a broad theoretical framework that views learning in young children as a kind of scientific discovery. Like scientists, children ask questions and collect data through play. Children also rely on other people for information and trust others who provide reliable information, just as scientists collaborate and share their work.

“Science is a collaborative, social institution,” Kushnir said. “I’m interested in how children learn from others and about others.”

Kushnir conducted an experiment that demonstrated how children were able to identify reliable sources of information and use this knowledge in their understanding of cause and effect.

Young children, approximately three to four years of age, were shown a puppet show. One puppet was unable to use tools to fix broken toys, but was able to identify the names of all the tools; he was deemed the “labeler.” The other puppet was able to fix broken toys using the available tools, but was not able to label the tools; he was deemed the “fixer.”

Children were able to assess the skills of these puppets and use this knowledge in a series of follow-up tasks.

When children were asked to choose a puppet for assistance in labeling objects, children chose the “labeler” more often than they did the “fixer.”

Likewise, when children were prompted to ask for help in fixing broken toys, they were more likely to choose the “fixer” as opposed to the “labeler”.

“My work aims to show that children will approach information in a sensible way,” Kushnir said. “They know that there is both good and bad information out there.”

Learning is divided into categories: informal and formal. The learning that occurs from ages three to four is informal learning that happens spontaneously.

Formal learning is schooling, which comes at a later time. Kushnir emphasizes the importance of providing rich environments with many informal learning opportunities at a young age.

Kushnir’s lab partners with the Sciencenter as part of the National Living Labs Initiative. Researchers are integrated into the exhibit, gathering data and disseminating findings to parents.

Kushnir is also designing interactive educational materials for young children and their families as part of an advanced seminar in conceptual development.

“That’s a great environment for young children to get a sense that science is fun,” Kushnir said. “Childrens’ museums and science museums are all educational experiences outside the classroom. They are important for engaging children’s scientific curiosity from a young age and continue to be important as children enter formal schooling.”

Kushnir’s research has important implications for early childhood education. At young ages, children learn with their bodies and the way they interact with the environment through play.

“Children need an environment of trust and love, and they need a space to work and play,” Kushnir said.

Many important executive functions, such as impulse control, task-switching, and working memory, are not learned in the classroom, but rather during their experiences in the world.

“Let them go,” Kushnir said. “If you provide children with a rich environment, they will play and they will learn. We must set up this environment for them.”

Kushnir is teaching HD 1511 Human Development: Infancy and Childhood in the Fall of 2013.

Original Author: Nicolas Ramos