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“What, then, does the child think as he makes these discoveries? First of all, he wonders. This feeling of wonderment is the source and inexhaustible fountain-head of his desire for knowledge. It drives the child irresistibly on to solve the mystery, and if in his attempt he encounters a causal relationship, he will not tire of repeating the same experiment ten times, a hundred times, in order to taste the thrill of discovery over and over again. Thus, by a process of incessant labor from day to day, the child eventually develops his world picture, to the degree needed by him in practical life,” Max Planck wrote so temperamentally about the motivation of the child to learn because he experienced the same wonderment, excitement, and thrill of discovery in spite of the fact that he had grown up long ago. He was a scientist.

Of course, Planck’s considerations about a child’s motivation were purely speculative, but it was speculation of one of the brightest scientific minds in the entire history of humankind. It is not a surprise therefore that observations of the behavior of toddlers in some cleverly designed experiments by modern scientists entirely support the views of Planck.

According to researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigenson infants begin to use the concept of an object in their first year. Furthermore, eleven months old toddlers are already familiar with the core regularities governing the behavior of objects. They have their objective picture of the world that they share with other humans and animals.

When toddlers observe something that looks like violations of those core regularities they begin to explore the violating object by elaborating and testing hypotheses like real scientists. Object’s behavior that makes toddlers wonder attracts their attention and induces learning while they pay no attention to objects which behave in a regular way.

For instance, if it seems that a toy car drove through a solid wall a toddler will probe the solidity of both the car and the wall by dropping the car and pushing the wall. Maybe either the car or the wall, or both were not solid this time?

Stahl and Feigenson support the idea that infants inherit the core knowledge such as the concept of object and regularities rather than acquire them at the earliest stage of development as Planck proposed. Planck’s view supported by the concept of sensorimotor intelligence by Jean Piaget appears to be more consistent than the introduction of the factor of inheritance. Anyway, the findings of Stahl and Feugenson provide strong supportive evidence to the idea of Plank that wonderment drives learning in young children.

Another team of researchers, Paul Muentener from Tufts University and Laura Schultz from Massachusetts Institute of Technology also demonstrated in their experiments that toddlers actively search for hidden causes of spontaneously occurring events but don’t pay attention to events with observable or clearly demonstrated causes.

According to Muentener and Shultz, two years olds infer that spontaneous events have hidden causes, hypothesize about cause candidates, and test their hypotheses in practice.

In their further research scientists found out that toddlers infer not only certain hidden causes of spontaneously occurring events but also causes which induce such events with only probable regularity.

Those findings suggest that toddlers have a dynamic rather than a static picture of the objective world. The probabilistic approach enables toddlers to dynamically update their picture of the world whenever its regularities change.

Summary

Very young children are driven to learn only by observations that make them wonder. They don’t pay attention to already known regularities although they can readily use them to attain known results. Stochasticity (or chaos) doesn’t prevent them from inferring causes to events that occur seemingly spontaneously. That suggests that they invent core regularities of their world-picture by themselves in the process of animal-like learning discovered by Edward Thorndike.

References:

  1. Max Plank (1942) The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science
  2. Aimee E. Stahl, Lisa Feigenson (2018) Violations of Core Knowledge Shape Early Learning
  3. Aimee E. Stahl, Lisa Feigenson (2015) Observing the unexpected enhances infants’ learning and exploration
  4. Smithsonian Magazine (2015) Like Tiny Scientists, Babies Learn Best By Focusing on Surprising Objects
  5. Paul Muentener, Laura Schultz (2014) Toddlers infer unobserved causes for spontaneous events
  6. Yang Wu, Paul Muentener, Laura Schultz (2015) The Invisible Hand: Toddlers Connect Probabilistic Events With Agentive Causes
  7. Edward Thorndike (1898) Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. Monograph Supplement №8

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