Unlocking the secrets of children's complex thinking: The studies
Researchers question how executive function influences the process of learning
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:
For more about this INSPIRE project, see "Harvard University psychologists seek to unlock secrets of children's complex thinking."
Years Research Conducted