The Cognitive Capacities of Young Children
You may wonder why on earth we bother running research projects with young children in the Cognitive Psychology group. I mean, they can’t understand language in the same way that us adults do; they can’t keep their attention focussed on one thing for very long; they can’t resist grabbing things and blurting out answers before they’ve listened to all of the options they have to choose from…yet these are some of the reasons that doing research with young children can be so fascinating. These little people are developing skills day by day that we, as adults, take for granted.
In the Cognitive Psychology group at the University of Sheffield we study these developing ways of thinking and behaviours. Finding out how these systems develop and which abilities precede and follow others can give us great insights into the best way to teach children new skills. There is a bit of a blurred boundary between whether these projects are classed as “Developmental Psychology” or “Cognitive Psychology” but as long as we are answering interesting and important questions we don’t really mind what classification the projects are given. Perhaps we’ll just stick with “Cognitive Development”.
Dr Danielle Mathews – Researcher in Cognitive Development
Danielle is a lecturer at Sheffield and is currently working on a number of different projects but her main interest is how children develop their communication skills. Some of the things she is most interested in are:
How children learn to tell people what they want or what they are thinking about
· How children learn to understand what other people are talking about
· What kinds of things parents can do to help children learn to talk
· How children learn to combine words so they can produce their own sentences
Research in Focus – Blog 2
A research study that Danielle and her colleagues have got ‘in press’ in a journal called Developmental Psychology investigated how children aged 3 – 5 years understand how other people talk about objects. This study will
be published later this year. Here’s a summary of their research paper:
There are often many different ways we can talk about that same thing. For example, if we’re trying to mend my washing machine, we could call one of the parts ‘a silver tube’ or ‘a shiny cylinder’. It wouldn’t make much difference which expression we used, both mean more or less the same thing. But, if I start using one expression, say ‘the silver tube’, you’ll expect me to stick to that term for the rest of our conversation. So we might have a conversation like this:
”Can you pass me the silver tube? OK thanks. Let’s try putting it in here behind the wire. Oh no that doesn’t work. OK take the silver tube out again and pass me the clip.. etc.etc.”
In the course of this conversation we have built up a ‘referential pact’ – an implicit agreement to use the term ‘silver tube’. If I now asked you to pass me a silver cylinder you might assume I was talking about something else or get confused. The point is that it’s only because we’ve already ‘agreed’ to call something a silver tube that saying ‘a shiny cylinder’ is confusing. If another person came in to the room and said ‘Oh do you need this shiny cylinder?’ we wouldn’t find it surprising if they just happened to talk about our silver tube in that way.
Studies have shown that adults are slowed down (by about 700 milliseconds) if the person they are talking to creates a ‘referential pact’ like this and then switches terms for no reason. However adults are not slowed down if one person creates a pact and then a new person comes along and uses a different term. These studies show that adults have very good memory for who has said what to them before and they use this memory to create predications about what people say next on a millisecond by millisecond basis.
Danielle and her colleagues were interested to find out whether young children are also able to keep track of who has said what and generate predictions just like adults. They asked children to move toy objects around on a shelf and measured how long it took them to react to different names for each object. Just like adults, even 3-year-olds could remember who had used which terms before and were slowed down by almost two seconds when a person created a pact and then used new term was used for no reason.
There were only two differences between adults and children. First children we slowed down for much longer than adults (about 2 second instead of 700 milliseconds). Second, children we’re slowed down a little even when a new person came along and used a new term.
So although children have excellent memories for who has said what, they might assume that everybody will talk about the same things in the same way, regardless of when they joined a conversation. Learning about why different people might use different expressions just takes a lot of experience!