Monday, July 20, 2009
The Beginnings of Reason - Earlier Than You Think
Developmental Psychologist Jean Piaget observed that if you presented 10-11 year olds with a counterfactual syllogism such as:
All cats bark. (major premise)
Muffins is a cat. (minor premise)
Does Muffins bark?
Most children fail to solve the syllogism because they answer, "No, cat's don't bark." But when a clever psychologist group decided to retry the questions in a playful tone of voice, they actually found that children as young as 2 years old could deductively reason (hmmm- now do we in our school systems assume that children reason that early?).
Piaget had assumed that children did not develop the capacity for abstract reasoning until they were 11 years old or so, but he was wrong. Children were expecting the answers should be given on the basis of real-world reasoning and not as a hypothetical or "lets pretend" scenario.
Peter Gray (below) also makes the point that when college students were given the candle/box of tacks/matches experiment, most failed to figure out how to attach a candle that could be lit to a bulletin board...unless they had watched a slapstick movie before the experiment. The researchers concluded that better problem solving occurred with a 'happy mood', Gray concludes it was playfulness, and we would agree. That is the principle of course for many companies today that require creativity problem solving activity on the part of their employees on a daily basis (e.g. Pixar, Google, etc.).
Researchers from the Bunge lab also confirmed that children as young as 6 do indeed reason, but they were surprised to see that the area implicated so importantly from adults (RLPFC or rostrolateral prefrontal cortex) in fluid reasoning only activated after the children chose their answers! This result triggered some soul searching on the part of the investigators (the paradigms were suboptimal because they could answer from experience rather than 'pure analogy', kids are too impulsive - they answer before their RLPFC activates, etc.), but another interesting possibility from this result is that kids are more like to reason from personal experience than pure abstraction or impersonal premises.
More questions: If children learn so well from personal experience and reasoning, are we stimulating enough direct / personal learning experiences in our education of young children? Do we encourage enough play while we encourage students to problem solve? and Have we been grossly underestimating the reasoning ability of young children?
As a parent, I'm fairly flummoxed at how Piaget could have been so wrong! Could he not have noticed the reasoning of young children? Often when very bright children come to very wrong conclusions on the basis of reasoning, we've found that the errors are more with their reasoning from the basis of insufficient experience than errors of the reasoning process itself.
How Play Promotes Reasoning in Children and Adults
Development of Fluid Reasoning fMRI pdf