Rational Exploration in Early Childhood

On Wednesday, March 2, 2011, Laura Schulz, Class of 1943 Career Development Associate Professor of Cognitive Sciences, gave a talk entitled “Curioser and Curioser: Rational Exploration in Early Childhood” as part of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences breakfast series. In this talk, Professor Schulz presented new research on how children learn from both exploration and instruction in early childhood.

Arguably children solve all the hard problems of cognitive science by the time they are five years old. So what makes them such powerful learners? Professor Schulz’s research approaches this question with a focus on understanding the representations and learning mechanisms that underlie the infrastructure of human cognition – our common sense understanding of the physical and social world. Her research is informed by computational models of human cognition. Professor Schulz directs two unique on-site laboratories at the Boston Children’s Museum and the Discovery Center at the Museum of Science that investigate the relationship between exploration and learning in early childhood. Since babies and children have limited prior knowledge and no formal training, understanding how children reason about the world can give us insight into the origins of knowledge and fundamental principles of learning.

Professor Schulz’s work focuses on typical development but has implications for understanding two of the most prevalent developmental disorders – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). These disorders are diagnosed partially on the basis of observed atypical patterns of exploratory behavior. However, no standardized measures or norms exist for exploratory behavior, making the earliest detection of atypical development difficult. The possibility of earlier diagnosis is further complicated because inattentive, impulsive, ritualistic, stereotyped, and compulsive behaviors are common in healthy children. Professor Schultz’s lab is beginning to look at how exploratory behaviors present in infancy manifest in both typical and at-risk children, in the hope that early detection of atypical development might help support early intervention.