Marina Bazhydai blogs about CDS

Marina recently attended the Cognitive Development Society’s meeting in Portland, OR, USA and wrote the following summary:


Are children guided by proto-epistemic motives during social interactions? Impressions after the CDS conference

by Marina Bazhydai

Last week’s Cognitive Development Society’s meeting which took place in Portland, OR, brought together over 900 developmental scientists for 3 days of intensive knowledge sharing and networking. With topics ranging from peculiarities of children’s imagination, to the role of personal and social identities in academic achievement, to development of conceptual cognition, this year’s conference showed how vast and vibrant this research community really is.

A wide range of choices for pre-conference and lunch break round table workshops was a great bonus of this year’s conference. Through those, one had a chance to mingle with both esteemed professors and academic peers and pose those big or bothersome questions about professional development, future of the research field, equity and diversity issues, replicability and communicating scientific findings to the wider public, among others.

As a PhD student studying knowledge acquisition and transmission in early childhood, I chose to attend a full day workshop entitled Question Asking in Childhood: Development, Continuity, and Constraints, which featured interdisciplinary research on how, when, and why young children pose questions to others. Presented talks highlighted the role of the socio-cultural environment, quality of social interactions, and nature of pedagogical exchanges in children’s development of interrogative stance. The overarching premise of this workshop was rooted in a Vygotskian rather than Piagetian approach to development, entertainingly exemplified in the concluding presentation by the photoshopped image of smiling Vygotsky (which has never been captured on camera in reality). Rather than being viewed as a “little scientist” or “scientist in the crib”, a better working metaphor proposed is that of a “little anthropologist” – a child whose early stages development is embedded in social context and dependent on learning from and through others.

A subset of talks focused on early signs of information-seeking and uncertainty monitoring in infants as young as 11 month of age.Even such preverbal infants are suggested to have skills which can be framed as rudimentary forms of question-asking fueled by proto-epistemic motives. These processes are proposed to happen through behaviors such as behavioural hesitation, social referencing, babbling, pointing, preferential looking, and social selectivity. For instance, in situations of uncertainty, such as presented a new label or a new object they need to act upon, infants tend to hesitate before making a decision and look for ways to seek help from more informed social partners.

Very young children are thus viewed as possessing a basic capacity for self-monitoring of their cognitive states and actively acting in accord with them, which – crucially – does not necessarily imply having in-depth introspective capacities or understanding of intentional states. Eloquently summarized by the session’s discussant, and newly elected President of the CDS, Paul Harris, whose theoretical framework underlies much of this line of research, whether or not infants have an insight into their own flow of consciousness, observable behaviours and patterns of neural signatures during information seeking suggest that infants act in accordance with understanding of the social flow of information: that is, they tend to seek input from best informants and in turn transmit information to less knowledgeable interlocutors. Whether or not they develop an understanding of their own knowledge states, they do communicate their uncertainty and need for information to others, such as producing “I don’t know” gesture flips or pointing to the objects they want to learn more about. In addition, when unsatisfied with the information provided to them, infants exhibit communicative persistence until their epistemic expectations are met.

An important consideration is given to the nature of uncertainty, which may range from emotional to epistemic. When facing uncertainty, children could either seek relevant information (both through independent exploration efforts or through asking more knowledgeable social partners for assistance) or develop aversion to ambiguous situations leading to avoidance behaviours. It has been argued that children who are able to cope with uncertainty, go on to develop a rich repertoire of active learning behaviours driven by curiosity and often leading to innovation and creativity.

As children grow, their active learning pursuits become more refined: preschoolers evaluate the source of information and informants’ characteristics, assess information accuracy, recognize weak explanations, seek corroborative evidence when provided with counter-intuitive claims, and ask just enough questions to learn about what they want. In a nutshell, they develop social expertise on whom to ask and what to ask to achieve most effective information gain. The pre-conference workshop delegates’ consensus was that this is a remarkable capacity worth our scientific awe.

To summarize, by taking an interrogative stance, children not only learn a great deal about the world around them, but also acquire and master reasoning and critical thinking skills and become experienced communicators – the abilities necessary for successful cultural learning and knowledge transfer. The learning potential of different kinds of questions routinely asked by young children varies, with ‘Why’ questions posed when engaging in explicit explanatory search being most effective. Finally, it was highlighted that the preverbal infancy period is ripe for investigation of socio-cognitive precursors underlying interrogative communication and knowledge transmission.

Further Reading/ Select References

Begus, K., Gliga, T., & Southgate, V. (2014). Infants learn what they want to learn: Responding to infant pointing leads to superior learning. PLoS One9(10):e108817.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0108817

Goupil, L., Romand-Monnier, M., & Kouider, S. (2016). Infants ask for help when they know they don’t know. PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,113(13), 3492-3496.doi:10.1073/pnas.1515129113

Harris, P. L., & Lane, J. D. (2014). Infants understand how testimony works. Topoi33(2), 443-458.doi:10.1007/s11245-013-9180-0

Harris, P. L., Koenig, M. A., Corriveau, K. H., & Jaswal, V. K. (2017). Cognitive foundations of learning from testimony. Annual Review of Psychology, (0).

Kovács, Á. M., Tauzin, T., Téglás, E., Gergely, G., & Csibra, G. (2014). Pointing as epistemic request: 12‐month‐olds point to receive new information. Infancy19(6), 543-557. doi:10.1111/infa.12060

Lyons, K. E., & Ghetti, S. (2011). The development of uncertainty monitoring in early childhood. Child Development82(6), 1778-1787.

Ruggeri, A., Lombrozo, T., Griffiths, T. L., & Xu, F. (2016). Sources of developmental change in the efficiency of information search. Developmental Psychology52(12), 2159.

Southgate, V., Van Maanen, C., & Csibra, G. (2007). Infant pointing: Communication to cooperate or communication to learn? Child Development78(3), 735-740. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01028.x

Tummeltshammer, K. S., Wu, R., Sobel, D. M., & Kirkham, N. Z. (2014). Infants track the reliability of potential informants. Psychological Science25(9), 1730-1738.