Another theme in this blog has been the way children learn to learn. Humans are able to survive in almost any environment in large part because we are able to learn so effectively from other people. Each generation adapts to the culture and technology of the time. Although this process takes a lot of time compared to other animals, it supports our ability to create cultures of ever-increasing complexity.
Of course, not every other person is one that a child should learn from. Some people know quite a bit about what is going on in the world around them, while others provide unreliable information. If children get bad information early on, that could hurt their ability to learn more complicated things later.
So, it would be valuable for children to be able to determine the best people to learn from. A paper by Kathleen Corriveau and Katelyn Kurkel in the October, 2014 issue of Child Development examined whether children can use the quality of the explanations people give to determine who they should learn from.
They studied 3- and 5-year-old children. In one experiment, the children were introduced to two girls. The girls each gave short explanations for how the world works. One girl always gave good explanations, while the other one gave circular explanations. A circular explanation is one that involves the phenomenon itself in the explanation. For example, the good explanation for why rain falls is “It rains because the clouds fill with water and get too heavy.” The circular explanation was “It rains because water falls from the sky and gets us wet.”
After getting these explanations, the children heard explanations for novel objects given by each girl. They also heard labels for novel objects given by each girl. In these tasks, the explanations and names were equally good. So, the question is whether children were biased to agree with the girl who gave the better explanations earlier in the study.
The five-year-olds were strongly biased to listen to the girl who gave the better explanations. They agreed with the explanation for the new object given by the girl who gave good explanations. They also used the label given by that girl rather than the label given by the girl who gave circular explanations. The three-year olds were influenced, but to a lesser degree. They accepted the explanation given by the girl who gave good explanations before, but they did not show a bias to use the labels she gave.
The five-year-olds were also better able to say explicitly that the girl who gave good explanations was a better explainer than the girl who gave circular explanations. The three-year-olds were not able to make this judgment.
This study suggests that by the time children are five years old, they are able to make good judgments about what people they should learn from. They use the quality of the explanations people give them to determine who is a reliable teacher. And, they use this knowledge to influence a variety of things they learn from them. At the age of three, children can do this to some extent, but they are still learning how to judge which people are good teachers.
This ability is crucial, because it helps children to avoid bad knowledge. Human memory does not allow us to erase facts that turn out to be false. Instead, when we learn that something is false, we have to mark it as being untrue so that we explicitly ignore it later. That is one reason why we often continue to be influenced by information that we have been told in the past was not true. Ultimately, the better the quality of the information we can learn, the fewer memories that we will have to explicitly ignore in the future.