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Unlocking the secrets of children's complex thinking: The studies

Researchers question how executive function influences the process of learning

Student in science class with balance.

Researchers: Children with high executive function benefit more from conceptual change training.
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August 14, 2014

Susan Carey and Deborah Zaitchik, who helm the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project Executive Function and Conceptual Change, have spent large portions of their careers studying how people gain new knowledge and integrate it with their existing knowledge. In particular, their work has focused on how people acquire knowledge that's hard to come by--knowledge that requires conceptual change.

Such knowledge is often abstract or theoretical and involves more than adding new facts to things a person already knows or can see, imagine and experience. It involves fitting together individual pieces of information so that it is clear how they relate to each other; building concepts that require detailed thought, evaluation and mental focus.

"It's easy to learn a new fact," explains Carey, but new facts alone don't lead to conceptual change. For example, "Compare learning the fact that whales are mammals, when one already has the concepts 'whale' and 'mammal,'" she says, "with learning the fact that quarks are subatomic particles when one does not have the concept 'quark,' nor the concepts 'atom' and 'molecule,' and one does not even have a particulate theory of matter."

In this case, conceptualizing the idea of quarks requires conceptual change. Carey and Zaitchik believe the process of conceptual change can be further understood through executive function, a suite of mental processes needed to think, act and solve problems. Executive function is also important for learning new information, but the researchers question how executive function influences the process of learning.

To find out, Carey and Zaitchik, both professors of psychology at Harvard University, are leading a number of smaller studies as part of "Executive Function and Conceptual Change," a nearly $800,000 project funded by the Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) program. The studies include:

  • Intuitive Physics and Biology in Young Children--This study was designed to determine whether executive function could predict children's success on specific training that produces conceptual change. Harvard postdoctoral fellow Igor Bascandziev conducted a study involving intuitive physics in preschoolers. He found that, as predicted, children with high executive function benefited more from the training. Bascandziev is currently carrying out a study of the same design in early elementary school targeting biological functions of living organisms.
  • Depleting Executive Functions--Postdoctoral fellow Lindsey Powell experimentally manipulated executive function to investigate how it is connected to conceptual changes. Powell's research was the first to show that executive function can be temporarily depleted in children, as already was known to be possible in adults. In her research, she asked children to participate in tasks that made heavy demands on their executive function. She found that depleting executive function interferes with young children's ability to use and express their theoretical knowledge.
  • Improving Executive Function--Another way of manipulating executive function is through interventions that improve them in preschool and kindergarten. Year-long training programs yield increases in the executive function of children, especially in preschoolers and kindergarteners from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Harvard team plans to compare the capacity for conceptual change in children who have and have not had the benefit of such training.
  • Executive Functions and Age--Co-principal investigator Deborah Zaitchik is investigating why healthy, elderly adults sometimes make the same errors in reasoning that children do. This study recognizes that conceptual development doesn't end with childhood. Working with elderly adults at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Zaitchik is conducting research to understand whether declining executive function explains the reduced ability to achieve conceptual change observed in many older adults, as well as the majority of patients with Alzheimer's disease.

For more about this INSPIRE project, see "Harvard University psychologists seek to unlock secrets of children's complex thinking."

--  Bobbie Mixon, (703) 292-8485 bmixon@nsf.gov

Susan Carey
Deborah Zaitchik

Related Institutions/Organizations
Harvard University

Related Programs
Developmental and Learning Sciences

Related Awards
#1247396 INSPIRE: Executive Function and Conceptual Change

Years Research Conducted
2012 - 2017

Total Grants


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