How do children choose who to learn from?
By: Shaneene Heupel
Children are constantly faced with new information – new people, new words, new objects – and therefore are constantly learning. In fact, their main job in the first few years of life is to learn. But how do they learn? Some information is learned through their own observations and experiences, however, much of it is learned from other people. But people have varying levels of knowledge, they make mistakes, they may be misinformed, or they might just be deceptive. So, how does a child determine when and if a speaker is sharing information that is useful to them? Research suggests that children use certain cues to help them determine whether a speaker is likely to have good information. One such cue is a speaker’s past behaviour – how accurate they have been in the past, how confident they appear, and whether they have demonstrated expertise in a given topic.
In the past, this person has been correct about the information they have told me – should I trust them when learning new information? For adults, the answer is yes. But do children come to the same conclusion? Yes, they do! In fact, lots of research shows that children are very good at keeping track of someone’s past accuracy and use that information to decide whether they can trust this person when learning about something new. One typical way to test this is by presenting children with two possible people to learn from. One person is always accurate, labeling objects like a cat, a book, and a banana correctly. Another person is always inaccurate, giving these objects the wrong labels (perhaps saying cow, door, and flower). Children are then presented with an object they have never seen before and are asked which of the speakers they want to learn the name of the new object from. Children are much more likely to choose the previously accurate individual. In fact, even if both people were mostly accurate, children can keep track of how often each person was accurate, and they prefer to learn from the one who was accurate more often.
This speaker doesn’t seem to know much – should I choose to learn new information from them? For adults, the answer to this is “probably not”. It turns out that children feel the same way! Even if two people both provide the right answers about familiar things, if one person always says things like “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “I think” before they answer, then children will prefer to learn new information from the other person.
I want to learn about cars. This person has shown me that they know a lot about cars. Should I ask them to teach me new things about cars? For adults the answer is clear – of course we should ask the car expert for car information. Do children choose who to learn from someone based on their expertise in a given topic? Yes, they do! For example, when children need to learn about animals, they are more likely to ask an animal expert over an artifact expert. So even though both people are experts in something, children consider the domain of expertise when deciding what to learn from them.
So, children are careful learners! They weigh a number of factors to determine who might have the best information for them. The next time your child is learning something, see if you can notice the ways in which they are carefully evaluating what they are told!
Interested in the original research? Check out the cited articles below:
Birch, S. A. J., Vauthier, S. A., & Bloom, P. (2008). Three- and four-year-olds spontaneously use others’ past performance to guide their
learning. Cognition, 107, 1018–1034.
Koenig, M. A., & Harris, P. (2005). Preschoolers mistrust ignorant and inaccurate speakers. Child Development, 76, 1261–1277.
Sabbagh, M. A. & Baldwin, D.A., (2001). Learning Words from Knowledgeable versus Ignorant Speakers: Links Between Preschoolers’
Theory of Mind and Semantic Development. Child Development 71:4, 1054-1070.
Lane, J. D., and Harris, P. L., (2015). The Roles of Intuition and Informants’ Expertise in Children’s Epistemic Trust. Child Development,