This summer, we have two new papers coming out on early learning and development.
In Child Development, there’s an article on Dual routes to cognitive flexibility, which explores how three-year olds engage in flexible, goal-oriented behavior, in the absence of a mature prefrontal cortex.
Cognitive control, the ability to align our actions with goals or context, is largely absent in children under four. How then are preschoolers able to tailor their behavior to best match the situation? Learning may provide an alternative route to context-sensitive responding. This study investigated this hypothesis in the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS), a classic test of cognitive control that most under-fours fail. A training intervention based on learning theoretic principles proved highly effective: Three-year-olds who learned about DCCS rules and game contexts in a card-labeling task, subsequently transferred this knowledge to sorting in the DCCS, passing at more than 3 times the rate of controls (N = 47). This surprising finding reveals much about the nature of the developing mind.
Then over at Psychological Science, we make a case for why Children value informativity over logic in early word learning, and why that may confer distinct advantages over adult strategies.
The question of how children learn the meanings of words has long puzzled philosophers and psychologists. As Quine famously pointed out, simply hearing a word in context reveals next to nothing about its meaning. How then do children learn to understand and use words correctly? Here, we show how learning theory can offer an elegant solution to this seemingly intractable puzzle in language acquisition. From it, we derived formal predictions about word learning in situations of Quinean ambiguity, and subsequently tested our predictions on toddlers, undergraduates, and developmental psychologists. The toddlers’ performance was consistent both with our predictions and with the workings of implicit mechanisms that can facilitate the learning of meaningful lexical systems. Adults adopted a markedly different and likely suboptimal strategy. These results suggest one explanation for why early word learning can appear baffling: Adult intuitions may be a poor source of insight into how children learn.