Research Projects


Explanation & Causation


The process of seeking, generating, and evaluating explanations has been proposed to serve as a powerful mechanism underlying children's learning, scaffolding knowledge acquisition and contributing to theory change. We are investigating the precise role of explanation in young children's causal learning, focusing on whether and how explaining influences the process of early reasoning and inductive inference.


  • Does explaining influence the relative contributions of observed evidence vs. currently-held beliefs in children’s learning and generalization?
  • Can explaining prompt children to privilege hidden, but inductively-rich properties over salient surface similarities?
  • Does explaining promote a bias to prefer simple hypotheses over complex ones?
  • Does explaining facilitate abstraction and foster the acquisition of abstract concepts?
  • How can we better integrate empirical findings on the role of explanation on early learning with theoretical perspectives from computational modeling?
  • Does explanation impact learning by changing the hypotheses that children initially generate in response to a problem?
  • What is the relationship between explanation and understanding? Must an explanation be true in order to invoke understanding?
  • Why are thought experiments explanatory?
  • Can prompting children for multiple explanations support recognition of uncertainty?
  • What is the role of pedagogical context in mediating the effects of explanation?

Analogical & Relational Reasoning

Very young children can quickly and accurately learn specific causal properties of objects from patterns of data, and act on that knowledge to bring about effects in the world. However, less is known about the development of children's ability to infer higher-order principles. The ability to infer abstract relations between objects and events is essential for learning and reasoning about concepts that are not tied to immediate perceptual properties. We are currently examining the development of children's relational and analogical reasoning in the causal domain.

  • When are children able to learn higher-order principles like same and different from their observations?
  • Do learned biases impact children’s abstract reasoning abilities? How might these biases be influenced by language and culture? What about other types of input?
  • How might the tendency to engage in relational reasoning be influenced by contextual factors? Can relational reasoning be primed in children?
  • What is the relationship between language acquisition and relational reasoning?
  • How might we explain the development of analogical reasoning using the tools of computational modeling?
  • What is the relationship between analogical reasoning and cognitive flexibility?
  • Are younger children relying upon perceptual heuristics when solving relational reasoning problems?
  • Can we examine changes in the development of analogical reasoning using eye-tracking?
  • Does reasoning about an analogy change the learner's representation of source and target domains in memory?

Counterfactual Reasoning

This line of work explores the relationship between children's understanding of real-world causal structure and their engagement with alternative possibilities, hypothetical reasoning, and pretend play. This research is broken into two distinct lines of work 1) Can counterfactual reasoning be used to support the development of skills related to scientific inquiry? 2) Is there a relationship between childhood pretense and causal counterfactual reasoning?

  • Could counterfactual reasoning support the early development of scientific reasoning skills (e.g., control of variables, evaluating experiments, noticing anomalies)?
  • Might pretend play be a form of counterfactual causal reasoning, allowing children to explore causal "what if" scenarios in alternative imaginary worlds?
  • Do pretend play and counterfactual reasoning share the same cognitive mechanism? If so, why is pretend so easy and counterfactual reasoning so hard?
  • What is the role of backtracking (i.e., reasoning about effects on earlier causes) in counterfactual reasoning?
  • How is counterfactual reasoning related to children’s temporal reasoning about the past and the future?
  • How might pretend play be central to early learning?
  • Is pretend linked to the use of exploratory learning strategies in childhood?


Fictional Cognition and Thought Experiments

Given the amount of information that is presented to children in the context of fictional stories and imaginary representations of the world, it is important to understand the inferences that underlie children’s causal learning in this domain. More broadly, how and why do we learn about the real world from things that are false? In particular, under what conditions do we learn even better from falsehoods than from truth? This happens when we read fiction, when children engage in pretend play, when philosophers reason from thought experiments, and when scientists reason from idealized models or simulations. Why are these falsehoods so helpful and so central to human reasoning?

  • Can children’s literature be used to promote children’s understanding about the nature of knowledge?
  • Can children’s literature be used to promote children’s argumentation skills?
  • Does the presence of fantastical content influence children’s ability to learn novel causal information from storybooks?
  • What do children understand about the boundary between the fictional and real world?
  • Can exposure to fictional stories prompt conceptual change about physics?
  • Why does engaging in fictional (e.g., thought experiments) or idealized worlds (e.g., models in science) facilitate learning and understanding in adults?

Understanding Uncertainty

Understanding uncertainty is essential for learning, and this uncertainty appears in a variety of forms. First, there is uncertainty regarding outcomes in the world. Since we rarely have complete information about causal structure, we are forced to consider which of several alternatives is most likely, invoking uncertainty. Uncertainty also arises whenever we predict the future, since more than one possible outcome is usually available. Finally, we often express subjective uncertainty about the accuracy of our own knowledge. What do children understand about the presence of uncertainty in the world and/or in their own knowledge? When and how does this understanding develop?

  • What do children understand about the presence of uncertainty in the world?
  • Are children able to respond and act in accordance with multiple possible outcomes?
  • Do children prefer certain or uncertain outcomes? Does this change over time? If so, what factors contribute to this change?
  • When and how do children develop the metacognitive ability to gauge their levels of certainty about their own knowledge? Is it possible to facilitate this process?
  • What is the role of disconfirming evidence on children’s calibration of their own certainty judgements?