New theory on how children learn

March 18, 2004, vol. 29, no. 6
By Marianne Meadahl

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Jeremy Carpendale's nine-year old son had a burning question for his father, an SFU associate psychology professor. “How do you go from a bunch of cells, to something that can think?”

Carpendale studies social development in children, and the question touches on his particular focus on how they begin to understand and think about their social and psychological world.

His most recent analysis, co-authored with Charlie Lewis from Lancaster University in England, will appear as the feature article in the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences in April.

The article, Constructing an understanding of mind: The development of children's social understanding within social interaction, attracted nearly 40 international responses during its pre-publication circulation. The journal publishes a feature article, along with subsequent commentaries and a follow-up response from its authors.

“Theories in this area assume that children formulate a theory about the mind, or that children already have some innate knowledge of the mind, or that children learn about the mind through introspection,” he explains. “However, there is accumulating evidence that children's understanding of the psychological world develops gradually, within social interaction, and that the extent and nature of children's social experience importantly influences their social development.”

The two researchers propose a theory in which increased opportunities to engage in cooperative social interaction and exposure to talk about the psychological world should facilitate the development of children's understanding.

Carpendale says such a theory presupposes the child's ability to engage in talk and social interaction. “An important aspect of infants' social understanding that develops towards the end of the first year and start of the second year is the development of the ability to share attention with others, by following others' gaze and directing others' attention,” he says.

“This is the beginning of an essentially human form of social interaction. But it is a small difference that parents may hardly notice, because it just becomes easier to communicate with their infants. Yet this is a form of interaction that makes language possible, which in turn allows for the development of human forms of thought.”

Carpendale notes that the development of infants' abilities to coordinate attention with others has long been regarded as significant.

“It may be a small, but essential difference that allows for human forms of cognition,” he says.

“Language then transforms this initial form of social understanding through the children's ability to talk about and think about the psychological world. This ability then makes self-awareness possible, which may be related to emotional regulation, and the child's emotional well-being.”

Carpendale is currently involved in a longitudinal study, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and in collab-oration with professor Bill Turnbull, on the influence of parent-child interaction on the development of children's social understanding during childhood.
Carpendale and Lewis are also completing a book, How Children Develop Social Understanding, an extension of their journal article.

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