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.  In several projects, 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.  


  • How might explaining influence the relative contributions of observed evidence and currently-held theories 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 simplicity?
  • Does the process of explaining assist abstract reasoning and foster the early acquisition of abstract concepts?
  • Can explanation be used to foster children’s narrative theme comprehension?
  • Can explanation be used to increase moral learning and behavior?
  • 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? Or does it change how they evaluate (or assign probabilities to) alternative hypotheses after the fact?
  • What is the relationship between explanation and understanding? Must an explanation be true in order to invoke understanding?
  • What is the relationship between explanation and analogy?
  • What is the relationship between explanation and gesture?
  • What is the role of pedagogical context in mediating the effects of explanation on learning?

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 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?
  • Is this a dimension along which humans differ from other primates?
  • Do learned biases impact children’s abstract reasoning abilities?
  • Are younger children more flexible that older children (and adults) in reasoning about higher-order relations?
  • How might we explain the development of analogical reasoning using the tools of computational modeling?
  • What is the relationship between language acquisition and the appearance of relational reasoning? Can this be manipulated by examining relational reasoning across cultures?
  • What is the relationship between analogical reasoning and cognitive flexibility?
  • Does the perceptual similarity between domains influence children’s ability to engage in analogical inference?
  • Are younger children relying upon perceptual heuristics (e.g., entropy) when solving relational reasoning problems?
  • Can we examine changes in the development of analogical reasoning using eye-tracking methods?
  • What is the relationship between analogy and gesture?
  • 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 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? In particular, might pretend play be a form of counterfactual causal reasoning, allowing children to explore causal "what if" scenarios in alternative imaginary worlds?

  • Could counterfactual reasoning support the early development of scientific reasoning skills (e.g., control of variables, evaluating experiments, noticing anomalies, positing hidden variables)?
  • How do children reason about uncertainty? What do they understand about the existence of multiple possibilities?
  • Do pretend play and counterfactual reasoning share the same cognitive mechanism? If so, why is pretend easy and counterfactual reasoning hard?
  • What is the role of backtracking (i.e., reasoning about earlier causes) in counterfactual reasoning?
  • How might pretend play be central to early learning?
  • Is pretend linked to the use of exploratory learning strategies in childhood?

Learning from Fiction and Thought Experiments

Considering the amount of information that children are exposed to in the form 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.  When do children choose to transfer causal information from the fictional space to the real world, and do contextual cues influence generalization to the real world?  How might fictional stories be used to support early learning and 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?